A guide to learning on the job in the APS, and making the most of experience-driven development
Last updated: 11 Jun 2014
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The Centre for Leadership and Learning would like to thank the following government agencies for their contribution to this resource: Attorney General's Department, Department of Veterans Affairs, Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Department of Defence, and Department of Human Services.
This guide aims to be a practical resource for Australian Public Service (APS) employees to help them identify suitable and effective workplace development opportunities which are aligned to their career aspirations and development needs.
This guide forms part of a series of publications for APS learning practitioners, managers and staff created by the Australian Public Service Commission's (APSC) Centre for Leadership and Learning, which are designed to complement efforts to build leadership, learning and development practice in the APS.
The APS Leadership Development Strategy 2011 and APS Core Skills Strategy 2012-13 identify the 70-20-10 principle as a key learning and development principle which supports and facilitates learning where it is most prevalent and most effective – in the workplace. As a result, this guide is designed to help people identify and engage in development activities which capitalise on work-based and relationship-based learning opportunities in their workplace.
How to use this guide
Structure of this guide
This guide aims to provide focus and purpose to your development efforts by guiding you through five key steps to help you identify your development needs and implement a plan of action.
Step 1. Identify your learning needs needs. To help uncover your development needs, the guide firstly takes you through a series of self-reflection questions to help you assess your interests, strengths and performance gaps.
Step 2. Set your development goals. To help you set development goals, a series of questions are provided to help identify the precise knowledge, skills and behaviours requiring development.
Step 3. Select development activities. To help you identify and select an effective activity to address your development goal, a range of work-based and relationship-based development activities are presented to help you think beyond standard development options.
Step 4. Create a development action plan. Once you have identified suitable development activities aligned to your career aspirations and development needs, this step helps you organise your development goals and chosen activities into a development action plan.
Step 5. Reflect on learning. Finally, to support you in taking full advantage of your learning experience, a series of questions are provided to help you reflect on what you have learned.
Involve others in the process
While this guide has been designed for you to navigate independently, you are encouraged to consider involving your manager (or another trusted peer or colleague) in the process and, if appropriate, introduce it into your formal performance development discussions. This may bring new ideas and perspectives to your conversations, uncover blind spots, and provide greater clarity regarding development needs.
Step 1. Identifying your learning needs
Identifying your learning needs requires careful consideration of your career aspirations and interests, your strengths, and potential performance gaps/shortfalls in your current role or future roles to which you aspire.
Assess your career aspirations and interests.
When considering your professional development, it is often useful to clarify your career aspirations and interests.
Reflect and make some notes on the following questions:
- At what career stage are you in your current role (new to role, sustaining performance at level, aspiring to new role/next level)? What challenges does that bring?
- What do you see as the next logical or desirable step in your career?
- Looking ahead in time one year from now, what would you have liked to have achieved? What skills, experience, networks and knowledge do you have now that you can draw upon to achieve this?
It may be worthwhile reviewing the APS work level standards to identify what additional experience or skills you may need to consider gaining.
If you are unsure about your career direction or next steps, it may be useful to have a career-focused development discussion with an experienced career counsellor, a coach or mentor. Remember, many people never have a firm long-term career goal. In fact, if you are struggling to identify “what you would like to be when you grow up” you may find it more useful to think about the kinds of activities, relationships and working environments you would like to have as part of your future roles, rather than being too ‘fixed’ about the role itself. This allows you to move through your career with more agility, responding to the career and employment landscape as it (and you!) change over time.
Assess your strengths.
Strengths are generally activities which you are good at and that energise you.
Reflect and make some notes on the following questions:
- What projects or tasks do you find most stimulating?
- What work do you find most satisfying?
- What have you always been naturally good at?
- If someone else were to describe your strengths, what would they say?
- On what sort of activities do you consistently get the most positive feedback?
Often when considering our development needs we tend to focus on our weaknesses rather than our strengths. However some emerging research indicates significant performance gains can be achieved by optimising your strengths (Linley et al. 2010).
Assess your performance gaps.
Performance gaps are those areas where you consistently perform less well. You may also notice that these activities and tasks tend to drain your energy rather than give you energy (they are also likely to be the activities dropping to the bottom of your in-tray or ‘to-do’ list).
Reflect and make some notes on the following questions:
- What sorts of activities drain you of energy?
- What sorts of tasks get routinely pushed to the bottom of your to-do list?
- What skills do you appreciate in others that you don't tend to see in yourself?
- What elements of your current job do you find most difficult to achieve successfully?
Not all performance gaps necessarily need to be addressed. An important question to consider is how critical the area is in performing your current or desired future job effectively.
