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Accidental Trainer, Intentional Learner: My Story Breaking into L&D

June 17, 2021 1:46 PM | Scott Rencher (Administrator)

Post written by ATDChi member Nick Smith, APTD. This article is part of a series of member written content on Career Development in Talent Development.

I had just wrapped up an assignment and started a vacation on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean when I got the call. Recognizing one of our work extensions, I immediately thought one of my colleagues had died. Why else would work be calling me while I was on vacation in another country? So I was pleasantly surprised when the call was to congratulate me on being offered the role of Learning Specialist at my organization.

I had applied for the job with excitement but not a lot of expectation. The occasional opportunities I had to review curriculum or create new resources were my favorite parts of my current role, and I had done a little bit of teaching and tutoring in previous jobs. But I had no formal background in education, and certainly not in adult learning – a passion without a practice.

I requested 24 hours to think about the offer, then almost immediately called both my partner and my parents from overseas for advice. Since you’re reading this, I guess it’s obvious that I took the leap. And along with that leap came our old friend imposter syndrome, and the realization that I really needed to figure out what I was going to be doing.

I know I’m not alone in this. Many of us identify as “accidental trainers,” launched into an L&D career we love through a somewhat circuitous path. What I learned is that the field can absolutely embrace you, if you embrace the field.

First, a brag of gratitude: my team was a huge help in familiarizing me with the terminology and processes I’d need to know. If you have a team that loves learning and sharing knowledge like mine does, count yourself lucky. But in order to feel like a real contributor, I knew I had to take an active role in my own professional development.

I immediately set a goal of completing at least one class, certificate, or certification in the field each year, and told my supervisor in order to keep myself accountable. It’s a goal I’ve kept since 2016, and watching those completions add up has been a fun way to track my accomplishments. First, I invested in a membership with ATD, and later ATDChi, so I could have access to the resources, trainers, and tools provided through the website. Through ATD, I completed an on-demand course on adult learning and two certificate programs, one in Instructional Design and the other in Articulate Storyline.

This process culminated in 2020, when I used the extra time I was trapped in my house to study for and achieve the Associate Professional in Talent Development (APTD) certification

But ATD isn’t (and probably shouldn’t be!) the only source of development opportunities. Over the last few years, I’ve participated in a number of talent development conferences, either in-person or virtually. And within my own organization, I completed a management development certificate, and have served as both a staff mentor and mentee. I’ve taken a number of professional development courses offered by internal staff, and have even facilitated a few myself.

This year, I’m trying a different tactic. Instead of formal learning opportunities, I’m looking at ways to grow my communication and networking skills, such as participating in a webinar panel about preparing for the APTD and volunteering for our local ATDChi chapter – for example, by writing this very post!

To be clear, I’ve had a lot of support in achieving these goals, including time off and financial assistance from my organization. But, even if you don’t have those supports, I want to underscore how important it is to prioritize your professional development in whatever way makes sense for your time and budget. Maybe that means carving out one hour per week (or month!) to catch up on the latest trends and think-pieces. Or maybe it means registering for one class or conference per year, and doing so enough in advance that your calendar isn’t already full.

Because I made professional development a priority, I’m no longer grappling with the imposter syndrome I felt when I first stepped into this role.

Whether you’re new to the profession or have been a talent development professional for decades, our jobs are always changing – and certainly I think we’ve all picked up some new skills in the last year, whether we wanted to or not. Take advantage of that momentum, set yourself up a goal for professional development this year, and hold yourself accountable.



Nick Smith, APTD is a Learning Specialist for Rotary International, where he designs leadership development curriculum for over 1,000 volunteer leaders and works with a global team of more than 200 trainers. In his spare time, he writes fiction, walks a three-legged dog, and tries new bourbons. Help him get better at networking by finding him on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicholas-smith-aptd-3b6a86b9/

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