10 ways to get maximum value from a professional development class

If your company (or you) invests in training aimed at helping you become more capable and well-rounded, it only makes sense to get everything you can out of the class. Calvin Sun offers some practical tips to help maximize the benefits.

If your company (or you) invests in training aimed at helping you become more capable and well-rounded, it only makes sense to get everything you can out of the class. Calvin Sun offers some practical tips to help maximize the benefits.

From time to time you will find yourself taking a professional development class. It could cover communications, conflict management, business writing, or some other area. It might be a class that's internal to your company, or it might be a class you attend outside, with people from other companies. In any case, your company (or you personally) made a substantial investment in this training. Here are pointers for management — and for you — to ensure both of you gain maximum value from the class.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Management should attend

I wish I had a dollar for every time, during a session I teach, a non-management attendee said to me, "Calvin, your material is great, but you need to be saying this to our bosses."  On the other hand, lest I become too vain, maybe there are others who said to themselves, "This was a waste of time, so our managers should suffer as well."

In either case, management increases its credibility among staff by attending the same training. Unless it does so, the chances are great the management may undercut the philosophy that the class is attempting to impart.

By the way, if you hold to the "waste of time" view, please see point 5 below.

#2: Separate managers from subordinates

It's generally inadvisable to have managers in the same entire class with direct subordinates. The presence of the former could inhibit the latter from speaking up, particularly when organizational issues and policies are being discussed.

Two alternatives address this concern. First, management can attend its own separate session. Second, management can attend the same session as direct subordinates, but 30 to 45 minutes from the end, can be excused. At that point, staff attendees who have issues can raise them. In other words, that's the time attendees can start saying, "Calvin, you're right in what you're saying, but that won't work here because..."

#3: Management must respect class time

If management is sending staff to training, it has to respect that time. The "tap on the shoulder" to handle an issue that takes "just a second" of course never takes that long. It ends up taking that attendee out of class completely. When that happens, it defeats the purpose of having that person attend class. Management needs to respect the time that the attendee is in class.

#4: Distribute attendance among many departments

Given the choice of having many attendees from one (or only a few departments) vs. having only a few attendees from many departments, I choose the latter. From a practical standpoint, this strategy reduces the burden on those who aren't attending class but still must support business operations. From an organizational standpoint, the latter approach can help build morale by giving an attendee exposure to other departments and department workers.

#5: Recognize the value of the training

From time to time, when I talk about skills in communicating with customers, I see people with rolling eyes and folded arms. No doubt they're saying to themselves, "Why am I wasting my time here? I could be writing a program / configuring a router / completing a problem ticket."

That's why I often open with a quiz: what do Operating System/2, Betamax, and the Dvorak keyboard all have in common? Answer: They were technically superior to their competition but nonetheless became obsolete. In the same way, technical people who rely only on their technical skills for career success could be in for a shock, because skill in working with others is at least as important, if not more so.

Try to keep an open mind. Will some training turn out to be a "bomb"? I hope not, but even in that case, you can still benefit. Sit down and analyze why you thought the session failed. Then, before your next session, resolve to discuss those concerns with the instructor if you can.

#6: Make sure your job is covered during your absence

You can do your part to avoid getting the aforementioned tap on the shoulder by the boss. Make sure your co-workers and customers are aware of your absence. Adjust your voicemail greeting and set an e-mail or instant message autorespond, if you can. Make sure they know of any open items or issues and how they should be handled.

#7: Have specific personal objectives

Your time in class will be far more meaningful if you set personal objectives for yourself beforehand. Read up on any class descriptions and syllabi or topic list. Then, go over mentally the areas where you believe you most need improvement. When you set your objectives, make sure they are measurable — and more important, that they're realistic.

#8: Speak up

The biggest shock to many would-be law students is the total irrelevance of class participation in one's final grade. Nonetheless, I still remember Professor Woodward's advice in contracts class. He said that we still should speak in class, because doing so forces us to master the material. In other words, we may think we know the material, but having to articulate it is the acid test.

You probably won't get a grade for your professional development class. However, you probably will pick up the concepts more quickly, and retain them better, if you speak up.

#9: Apply exercises and activities to your job

Those exercises where you walk the maze, build the toothpick tower, or sequence the 15 items to help you survive the desert aren't there just for the heck of it. They're there because they deal with some skill that's important to your job. The instructor or facilitator, in discussing the exercise afterward, should be making that association. If not, make it yourself. Write a note to yourself about the lessons you learned from the exercise. In particular, ask yourself how these lessons apply to your job and how you might act differently having gained the insights you did.

#10: Write a letter to yourself

At the end of sessions I lead, I ask attendees to write a letter to themselves about what they learned. I then take those letters and simply hold them for about three months, after which I return them to their respective authors. I do so because many attendees remember clearly the material immediately after class. However, in the weeks that follow, their memories may dim. Seeing the letter refreshes their memory and reinforces the class session.

If the leader of your session doesn't follow this practice, consider doing it on your own. Write a letter, seal it, and just put it somewhere that it won't get lost. Maybe write a note on the outside, such as, "Open on [date three months from now]."


Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

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