I’ve never been a fan of anything that can feel like a box tick or a paper pushing exercise.  I recall plenty of such exercises from my time in corporate America, and I’m sure you can also relate.  But there are also things that often get treated as such that shouldn’t be — personal development plans are one example that comes to mind.  Who has time for these annoying things when there is work that needs to be done?  Besides, don’t people learn more quickly and effectively if they just throw themselves in at the deep end and figure it out?  Challenge builds resilience after all!

Interestingly that used to be my approach to learning and development.  When I transitioned my career from risk management to leadership development, I unconsciously and somewhat ironically took that approach.  One day I worked in one department and the other day I worked in a completely different part of the organization in a totally new role, with no thought to what competencies I was strong and weak in, what I may have been lacking, who I could turn to for help, what resources were there to support me.  I had initiative and passion and that was enough, right?  It had gotten me through the interview and that was good enough as far as I was concerned.  Off I rode on my white horse to save the day on a passionate high, totally blind to what lay before me.

Six months in I literally wanted to jump off a cliff.  Every day I considered resigning.  Nothing I produced seemed to be good enough.  I knew I was missing the mark, but I wasn’t sure why.  I was running completely in a reactive state and a place of fear, almost paranoia.  I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone or anything.  My relationship with my boss and coworkers became strained as I buckled under the stress.  I had always prided myself on being a high performer.  And high performers can perform regardless of the context, right?  Otherwise, they’re not high performers.  The judgment from my boss (which trust me was substantial) was nothing compared to the internal shame and judgment I put on myself day after day.  Looking back, it’s fair to say it was the most painful chapter of my life to date. 

A Personal Development Plan supports sustainable growth, not growth at all costs…

All this to say, “winging it” is not the best strategy if you really want to learn and grow in a sustainable way.  While I did learn a lot and grow a lot from that experience, it came with a huge cost.  I spent quite a bit of time working to build back my self-confidence and sense of self-worth from that experience.  And that took years, not months by the way. 

But this kind of thing can be deceptive, especially when we’re bombarded with messages that you need to “feel the fear and do it anyway,” or constantly be setting “Big, Hairy, Audacious goals” for ourselves.  And if I’m not doing that, I’m not living my best life, right?  So maybe we throw ourselves in then at the deep end.  And we find ourselves completely devastated when instead of rising to the top, we sink like a stone. 

I see this time and time again with coaching clients who have found themselves in challenging situations – sometimes situations of their own making like in my case of taking on a career transition I wasn’t even remotely prepared for.  But often not of their making at all, perhaps they’ve ended up in a completely new role because of a reorg, where they have crashed and burned without proper support and access to development.

Sustainable growth requires self compassion

And old habits on this front can be hard to break.  I found myself in a tailspin the other day when faced with a new opportunity to take on a type of engagement that requires a different level of skillset than the one I currently have.  It’s something I’ve avoided in the past because I haven’t felt competent enough to take it on.  I kept pushing myself to dive in at the deep end and just “feel my fear and do it anyway.”  After all, as a coach I stress with clients that it’s important to make conscious choices, not ones motivated by fear.  I should take my own medicine, right???  But the answer lies not in pushing ourselves as hard as we can through a legitimate fear.  At some point I recognized that I was viewing this decision through a completely linear frame of all or nothing.  Once I realized how I had framed the problem, I asked myself the question –  “How can I pursue this opportunity in a way that is also compassionate and loving to myself?”  That question changed everything, my fear subsided, and the path forward became clear.  I went on to ask myself more and more questions like:

  • What competencies does an engagement like this require?
  • How would I rate my current level of skill against those competencies? 
  • Where are my developmental gaps?
  • How might I fill these?  Who could I learn from on this front?  Who could I partner with for the things I am not as strong on?  What courses could I take?  Books I could read?  Who can I get to mentor me? 
  • What would be some opportunities to develop these gaps in a safe environment where I could fail or where the stakes are not as high?

Hint: these are all great questions for putting together a personal development plan. Questions I had completely forgotten about because I had scared myself into a tizzy. Once I put pen to paper on the above, I then had a two-page development plan on how I might achieve this goal and start to take advantage of these opportunities that keep consistently coming my way, rather than turning them down or saying yes off the cuff and giving myself a heart attack because I had no clear plan in place.

Coaching questions for thought:

  • What opportunities am I currently avoiding due to fear?  If I asked myself the question, “How can I pursue this opportunity in a way that is compassionate and loving to myself,” what would shift?
  • What would a sustainable development plan look like to pursue this new opportunity?

Shelley Pernot is a career and leadership coach who is passionate about helping her clients develop clarity, confidence, and compassion for self.  She is particularly adept at working with high performing women who are hard on themselves.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!