Poll after poll indicates that the vast majority of us want more professional development. Some companies get it, others don’t; some companies get it right, others don’t; and, in the social sector, some companies aspire to it, but most never achieve it. This means that we may need to take matters into our own hands.

But why? First, let’s start with the reasons you should even bother investing time and money into your growth

• If you don’t, nobody will

Chances are, your employer is not going to do it for you. There are some stellar internal programs out there, almost exclusively sitting in larger corporations. But if that is not where you work, you may be losing out. Plus, you are more likely to get tapped for further opportunities if you have proven that you are dedicated to your growth.

• It can increase your job and life satisfaction
There is a saying “if you’re not growing, you’re dying”. Learning new skills, perspectives, and tools can be exciting and provide an energy boost and inspiration to launch you forward.

• It can Increase your confidence
Knowledge is power, and growing your knowledge base can provide greater confidence that will show at work.

• It can increase your chance of a promotion
If you want to take on new roles and/or responsibilities in your career, taking the initiative to invest in yourself will not only give you needed skills but will make you stand out to employers.

If you are going to put your own precious time and money into your development, there are some key things to keep in mind to get the most out of your investment:

1) Know yourself-really well
First, you must do some deep reflection and ensure you know what your strengths and weaknesses are, what motivates you, what you avoid, and what matters most in work and life. Without this, you risk investing in all the wrong things- don’t waste your time or money. It is also important to know how others view your strengths and weaknesses, as research shows us that our self-assessments can be completely upside down, especially where we are weakest.

2) Use your strengths
Finding ways to spend more time focused on your strengths will help them stand-out to your colleagues and boss, and they will turn to you more and more to lead in the area you are strongest in. Strengths are not always the same things as things you like to do (I really like ice skating, but trust me, it is not a strength of mine), and many of us confuse these two things. Asking others what they see as your strengths, taking a strengths finder test, and looking back at where you got the highest praise on past performance reviews can help you narrow in on your strengths.

3) Work on your personal brand
Like the first point, you must take an honest look at yourself. I have met so many staff who thought they were amazing, but none of their peers did. If your strengths are not translating, you will need to face that head-on. This often means you need some honest feedback (and a willingness to accept the feedback); if you can’t get it from your co-workers, you may need to get it from a strong coach. Ensuring that your mission, values, and behaviors align with who you want to be is an important place to begin. Being liked might be nice, but you want to aim for respect. If your brand stands for someone who makes helpful contributions to the organization and others, your brand will be strong. Make sure this is true online, too. Become a thoughtful and helpful contributor and participant in online forums in your field (LinkedIn groups can be a powerful way to begin to create a strong online presence).

4) Build relationships- in and out of your organization
Strong relationships with people at all levels both in and out of your organization will not only build your perspective, they will help you learn, and will help you feel more connected to what you care about. Strong relationships don’t mean getting a business card from someone or connecting on LinkedIn. It means creating a connection with someone you can sit down and have coffee and meaningful conversation with. When you approach others with a mindset of learning how you might be able to help them, others are far more likely to find the time to connect with you. Spend time listening to others, with genuine curiosity, about how their role works, what challenges they face, and how their organization handles issues similar to ones you are facing can fortify your leadership with new views.

5) Keep learning and apply your knowledge
There are so many advantages to being a lifelong learner, but suffice to say, it keeps you sharp. Reading applicable business books, listening to podcasts, and attending courses are all ways to stay fresh and keep learning. But, most of your learning will be hands-on, so be sure to strategically apply what you learn into your everyday reality. Reading a book about being a great manager won’t make you a great manager…you will have to practice what you learn in real time. When looking for a course, the best ones have a mix of in-class learning, hands-on projects, and opportunities to connect with others.