Step 2. Set your development goals
Setting development goals is a useful way to clarify the precise knowledge, skills and behaviours you are seeking to develop. This makes it easier to select the most effective development option(s), and enables you to be more deliberate about what you want to achieve from the experience.
Select your areas for development.
Look back over your reflections on your aspirations and interests, strengths and performance gaps, and identify up to five areas to focus on for further development.
It is important to consider both strength-based development (building a strength) and gap-based development (shoring up a gap), together with the priorities of your organisation.
Set your development goal.
From your list of areas for further development, identify one area for development to start with, and work through the following questions to help you create your development goal.
- Where am I at now?
- What experiences have led you to think this is an area you need to develop?
- What feedback have you received from others which support or contradict this view?
- Where do I want to be?
- What would success look like to me? What would I be doing? Saying? Feeling?
- How will I know if I have been successful?
- What do I need to do to get there?
- What specific knowledge do I need to develop?
- What specific skills do I need to develop?
- What specific behaviours do I need to develop?
- Now set your development goal:
- At the end of this development process I want to be able to…
- In order to achieve this I need to develop the following knowledge, skills and behaviours…
Repeat this process for each of the development areas you have identified.
Step 3: Select your development activities
Now that you are clearer on what you want to achieve and the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to achieve it, you are well placed to select an activity that will address your needs.
The development activities provided are work-based and relationship-based, which is where the majority of your development effort should be focused.
Review the development activities on page 7 to 12 and identify one or two activities that best supports each of your development goals.
To determine the suitability and/or practicality of each learning activity, it may be worth considering the following questions:
- What am I willing to invest to make the most of this learning opportunity (e.g. time, resources)?
- Does the activity stretch me to do things beyond what I already do well?
- What challenges or obstacles might come up while I am learning? How will I address these challenges or obstacles?
- What support will I need from others?
Step 4. Create your development action plan
Creating an action plan for your development is a useful way to document your learning goal(s) and corresponding development activity(s) in one place. It may be useful to review and amend this plan over time to track your progress and make amendments to your activities and goals as you learn more.
To create your development action plan, complete the questions in each column of this table. Space has been allocated to set timeframes for the completion of each development activity.
Step 5. Reflect on your learning
To extract the most learning from your development activity, a crucial step is to reflect on your insights from the experience and determine how to translate what you have learned back to your day-to-day work. It may also be useful to share the most important learning points with your manager, colleagues, mentor or partner.
Once you have commenced a development activity, reflect on and make some notes in response to the following questions:
- What were the critical learning moments for you?
- In what ways were you challenged or stretched?
- What pitfalls or obstacles did you discover?
- What would you do differently next time?
- What would you repeat?
- What did you discover about yourself in the process?
- To what extent did you meet your development objective?
- Where else can you apply what you are learning?
Reflection is not just something that occurs at the end of your development activity, but an ongoing exercise throughout the learning process (Kaye and Giulioni 2012).
70% Work-based learning - learn through experience
Lead or join a new project to expand your technical expertise, and for more junior staff, to learn to practice using authority to make decisions. Projects could include: participate in the development of a new process or policy; participate in the start-up of a new team; re-design a flawed system; improve metrics to assess effectiveness; manage a large scale project; manage a continuous quality improvement process; solve a real business problem; undertake a strategic research project that is of importance to your organisation; or volunteer your work group as a test site for a new organisational system or process.
Talk to people around you to help you identify opportunities, especially more senior staff who may have a broader view of opportunities outside your immediate working environment.
Working groups, committees and taskforces
Lead or join a committee, working group, or taskforce to solve an organisational problem, or progress a particular policy (e.g. diversity working group, work health and safety working group). This can not only help to develop new knowledge, but also provide exposure to developing strategies to facilitate change, improve understanding of strategic priorities, and cultivate productive working relationships across the organisation.
Letting your manager know of your interest is a useful first step (not only can they look out for opportunities with you, but they may need to factor that time into your work schedule). In addition, requests for representatives are usually called for from time to time and you could also contact your HR area to alert them to your interest.
Represent your team or organisation internally or externally at events such has inter-departmental forums, conferences, cross-functional meetings, and senior management meetings. These can be a highly effective way to establish relationships and alliances, understand and negotiate across boundaries, and learn how to communicate with influence.
Check out relevant professional affiliations or APS networks that align with your current or future role. Networking events and conferences are often held at least annually.
Reading and research
Undertake a program of reading and research to develop specific expertise in an important area of work or knowledge. You may wish to present and share insights with peers and draw upon your learnings to propose recommendations or improvements.
Take on new responsibilities
Expand your role by taking on new responsibilities that may not necessarily fit strictly within your job description. This provides the opportunity to use your strengths, develop new skills, and build your breadth of experience.
