Are you neglecting your own development?

Return to Blogs

Fri. 21st October 2016.

One of the many challenges we face as a sole trader or owner of a small business is not to neglect our own development. Those of us who’ve previously worked in a larger organisation probably had the support to do it. This is likely to have been the help to identify our development needs and then the subsequent time and financial support to satisfy those needs. Some of us will also have been in roles where it was our job to help other people to develop. But once we go it alone, it becomes more difficult to give ourselves the time and focus to prioritise our own development needs.

There will also be those sole traders who have little or no experience of developing either themselves or others. It can be even more difficult in that situation as they’ve never seen the development process operating or the benefits that can result if it’s done well.

The following structure will help to make you more effective, but also ensure that you do it in a cost and time efficient way.


1. What do I want, or what do I need, to develop?

It’s important to focus on what you really want, and really need to, develop. Of course you’ll have gaps in your skills, your knowledge and your behaviours, but you may not need to fill all those gaps. If you can improve your strengths by a small amount, then that can give you far better returns than trying to develop your weaknesses. It could save you a significant amount of time and cost. If you’re building on areas you’re already good at then it’s likely that you already enjoy using that skill and will be more motivated to improve it further. However, there may be some weaknesses that you simply must develop in order to give you the success you want.

You can identify your areas of strength and weakness in a number of ways, but ultimately they all come down to getting a list of skills, knowledge and behaviours (or ‘competencies’) and rating yourself against them. You could brainstorm your own list of competencies or search for ideas on the intranet. There may be specific competency requirements for the area of business you work within – particularly if there’s a professional institute associated with what you do.

Once you have your list of competencies, rate yourself against them. A simple way to do this is to group them into three categories. 1) What are your strengths? 2) What are you OK at? 3) What are you weaker at? Try to get an approximate 15%:70%:15% distribution between the categories. Really differentiate your strengths and weaknesses if you can to give yourself focus. Check how you’ve rated yourself by asking for feedback and confirmation from people you trust.

In coaching sessions, I often work with a set of competency cards and get my clients to carry out a structured sorting and rating process. This helps them to quickly identify the areas they want to work on and to prioritise them.


2. How many development needs shall I work on at once?

You need to be realistic and practical about how many development needs you work on at the same time. Don’t try to take on too much. As a ballpark figure, aim to work on a maximum of three aspects at once. It feels achievable. When you finish developing one, add another.

Consider that there are some areas which are more difficult to develop than others. For example, it may be easier and quicker to develop a ‘technical’ skill related to your business than it is to develop a behavioural skill. Bear the difficulty of developing the various competencies in mind when building your plan.

Another aspect to consider is how diverse the competencies are that you want to develop, and how closely they group together. If you want to develop your planning, organisation and prioritisation skills, it’s likely that whatever solution you put in place for one of those areas will also positively impact the other two areas. However, if you want to develop your time management, listening and strategic thinking skills then it’s unlikely that the same solution will develop the three areas – unless you are very creative with your solutions. This will help you to decide how many needs to work on at the same time.


3. How am I going to develop them?

Now you’ve identified what you want, or need, to develop you can start to think about how you’ll develop those areas. What solutions will you put in place? Good development practice works on a 70:20:10 principle. This means that 70% of your development should come from experiences that you can build into your everyday work. Developing and building competence whilst working on real projects, activities and tasks is particularly effective if there’s a consequence of not improving in the particular area you’re looking to develop. You really do then have to perform well against the need. For example, if you want to develop your negotiating skills, take part in a real negotiation where you’ll lose out on something if you don’t do it well. This will give you the motivation and focus to develop the skill and to do it to the best of your ability.

About 20% of your development should come from ‘people’ aspects. This could include working with a mentor who is experienced in the area you want to develop and who can advise you in how to improve. It could be working with a coach whose skill is in asking you questions to help you explore what you want to develop and work with you to generate options for improvement. You could also ask others for specific feedback on the competency you are developing and what they see. Another possible solution is to identify people who are strong (or weak) in the competency you want to build. Observe them and learn what they do that makes them good (or bad) in that area. You can then consciously choose to try out and mirror the positive behaviours that you see. Conversely, you can make sure that you don’t demonstrate their bad behaviours.

The final 10% of your development should come from activities such as attending courses, workshops, seminars or conferences and reading books. With the exception of ‘technical’ or ‘functional’ skills this can be a relatively ineffective way of developing. However, it’s quite often the first choice approach as it appears to be the simplest to set up.

Ideally you should combine a number of different solutions from each of the approaches in a blended way to give yourself the maximum opportunity for development success.


4. What resources or support do I need?

Once you’ve identified your development solutions, you should think about the resources that you need to deliver them. Resources could be things like the time and money needed for the particular solutions. Resources could also include the support or advice you need from particular people. Identifying the required resources will help you to make sure that the solutions you identify are viable and affordable. It will also help you to plan when and how to deliver them.


5. What are my success criteria?

Having identified your development needs, solutions and the resources required, it’s important to define how you’ll know when you’ve successfully achieved the development you want to. Success criteria could be quite obvious such as achieving qualifications, delivering a task or project, or reading a certain book. They could also be things like receiving positive feedback around specific changes in your behaviour that people see. Once you’ve made satisfactory progress and met the criteria you set, you’ll then be able to move on to start working on developing another area.


6. When will I do it by?

Finally, set yourself some timescales to complete the development solutions you identified. This will give you focus and a target to work towards. It will also allow you to develop a plan so that you can manage your time and diary commitments effectively.


If you follow this structured approach you’ll focus your time and resources more effectively on the areas that really matter to you. This will help you to develop yourself so that you can grow your business.



Time For Growth is a practical development approach for sole traders and owners of small businesses. It will help you to manage and develop yourself, manage your work, and develop and manage your people if you have any employees. The first workbook Time For Growth: Managing Yourself is available now on Amazon.