How to Master a New Skill

Posted by Bob Corlett on January 3, 2013

Mastering new skills is not optional in today's business environment. "In a fast-moving, competitive world, being able to learn new skills is one of the keys to success. It's not enough to be smart — you need to always be getting smarter," says Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author.  Joseph Weintraub, an author and  management professor, agrees. "We need to constantly look for opportunities to stretch ourselves in ways that may not always feel comfortable at first. Continual improvement is necessary to get ahead."

Here, reported by Amy Gallo for Harvard Business Review, are some principles to follow in your quest for self-improvement:

Check your readiness.
When working on a new skill or competency, you need to ask yourself two things. First, is your goal attainable? Second, how much time and energy can you give to the project? Recognize that learning a new skill takes extreme commitment. Unless your goal is attainable and you're prepared to work hard, you won't get very far.

Make sure it's needed.
Make sure the skill is relevant to your career, your organization, or both. Unless you absolutely need the skill for your job, or for a future position, it's unlikely you'll get money for training or support from your manager.

Know how you learn best.
Some learn best by looking at graphics or reading. Others would rather watch demonstrations or listen to things being explained. Still others need a "hands-on" experience. Halvorson says you can figure out your ideal learning style by looking back. "Reflect on some of your past learning experiences, and make a list of good ones and another list of bad ones," she says. "What did the good, effective experiences have in common?

Get the right help.
Eliciting support from others can greatly increase learning. Find someone you trust who has mastered the skill you're trying to attain. And look beyond your immediate manager who has to evaluate you. Weintraub suggests you ask yourself: "Who in my organization, other than my boss, would notice my changes and give me honest feedback?" Then approach that person and say something like, "You are so comfortable with [the skill], something I'm not particularly good at. I'm really trying to work on that and would love to spend some time with you, learn from you, and get your feedback." If there is someone in your organization who is able and willing to provide quality mentoring, then great. If not, find help outside" suggests Halvorson.

Start small
Self-improvement can feel overwhelming. "You can't take on everything. If you do, you'll never do it," says Weintraub. Instead, choose one or two skills to focus on, and break that skill down into manageable goals.

Reflect along the way.
To move from experimentation to mastery, you need to reflect on what you are learning. Otherwise the new skill won't stick. Halvorson and Weintraub both suggest talking to others. "Always share your goals with those individuals who can provide informational or emotional support along the way," says Halvorson. "Talking about your progress helps you get valuable feedback, keeps you accountable, and cements the change.

Be patient.
"Too often, we approach a new skill with the attitude that we should nail it right out of the gate," says Halvorson. The reality is that it takes much longer. "It's not going to happen overnight. It usually takes six months or more to develop a new skill," says Weintraub.

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Select a skill that is valued by your organization and manager.
  • Divide the skill up into smaller, manageable tasks.
  • Reflect on what you've learned and what you still want to accomplish.

Don't:

  • Try to learn in a vacuum — ask others for guidance and feedback .
  • Rely solely on your boss for advice — you may want to involve someone who isn't responsible for evaluating you.
  • Assume it's going to happen overnight

Topics: Career Advice, Human Resources