Life-long learning – What’s Your Plan to Remain Competent?

How do you retain your competence? Perhaps it isn’t something that you think about often with the avalanche of daily meetings, emails, phone calls, and texts but it is something that every business person in the world needs to do more than think about – it is something that we all need to act on!

I am a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and in order to retain my license, I have to take 40 hours of continuing professional education every year – and be able to prove it! While that seems like a lot of time, believe me, it is not enough to keep up with all of the regulations, practices, and technological advancements that occur in my profession.  Now, before you start feeling sorry for me, I assure you that CPAs are not the only profession that requires continual learning. I once read that many computer programmers’ skills learned in college are almost obsolete within five years after graduation. In a paper published in 2007, Jim Allen and Rolf van der Velden found that “the average ‘half-life’ of competencies acquired during tertiary [post-high school] education lies somewhere in the range between 10 and 15 years. . . However, over the life cycle of the occupational career, this would imply that tertiary graduates have to “renew” their competencies on a fairly regular basis during their careers. This offers clear justification for the strong emphasis that is often placed on the need for ‘life-long learning.”

This study and my experience indicate that each of us should have a plan for renewing our competencies, but perhaps just as importantly, we should develop a core of intellectual tools or skills that will never become obsolete. These skills, while not always directly related to our specific career or job, are more general in nature (e.g., analytic, problem-solving, social, leadership, and attitudinal skills) and give us the ability and judgment to actually use what we know to provide the results that our jobs or clients demand. I have found that individuals in my profession who do not develop and hone these “general skills” tend to get caught up in the “rut” of their job. They suffer from what I call “one year of experience ten times” rather than ten years of experience! As a result, while they may be able to produce accurate, basic financial reports, they struggle to provide real information that is useful to business owners and managers, thus their value to their employer or client is questionable.

A long-term, and what I believe appropriate, view of life-long learning dictates:

  1. That we acknowledge what we don’t know. My friend Chuck Coonradt of The Game of Work calls this “unconscious incompetence” – what a great phrase and how true! In order to know what we don’t know, we have to learn what we should know. I like to use a portion of my learning time on updating courses and general information about accounting, finance, business, and economics.
  2. That we use some portion of our educational budget to keep sharp and up-to-date in the areas where we most commonly practice so that there is never a question about our competency in our area of expertise.
  3. That we spend time learning skills that will help us in the long term. This is where learning about enabling technologies and the latest in trends and techniques allows us to take a step beyond minimal competency and advance towards “expert” status.
  4. That we start viewing life-long learning as an investment rather than a cost. It is an investment in our future and the return on investment is real and easily measurable over time. As I progressed through college and experienced truly great professors (they also happened to be the hardest), I stopped trying to find the easiest classes and rather sought out the best – where I could learn the most. I believe that we are wise to do the same as we learn now.

Remaining competent sounds like a lot of work doesn’t it? Well, it is, actually and that is the way life works. We cannot achieve greatness in any aspect of our lives by dedicating only the minimal amount of effort required. Beyond the confidence that we gain from knowing that we are truly competent and that we can deliver exceptional results to our clients or employers, we also receive the added personal benefit of being in greater demand and that equates to a higher value (i.e., compensation and satisfaction)!

Categories: Leadership