You may expand your responsibilities by: taking on a task usually performed by your manager; trading a responsibility with a colleague; focusing more attention and effort on a part of your job you've been avoiding; developing new strategies to accomplish some aspect of your work; volunteering for a task in your group that would normally go to a more experienced person; covering for others on leave; taking a role in the annual budgeting process; conducting job interviews; acting in positions with higher or additional duties; and taking part in project reviews.
“Failure” is often a powerful learning experience that strengthens both the individual and the organisation. Building a supportive environment conducive to experiential learning requires the recognition that, sometimes, failure is almost an inevitable outcome of experimentation (Jennings 2013).
Temporarily moving to another work area within or outside your immediate team could enable you to develop skills and knowledge in unfamiliar areas, gain exposure to different ways of working, gain an appreciation of the work priorities in other organisational areas, and help forge relationships across the organisation.
These experiences are often useful for people who have been in their current role for a longer period of time, and who have a gap in their work experience to date (e.g. you may have always worked in policy development and need some service delivery experience).
This is definitely an option you want to talk to your manager about. Together, you may identify a work area to spend a set amount of time in (its probably useful to move for at least three months), or look for temporary transfer or acting opportunities.
Involving yourself in cross-functional activities can help build and maintain productive cross-functional networks, improve your ability to deal effectively with multiple priorities within the organisation, and improve your ability to facilitate cooperation and partnerships across the organisation.
Cross-functional activities may include: site visits; working with people from other business units/functions/locations, cross-divisional or cross-agency projects; co-managing a project with someone in another function; or managing projects that require coordination across the organisation.
Meetings are perhaps one of the most underutilised opportunities in organisations. They present numerous development opportunities. Observing, participating in, or chairing meetings are a useful way to better understand the strategic priorities of your organisation, understand and negotiate across political boundaries, and develop the ability to communicate effectively.
Ways in which you could learn from meetings include: taking on different roles within a meeting (such as chairing a meeting or substituting for managers in meetings); have your manager provide regular updates on strategic directions and initiatives; or shadow your manager at external meetings and high level internal forums.
Another way to approach meetings is to use them as an opportunity to “get on the balcony”, to observe different communication styles, the way influence and authority is used during discussions, the way decisions are made, and how other interactions play out. Importantly, use these observations to reflect upon what seems to work (or not) – and what evidence you have that something “worked” (or not), and what you could draw upon in your own work behaviour to become more effective.
Undertaking challenging and complex assignments outside your normal work role can be highly valuable in not only broadening your technical expertise, but also building important attributes such as resilience, self-awareness, flexibility and courage.
When selecting a stretch assignment it is important to consider the value or importance of the task to your organisation. Stretch assignments may include: handling a crisis; working with difficult clients; working in a rapidly changing situation; influencing and supporting others to take difficult action; working with multiple people with contradictory and competing views; leading a change management process; volunteering to take over a project that is in trouble; working with difficult stakeholders; managing a performance concern; and representing employees to higher management.
Learning from “mistakes”. We are all human and we all make mistakes. The key is to focus on why you made the mistake and locating causes, and less on worrying about the effects (Eichenger and Lombardo 2000).
Community activities and volunteering
Undertaking community-based or volunteering activities can provide opportunities to broaden your experience across multiple functional boundaries in a way that may not be possible in your day-to-day role.
Within the APS environment, types of community or volunteer activities could include starting a new group, club, or team, or playing a key role in a fundraising event for a not-for-profit organisation. One program accessible to APS employees is the JAWUN program which forms partnerships between corporate, government and Indigenous Australia to support Indigenous communities.
If you are looking to be stretched, select a task which either requires interaction with people who hold different perspectives; requires development of expertise in an unfamiliar area; requires the need to handle more ambiguity than one is used to; or requires you to work within a different function/department/culture. (McCauley et al. 2014)
20% Relationship-based learning - learn through others
Working with or observing others can provide exposure to different ways of working, help you gain technical expertise, and provide a performance benchmark toward which you can aspire.
Opportunities to tap into peer learning include: discussing the opportunity to shadow a co-worker to see how they conduct their work; working with a recognised expert; or establishing/ joining online professional communities. Informal or formal mentoring and coaching are also great opportunities to learn from peers.
Be a student of others. Study the behaviour of other people and ask yourself what it is that a person seems to do exceptionally well or poorly in your opinion, or what behaviours seem to be particularly effective or ineffective (Eichenger and Lombardo 2000). Always be mindful that these are your interpretations and judgements, and others may not reach the same conclusions about those behaviours.
