This is the third of my three-part series of posts (read part 1 and part 2) about different strategies you might find useful for thinking about how to define and pursue your professional development goals. In the first two posts I talked about the attack your weakness and the extend your expertise approaches. Today I discuss the secondary superpower strategy.

Strategy #3: Develop A Secondary Superpower

A final strategy is to plan for the future by developing what I call a secondary superpower. If shoring up weaknesses is what keeps you employed, and extending your expertise is what helps you earn promotions, a secondary superpower is what will help you reach the top of your profession as well as generate new career opportunities, including those outside your current field.

A secondary superpower is simply a new field of expertise outside your original area of authority. One kind of secondary superpower is something that complements your existing expertise and which will help you keep climbing the ranks within your current profession. The most common secondary superpower is management or leadership skills. If you stick around long enough, you will wind up managing and leading teams and departments. To do this well you will need to develop serious management and leadership chops on top of your functional expertise. This goes double if you want to run an organization someday.

Developing the management superpower has been a huge boon to my career. As a political scientist by training, I came into the professional world utterly lacking any management or administrative skills. But before I actually landed my first academic job I spent five years at a non-profit where I was responsible for various projects, budgets, partnerships, sales and marketing efforts, and managing a few people. Over five years I didn’t extend my expertise in political science one bit, but I learned a lot about business and about managing people and projects (sort of like getting an MBA on the fly). That business experience, in turn, made me attractive to the academic department that eventually hired me because very few professors have any experience of that kind. The additional management and administrative experience I then got at that university running a graduate program later played a key role in me getting my next job. In my case it has certainly been a gift that keeps on giving.

A less common approach, but one I also recommend, is to develop a secondary superpower that is completely different from your current responsibilities that builds on emerging areas of interest for you personally. Do you have a deep and abiding interest in something that isn’t directly related to your job? Do you find yourself “wasting time” reading about the latest developments in a field that isn’t your own? If so, don’t beat yourself up for not focusing! Instead, consider whether your passion might be a candidate for a secondary superpower.

Since it was my own experience that led me to this insight I will share it with you. I was in graduate school when the World Wide Web was born. From that time forward I was hooked – I learned to create web pages with HTML, spent time reading about virtual communities, and generally blew a ton of time learning about the Internet and the dot com economy when I was supposed to be doing other things. I complained to my wife about my lack of focus and I worried about how unproductive I was being. Little did I know I was developing a secondary superpower.

At first all my puttering amounted to nothing more than a few tidbits of new information in my lectures while I was an adjunct instructor. But a year later I wound up teaching a whole course on communication processes and technologies – something I had never even studied in school myself! Those experiences and my growing expertise in how people used the Internet then led to my first professional job at a non-profit dedicated to online education. Fast forward another twenty years, and it is that secondary superpower that led to me founding E38 Academy with my grad school buddy, Chris Savos.

At this point let me emphasize three really good reasons to develop a secondary superpower. First, you’ll need to do it to become the “final boss.” At a minimum, you probably can’t avoid mastering the art of management and leadership if you want to take your place amongst your organization’s and field’s leading lights someday.

Second, secondary superpowers can help provide you adapt in a fast-changing economy. Labor economists tell us that most people will find themselves changing jobs, even career paths, more than a few times throughout their career. A secondary superpower will not only make you more valuable in your current organization, it will also give you more flexibility when you need to find a new job.

Finally, having a secondary superpower can open a whole new set of doors for you and can help you spend more time on things you really love doing.

Developing a secondary superpower is especially useful when:

  • You find yourself increasingly passionate about a new topic, technology, or trend
  • You aren’t sure whether you want to spend your whole career doing the same thing
  • Your field is threatened with significant change thanks to technology, competition, etc.

The Best Strategy Is…

As I said up top, there is no one right answer. In reality, you will spend time throughout your career following all three approaches. In fact, the only losing strategy is to not think about your professional development at all. That said, I encourage you to think about what balance makes the most sense for you given where you are in your career and your goals, as well as the time and energy you have available for honing your skills.

In the comments, I’d love to hear from you about how you’re thinking about your professional development and how you’re figuring out the next thing to learn. And if you’d like a copy of all three posts in a single PDF, just fill out the form below.

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