5 ways to boost your skills and increase your career opportunities

If you want to climb the career ladder, you'll have to keep your skills fresh. Here's how to keep learning new capabilities.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Reviewed by Min Shin
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10'000 Hours/Getty Images

Professionals who want to reach the top of the career ladder face a challenging climb. The combination of a competitive labor market and the ever-increasing automation of workplace activities mean it's going to be tough to stand out from the crowd.

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One great way to give yourself an edge is to develop your experiences and capabilities. So, what's the best way to hone your skills? Five business leaders give us their top tips.

1. Take a risk on something new

Lalo Luna, global head of strategy and insights at Heineken, says experimentation is the best way to hone your skills. "We always say that taking on new things and new roles will give you more capabilities and professional experiences than just taking a training course," he says.

As a large global business, Heineken also has a range of formal mechanisms to help workers develop their capabilities.

"Of course, we provide training in many ways, where you can get access to different kinds of sources to continue your learning," he says. "We have coaching programs that are very helpful for different personas at different stages of their careers," he says. 

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Yet even with all these opportunities in place, Luna suggests there's nothing quite like getting outside your comfort zone and trying something new.

"I truly think that the most important part of development is to take a risk," Luna says. "Really jump and learn from your experience."

2. Take time to learn for yourself

While internal courses play a key role in training and development, Mayank Goswami, assistant vice president at Travelex, says the onus for personal improvement often rests with the individual.

"I think it's about self-learning," he says. "Nobody will come and teach you. Nobody will do the work for you. You must learn for yourself and know how to do things on your own."

Goswami says the requirement to take charge of your own professional development is particularly acute in IT.

"Technology is changing so fast that you can train people and two years afterwards, things change, and new technology comes, and people start adopting it," Goswami says. 

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He says continual advances in IT -- such as the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation -- mean professionals must stay ahead of the curve.

"During my career, I've seen some major changes. Now, with the introduction of AI, a lot of vendors are adding tools to automate tasks that used to be completed manually. The key message is that things are changing -- and everything's changing fast. You will have to adopt; you must learn and then you will be successful," Goswami says. 

3. Spend time with external experts

Alex Hibbitt, engineering director at albelli-Photobox Group, says professionals should look beyond the enterprise firewall for training and development opportunities.

"I think there are lots of organizations out there that can help," he says. "I personally believe talking to those who have a wide range of experiences is one of the best ways you can do it, and you should look for organizations who provide networking opportunities."

He says professionals at his company are lucky to work in labor markets -- the company has offices in London and Amsterdam -- that have strong, supportive ecosystems.

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"Both locations boast huge meetup communities, with people willing to share information about what they've done across all sorts of areas, but also across leadership lessons in terms of the challenges they've overcome."

Hibbitt says one-to-one guidance from business experts can also boost your skills base.

"I've been lucky in the past to have mentors, externally as well, and they've been instrumental in helping me understand how I can grow and where I should be focusing my learning," he says. "I think there's a certain element of education on the job as well. If you can get into an organization that's going through change, there are always opportunities to learn."

4. Stay open to new opportunities

Adam Warne, CIO at retailer River Island, says every professional -- no matter how far up the career ladder they climb -- should always feel like a work in progress.

"I'd like to think that I'm still up-and-coming and learning," he says.

For people who are looking to hone their skills, Warne says the sources of inspiration -- such as online-training courses -- are now much wider and deeper than in the past.

"I think the market for free material is better than it's ever been. If you want to learn a new skill, there's lots of stuff out there to help you go and develop," he says. "There are lots of different methods now, which are probably non-traditional if you looked at where we were 20 years ago."

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What's more, not all those methods are online. Warne advises professionals to look for innovative ways to train and develop, especially if they're looking to boost their digital smarts.

"I could decide, as a non-technical professional, to go to several organizations and say, 'I want to get into tech'. And the opportunities that exist can range from a 12 to 18-week boot camp through to a two-year apprenticeship. So, I think there are lots of positive ways now for people to develop their skills."

5. Work for someone who develops talent

Bev White, CEO at recruiter Nash Squared, says the onus for training and development rests squarely with senior executives. "You can only keep people in your business if you've got a good culture, where people feel listened to and they're developed," White says. 

In addition, White says managers must recognize that keeping professional skills fresh is also crucial to success. "If you've got legacy systems, but you're not going to have them in three to five years, start reskilling people that are working on those legacy systems, so that they can help you with the future tech as well," White says. 

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And if you don't feel like you're receiving the training and development you deserve as a professional, then it makes sense to look for someone who will give you those opportunities.

White says the lesson for managers who might lose talent is simple -- invest time and money in your people: "Don't let them walk out the door because that's crazy."

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