Seeking feedback from your manager and colleagues can be a highly effective way to identify areas of strength and development needs, and to reflect on your behaviour and its impact on others.
Forms of feedback include: seeking advice, opinions, and sounding out ideas; using manager one-to-one meetings for reflection; discussing your achievements and mistakes with managers and colleagues; or using formal 180 or 360 degree feedback tools.
Note the best feedback comes from those who have had sufficient opportunity (usually three to six months) to observe your behaviour in various contexts. With too little time or context, the feedback-giver may provide only first, or surface impressions (McCauley et al. 2014).
When seeking feedback from people, choose someone you trust to be honest, whose opinions you respect, and who will encourage you to improve your effectiveness. It may also be useful to choose someone who has a different work style which will provide opinions and points of view that are new. Or someone you have had a disagreement with in the past or someone who consistently seems to see things in a different way (McCauley et al. 2014).
Be open to feedback. Nothing discourages feedback more than defensiveness, resistance, irritation, providing endless rationales and excuses. People are much less likely to give feedback to those who won't listen or are unreceptive. To help the feedback giver, be open, listen, ask for examples and details, take notes, keep a journal, and thank them for their interest (Eichenger and Lombardo 2000).
A mentor can help broaden your knowledge and establish relationships inside and outside an organisation with someone who has a different set of skills and experiences. You could even become a mentor yourself.
Mentoring activities include playing an advisory role on a colleague's project for which you have previous experience or expertise, assisting new colleagues navigate your workplace (including helping them understand the culture), and providing career guidance.
Before embarking on a mentoring program some things you may want to consider include the duration of the arrangement (most last between six months to two years) and the regularity with which you will meet.
When selecting a mentor, think about the following questions: who are the people who naturally provide you with useful advice, coaching and feedback? Who are the people that stretch you to think in new and different ways? Who are the people you go to for support?
Many people find it useful to identify a mentor you naturally have a good relationship with but who you do not report to. Separating roles of authority and development can allow you to have more open, relaxed, and fruitful discussions and can be an important source for candid or critical feedback others may not give you (Eichenger and Lombardo 2000).
Developing the capability of others is a highly effective way of building your own leadership and management capability. In addition, it can foster teamwork and facilitate a shared sense of purpose.
Ways in which to develop others include: offering to review, provide feedback or contribute to colleagues work; sharing your own work – including the challenges you are having - with colleagues; providing feedback; delivering a workshop to help colleagues learn about something new; overseeing the training of new employees in your group; or teaching colleagues how to do a component of their job.
Giving or receiving coaching is a valuable experience for many people. It can help develop skills in goal setting and attainment, listening, self-awareness, decision making, empowering others, and proactively seeking constructive feedback.
Coaching activities include: working with a professional coach; learning how to coach others; or trading a work activity with a colleague and then serving as each other's peer coach.
Participating in a career counselling discussion for the benefit of your own career can be useful in identifying your next job or future career goals, clarifying what's important to you in your broader life (what gives you a sense of purpose and meaning), and how you may go about achieving a career which aligns to that sense of purpose and meaning (which, for many people, often goes hand in hand with job satisfaction).
Communities of practice
Communities of practice are a great way to build a diverse range of relationships with key people both within and outside your organisation, and are a useful resource for ideas and expertise.
You may be able to access communities of practice through: networking meetings; industry associations; and professional networks or online communities, such as wikis, blogs, webinars, alumni groups and discussion boards.
Action learning groups
Action learning groups are facilitated group discussions where peers learn together by tackling real issues and reflecting on their actions. Action learning groups can be highly effective in building your capacity for self-reflection, self-awareness, and coaching others. Action learning groups also help build a network of peers to provide advice and support.
Learning is most beneficial when there are opportunities to practise and learn from successes in the workplace. The next time you participate in a formal learning program, look for opportunities to take that learning and apply it to an actual workplace issue and learn from successes and mistakes with the input and support of others (McCauley et al. 2014).
Eichinger, R & Lombardo, M 2000, The Career Architect Development Planner, Lominger Limited, Minneapolis
Jennings, C 2013, 70:20:10 Framework Explained, 70:20:10 Forum, Melbourne
Kaye, B & Giulioni, J 2012, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco
Linley, A, Willars, J & Biswas-Diener R 2010, The Strengths Book, Centre for Applied Positive Psychology Press, Coventry
McCauley, C 2006, Developmental Assignments: Creating Learning Experiences Without Changing Jobs, CCL Press, Greensboro
McCauley, C, DeRue, S, Yost, P & Taylor S 2014, Experience-Driven Leader Development, Wiley, San Francisco
Pegg, M 2006, The Strengths Toolbox, Management Books, Gloucestershire