This is the second of my three-part series (read part 1 and part 3) on how to think more effectively about your professional development plans. In my previous post I talked about the first strategy, which I call attacking your weaknesses. In today’s post I discuss the second strategy, which is all about getting even better at what you’re good at.

Strategy #2: Extend Your Expertise

The second approach is the opposite of the first one, and that is to work on developing your strengths instead of your weaknesses. If you think about the role models, leaders, and heroes in any field, you will notice a very consistent theme: they are experts at their craft.

If you look closely you will also notice something else: they are not at the top of their field because they know how to do everything, or because they have no weaknesses or gaps in their knowledge. Attacking your weaknesses only takes you so far if it just brings you up to “average” at a wide range of skills. Computer scientists don’t have to be great public speakers. Great accountants don’t have to speak Arabic. In order to provide real value to your organization you have to be great at the core tasks of your job. If you’re an intelligence analyst, for example, most of your value lies in your knowledge of the region and issues you’re following, your analytical ability, and your communication skills, not in how good you are at math. Likewise, the leaders in your field aren’t there because they are jacks of all trades; they are there because they have built tremendous capability and deep expertise in the most important aspects of their field.

Extending your expertise is also useful because it can help you stand out within your own profession. Think of professional development as an investment in your personal brand. Yes, thinking of yourself as a brand is sort of gross on one level, but when people talk about other people at work, they inevitably use labels: She’s the Ukraine expert, he’s the military analyst, she’s the PowerPoint guru, etc.

The trick is to establish yourself as the go-to person on a specific aspect of your field, one you love working on, where you have a competitive advantage over your peers, and that complements your core expertise while setting you apart. Having an easily recognized and respected “brand” will help you build your network and open doors. When people talk about the most famous people in their fields, you will notice that their brand is very often a key part of the description.

Think how often people mention that General Petraeus reinvented counterinsurgency, for example. He took his deep military expertise and then created a powerful brand by extending it into a specific subfield. Today it’s hard to imagine a conversation about counterinsurgency that doesn’t involve his name.

Extending your expertise will benefit you throughout your career, but especially when:

  • You focus on improving the knowledge and skills that will help you provide the most value in your professional role
  • You focus on specific areas in which you have a competitive advantage over others in your field
  • You love what you do and are comfortable investing significant time and effort building your knowledge and skills in a specific area

In the comments, please let me know what you’re doing to build on your strengths. Have you developed a personal brand already? Do you have thoughts about how you can use professional development to become even more valuable to your organization?

In tomorrow’s post I’ll talk about the third strategy, which I call developing a secondary superpower. If you can’t wait that long, use the form below and we’ll send you a copy of the full text of Three Strategies for Thinking about Your Professional Development.

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