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The 3-2-1 of training careers


DiceAre you thinking about a career in training, learning and development? Or perhaps you're looking for a change, or a shift in focus? Graham O'Connell provides his guide to navigating growth and development in the industry.

Looking back on my own career, there were a multitude of decisions and circumstances that led me to where I am now. Like everyone else's career path, it is as unique as my finger print. It most certainly wasn't all planned. That's not to say that I am a fatalist, I think you can and should steer your way into the future through the cross-currents of life. But how can you navigate effectively if you don't know where you want to end up and you don't have a map?

Here is my 3-2-1 guide to thinking about a career in training, learning and development.

3 There are three main options or types of career path that are common in the training field. Firstly, there is the jobbing, subject specialist route. This is the person who has some flair or expertise in a particular topic or job role. As a consequence they end up being asked to coach or train others. Often this person doesn't aim to stay in training, it is just an interesting stepping stone. After a couple of years they move into some other area of the business. A few fall in love with training and decide to stay, and if they cannot do that in their own organisation, they leave, sometimes going freelance, sometimes going to another organisation.

"A few fall in love with training and decide to stay."

Secondly, there is the career anchor approach. This involves moving in, around and out of the training field but coming back to it, always in a different role, often at a different level. For example, the technical trainer moves into management development or elearning design, then goes back into front-line operations, then comes back on promotion as an L&D business partner, then goes to HR, next is an L&D manager role in a another organisation before moving on to a special change project, returning a year or two later as head of L&D.

Thirdly, is the deep L&D specialist route. This is where you realise that training is your vocation, not just another job. You'll probably gain a reputation for your ever-growing expertise and, more often than not, decide to pursue a higher level qualification. You may stay with the organisation or strike out on your own. If you stay, you'll pick up a broader skill set in consultancy, OD or elearning. If you leave, you may become very specialist – and charge high fees as a leading expert – or spread your risk by taking on more diverse work.

2 As well as looking at the career path, you also need to understand yourself. At its simplest, there are two main ways you can view your attitude to career planning. First, there is the classic career ambition approach – have a vision, set goals, be focused, even ruthless, have a 'go for it' mindset. This features strongly in the literature but I suspect only a few people are really that single minded.

Second, there is the career opportunist. Someone who, if they are good at it, knows what they like and what they don't like, and as opportunities arise they seize the ones that resonate. Of course, if you are not good at it, you can stagnate or drift into things you later regret.

"I think that L&D is a great profession with plenty of scope for people to grow as well as do really useful work."

1 There is only one you, only one go at this life (if you believe in reincarnation, there is still only one life like this one) and only one person – you – who can make it happen. In her book, 'the Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People', Carol Eikleberry makes the point that you don't have to stifle your creative impulses to pay the bills. Working in the development field, I guess we all want to help other people to harness their natural talents, unleash their potential and get, as well as give, their best. It would be hypocritical if we did not try and do that for ourselves too.

Success is self-defining. Any advice on how to pursue a career in training has to be viewed against a backdrop of your own personal circumstances, aspirations and preferences. Talking to those who feel they have succeeded, there are perhaps a few themes that emerge that are worth considering:

  • The combination of experience and qualifications is a powerful one – whichever one you lack will surely be the one you need to get your dream job

  • The best trainers are also good learners – to progress, whatever your desired direction, requires continuous improvement. In particular, learn from those who are one or two steps ahead of you as well as those at the leading edge

  • Don't be afraid to carve your own path – which is the bigger risk: following the herd or being yourself?
  • I think that L&D is a great profession with plenty of scope for people to grow as well as do really useful work. Just grow towards the light, and do the work that's right.

    Graham O'Connell MA Chartered FCIPD FITOL FInstCPD ACIM is head of organisational learning and standards at the National School of Government, which runs L&D qualifications, career development programmes as well as offering one-to-one career coaching. Graham has 27 years' experience in L&D throughout the world. He has particular responsibility for developing and promoting best practices in learning and development as well as providing strategic consultancy advice to the UK public sector

    See also:

    How to begin your career as a trainer
    Training qualifications
    Trainer's tip: qualifications or experience?
    Reaching the top of the career ladder


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