Career vs. Professional Development: What’s the Difference?

Is career development the same as professional development? No!

Often, we mix up career and professional development — but these are 2 different things. I met with Eric Simons, Director of CritSit Management in the Federal Center of Excellence at Microsoft to chat about this topic and how to go about each of these important aspects.

The difference between career vs. professional development

Career development is how you grow and advance toward future roles, professions, or disciplines. It is more focused on figuring out what roles or careers you want to pursue, how to pursue them, and what is needed to succeed.

Professional development is centered on efforts to gain new skills and experiences that will help you become even more successful in your current role and organization. This includes networking, job shadowing, and technical skilling.

How to approach career development

Career development is a lot more personal. It’s all about what you want to do and what you want to achieve. Think about jobs and careers that interest you and what appeals to you about them. Think about what gives you fulfilment and what you are passionate about. Beware of pursuing job titles because there are so many variations to a “Product Manager” or “Communications Manager” — consider the job itself (and what you’ll be doing day-to-day) vs. the job title or becoming a “Senior” at something. If you’re interested in a role, talk to someone who is already in that role to get an idea of what the day-in-the-life is actually like and if you’ll get energy from those types of activities.

Eric suggests a fun career development exercise:

  1. Go to a job portal
  2. Find some roles that are several levels ahead of you (much more senior than where you are currently)
  3. Look at the skills and experiences needed and if you would like to learn or do these things
  4. Identify what you are missing and need to focus on
  5. Create a plan for developing these skills and experiences

How to approach professional development

Professional development is more job-related. It is critical to overcoming complacency — especially if you’re in a role that you love and want to stay in for many more years. Whenever you feel like things are going smoothly at work, ask yourself if you are becoming complacent. If so, think about what new opportunities you could explore and how you could stay on top of your technical skills. Ask yourself what else you could be learning and what you would need to become (or stay) a subject matter expert “SME” on your team and within your organization.

Be curious about what your peers are doing around you. Networking is important so that you can ask others how they are growing professionally — for example, are they taking any training courses or certifications that you should think about? Eric emphasizes that it is more important to embrace a learn-it-all mindset vs. a know-it-all mindset.

When is the right time to focus on career vs. professional development?

Eric says that the right time is when it is right for you.

Some people may change jobs every 2-3 years while others want to stay longer. Take the time to regularly reflect on whether you feel challenged and enjoy what you’re doing. You could love what you do AND want to do more, so go have that conversation with your manager to make them aware of your aspirations and tell your peers that you want to get more involved and grow professionally.

If you feeling ready to take the next step — whether it’s been 9 months or 4 years — then it is time to focus on career development and set yourself up for a new role. You should always try to make an impact in your current role so that you can impress your future hiring managers.

It’s important to balance both career and professional development and keep them aligned. Otherwise, you will be all over the place. Start with career development to figure out 3-4 areas that you want to focus on long term, then work on a professional development plan to build relevant skills and experiences in your current role. Get specific about what direction you want to go in, and keep raising your hand for relevant projects and opportunities.

What should every people manager keep in mind?

Stay curious a little longer.

eric simons

When your team is happy and loves what they are doing, there is less attrition and apathy. More people are showing up, leaning in, and doing more with enthusiasm and energy. Fewer people are calling in sick all the time and performing poorly. 

Talk to your employees and stay curious a little longer. Ask them if they are getting energy out of their jobs and understand what is going on behind the scenes. For example, if your employee tells you they want to pursue a role in Product Management, ask WHY instead of simply saying “great, go learn about it here”. Since it’s easy for managers to tell people what to do without actually doing it themselves, consider following Microsoft’s “Model, Coach, Care” framework.

Be mindful of what you spend your time on; make sure to communicate often to get a pulse of how your employees are doing. Make an effort at the beginning or end of each week to reflect on whether you’ve spent enough time with each person on your team to discuss their projects, career development, and professional development. People managers that stay connected with their employees are more effective and don’t face as many surprises. 

Final words of advice

  1. Don’t rely solely on online research. Be brave and reach out to people, they don’t bite and most want to help! Although most people are willing to talk, there are some who absolutely love having coffee chats and are super passionate about sharing their thoughts and experiences — try to look for these people by asking managers to recommend people on their teams that you should reach out to and learn from!
  2. Careers are not all about going from Point A to Point B. It’s a journey that requires you to have a growth mindset. Be open minded about new and unexpected opportunities because you never know where one path may lead you.
  3. It’s not just about the job title. You spend a lot of time at work and will have good and bad days, which is why it is important to actually enjoy what you do and who you are around. Have fun!

Thank you so much to Eric for taking the time to share his perspectives around career development and professional development. I really enjoyed deep diving into these 2 interesting topics and hope that you all took something away from it as well. Connect with me if you’re interested in being featured on KKARENISM because I am always looking for inspiration to share with the world!

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