By Sonia Hernandez

Unless you are a prodigy, becoming an expert at something usually requires training and experience. According to research — most notably by Malcolm Gladwell — the general rule of thumb is that being an expert takes 10,000 hours of practice. The same can be said for careers, whether it is performing an athletic skill, playing a musical instrument, or mastering a behavior/action. The average executive has worked eight hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year for 20+ years or 41,600 hours in their field. AKA, an expert.

But what happens after achieving an “expert level” in your profession? Some people pivot and decide to shift paths, learning something new. Many others, however, continue or find ancillary paths to maintain their career journeys. In either case, the concept of continuous learning comes into play.

Most of us have heard about the importance of staying culturally, politically, and professionally relevant, but only some adhere to a discipline to do so.  As an operating executive currently managing an organization of retail consulting experts, I have seen firsthand how being knowledgeable vs. being relevant is different. Many professionals think having expertise is enough, but I can tell you it is not. Becoming an expert in something does not end with 10,000 hours of learning.

Developing intellectual curiosity should become an ongoing practice. Like exercise or healthy eating. Achieving is not maintaining. So, what are some of the best practices used by executives to stay relevant and develop an edge that differentiates you from other experts?

Here are the top 10 tips that I apply and have seen successfully used by my peers and colleagues in retail:

  1. Develop your continuous learning platform/routine (decide what time, how much time, and what type of learning that works best for you).
  2. Stay engaged with and exposed to your industry and discipline.
  3. Network both formally and informally — develop and stay connected to a peer group.
  4. Subscribe to critical editorials and new media.
  5. Participate in cross-functional forums.
  6. Share relevant external data and information with your company (it will position you as a thought leader and encourage you to learn and digest new knowledge sources).
  7. Sign up for podcasts/webinars routinely, even if during breaks, lunch, or while multitasking.
  8. Don’t dismiss formal training, classes, and certifications if they make sense, even if you must self-fund them.
  9. Make leadership and management training a priority — solicit feedback regularly.
  10. Immerse yourself in your customer’s world (go to malls, visit stores, shop online, participate in chat, call customer service lines, comment on competitive social feeds, etc.). Traveling is also a great way to immerse yourself. Watching how other cultures engage, shop, dine and entertain themselves can be a source to expand your own world.

Don’t know where to begin?

  • Creating a continuous learning platform (see No. 1) is an excellent place to start. Like everything else, establishing a plan and adhering to a repetitive practice will change behavior over time. So, start small and add on. I know colleagues who block time before work hours for industry reading and web browsing. In contrast, others adopt a lunch and learn philosophy—participating in 15-30-minute video viewing sessions/tutorials/taped webcasts/podcasts daily while eating lunch.

I personally devote 60 minutes to my own continuous learning each week. This can include networking calls, scheduled webinars, networking coffee sessions, or just catching up on highlights and recaps from subscribed newsletters. For retailers, I recommend signing up for NRF (National Retail Federation) updates, Retail Brew/Dive/Wire, The Robin Report, Total Retail Report, and at least one publication devoted to your discipline like Supply and Demand Chain Executive, RIS (Retail Information Systems), Chain Store Age, NACS (National Association of Convenience Stores), Sourcing Journal, or any number of marketing publications. Many executives also practice staying current with one main business media platform like The Wall Street Journal. Whatever your media mix, make it relevant to your practice and manageable. Deleting daily emails from these publishers does not count toward your weekly learning goal. Mix it up, don’t follow only one thing, and broaden your point of view.

  • The second main ingredient in establishing your personal/professional learning platform should include a commitment to engaging with other executives in and outside of your company. There is no substitute for one-on-one or group conversations on what impacts business, what challenges you face, how others manage these issues, and what is topical for your peers. I engage with peer groups 2x a month, and the practice is entirely intentional. If you don’t plan for and schedule calls/meetings/zooms, they quickly fall off your to-do list. Don’t let that happen. If nothing else, you will learn that you are not alone in facing personal or professional obstacles. Peer groups are great sources to gain awareness, ask for feedback, and leverage personal leadership coaches as needed.
  • The third main bucket for staying relevant is formal training. Knowing what you know and what you need to know to scale within your industry and to differentiate yourself and stay competitive and even disruptive is important. You may not need an MBA to continue on your career path, but maybe a simple LinkedIn certificate or local college training class can provide you with a modern edge. Don’t underestimate a refresh of your skills. Businesses change and retail, in particular, is constantly evolving. Staying abreast of terms, technologies and techniques makes you and keeps you relevant.  It is also good to have current career activities  on your resume as it is considered highly valuable in today’s market.

With practice, continuous learning will become an innate behavior. Building curiosity is a trait that we need to consistently hone. Finding what works for you is a critical first step and committing regular time within your schedule will help to solidify the efforts. Finally, make your practice fun so that you look forward to engaging in activities that help you to  stay relevant. Many webinars now include a social activity like remote cocktail building or grub hub offers to join during lunchtime. Whatever you do, just keep doing it. Even small efforts will yield noticeable results.

* Republished with permission from Women In Retail.

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