The 5 Professional Development Pillars of Real-Life Career Girls


The following is a guest post by Brendan Alan Barrett.  His bio follows.

Professional development seems the obvious solution for an ambitious careerists trying to climb the ladder of success. What isn’t so obvious, is what effective professional development really looks like.

It is one thing to talk about being a student of your field, it’s another to know exactly what to study and how to put that new knowledge to use. When you’re at the wheel, steering your own on-going career development, it can be a lot to take on.

How is a young career girl to know what really works? How is someone supposed to decipher between pursuits really worth their time and activities that only serve to waste it?

For this article I had the chance to speak with a number of real-life career girls, all of which are at different stages in life, but have accomplished their own levels of professional success. Each of these women also seemed to have positioned themselves for many more successful tomorrows.

In sharing their thoughts, experiences, and wisdom I will pull back the vail on professional development that really works. I’ll do this by exploring the fundamental aspects of professional development real-life career girls are already using to achieve success in their lives and in their work.

Know Your Priorities

With so many directions to take when it comes to a career it can be overwhelming to know where to start, if you don’t know where you want to go.

According to Adriane Wilson, who owns the executive coaching and training firm Strengths Zone, self-inventory and career planning are the foundation for professional development and career success.
Adriane says, “Step-one is to take inventory of where you are in your career and where you want to be… so that other people can help you, so that you can identify the proper resources to help you. So really, step-one is to map your future.”

This idea of mapping your future is one that Adriane puts to use herself through goal setting. For Adriane it is a regular practice to write out goals on a quarterly basis, making plans for the next year and beyond.

Set Goals

When it comes to defining goals in writing like she does, Adriane adds, “When you write things down you are more committed to what is happening.” Which is something she believes has allowed her to succeed in the many directions her career has taken.

To date, Adriane has seen her fair share of success as a journalist, a sales professional, and marketing director. Adriane is now building a business to help individuals and the organizations they work for, to best use the human resources they already have available. Her company, Strengths Zones, does this through helping people to understand the particular strengths they already possess and then leveraging those strengths to achieve a particular personal or organizational goal.

Coronel Ann Peru Knabe is another proponent of having your priorities point you in the right direction. As a U.S. Airforce reservist, Ann has had her civilian career, teaching commutations at the university level, detoured by a number of military deployments.


Ann considers herself a, “Big goal setter.” She also admits, “Sometimes I am also action-on-target … taking opportunity on things that pop-up out of nowhere.”

Because of four deployments, receiving her interdisciplinary Ph.D. in public relations, distance learning, and psychology took more than 10 years. Reflecting on how her military services impacted her academic aspirations Ann says, “Your first priority coming back [from deployment] is family – to get your family reunified. The second is your job – to get reintegrated at work… The third for me – and it always came last – was the dissertation.”

Put First Things First

Ann’s story is one that could be used to illustrate the value in putting first things first. After her fourth consecutive deployment as a reservist, Ann was ready to throw in the towel on finishing her dissertation.

It had been a lower priority for so long that progress wasn’t being made at a rate she was proud of. Because of the strong support system she had nurtured by making her family a priority, however, her husband was there to remind her how far she had come.

In Ann’s recollection of that moment, “He came in and said ‘No, don’t give-up. Are you kidding me? You’ve dedicated eight years of your life – this is in reach.” And, that was all it took to see herself through to the end.

Without her Ph.D., Ann wouldn’t have qualified for the assignment of her latest three-year tour. Ann is currently serving on deployment as the Dean of Students for the International College of Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington D.C.



When I asked if reading has had an impact on her career, serial entrepreneur Alyssa Ripp replied, “Without question it has. Reading periodicals like The New York Times and the New Yorker pushes me to think bigger, more broadly, and in a global context.”

Alyssa also mentioned that the combination of reading and her work as a management lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business helps her to maintain a 50,000-foot view on an industry she’s been working in for over a decade. Alyssa describes that perspective as being “Extraordinarily valuable.”

The same seems to be true for women not so far along in their career. Catherine Barrett, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in 2012 and 2014 respectively, works as a senior healthcare consultant at Pershing, Yoakley and Associates. She says, “I’m an avid reader–of books and articles and anything else with words on it.”

Books like the Go-Giver, a parable by Bob Burg and John David Mann, and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In have helped her a great deal in the early years of her career. To Catherine’s surprise, these titles helped her overcome the kinds of disillusion young professionals often struggle with when first starting out.

Reading Feeds Your Mind

Catherine also suggests, “If you’re in healthcare, anything by Atul Gawande is a must-read, and if you’re not in healthcare, you should still read his stuff.”

For Coronel Ann Peru Knabe it is the Wall Street Journal that she makes time for every day. Usually she juggles the WSJ pages while working out on the elliptical in the morning, but she is also a big fan of their app.

“In my business, one needs to be acutely aware of world and domestic issues. Whether I’m working as the Dean of Students, in the world of PR, or doing Air Force duty at the Pentagon, I need to be aware of what’s happening in the world around us,” Ann says.

As for executive coach and entrepreneur Adriane Wilson, when it comes to professional development, she is a firm believer that, “Except for the books that you read, the people you meet, and the places you go you could be in the same place next year.”

books 1



As much as she enjoys the 50,000-foot view of her industry that she gets from reading and teaching, Alyssa Rapp is also keen on stringing together the written word herself. In her own words, “I absolutely love writing and journaling.”

While journaling for Alyssa is typically feast or famine, an informal business plan or the idea for a book are the kind of thing Alyssa will come down from her bird’s-eye view of the world to work out through journaling.

Having a journal entry or notes to kick-off each revival of an idea keeps the ball moving in a positive direction, especially if she is looking for help from her husband – or anyone else – to better flesh out the concept.

Alyssa Rapp would be the first to admit that journaling in the digital age doesn’t always resemble what many of us grew up to know as the practice of taking pen to paper, but she is still a big fan of simply jotting down notes –even digitally- on anything she may want to revisit or add to over time.

Just how important is writing to Alyssa and her creative process as an entrepreneur? “I believe writing is incredibly important to finding balance in my life,” she says. “Sometimes fiction writing serves that purpose, sometimes nonfiction writing serves that purpose.”

Alyssa is such a proponent of journaling that she often gifts moleskin journals to employees and interns. She encourages them to use the journals for capturing their own entrepreneurial thoughts for use if they ever leave her company.

Of course, Alyssa was sure to make the distinction that writing 400 obligatory emails on a daily basis doesn’t offer her the same benefits as the kind of writing she might do in a journal. Journaling is a way to work out an idea or reflect on a situation before it is communicated to anyone else.

An actionable way to incorporate writing into your professional development can be learned from the example of Catherine Barrett. She told me, “I have a work journal where at the end of the day – most of the time – I write down the highlight of the day and at least one thing I learned,” because, “experiences were starting to blur together.”

Not only does Catherine use her journal to track areas she can improve upon, but she’s found that when working long hours – as seasons of a career can require – it can become easy to get caught-up in the negative moments.


So, as a means of celebrating her accomplishments and fueling herself to push through the not so happy parts of being a young professional, Catherine explains, “My one goal is to write down something really great that happened, and something that I learn each day. That way I’ll be ending my day with something positive, and with something to grow from.”

As far as reviewing the good things, Catherine adds that not only does such a journal serve as a good pick-me-up, but also a good check point. Because young professionals have so much new information coming at them, it can be helpful to have something to refer back to. Such a reference can prevent having to struggle through the same lesson more than once.

Similarly, Adriane Wilson has nothing but praise for a regular journaling practice, “As a formal journalist I find journaling to be quite powerful. I really like to look back on my writing from a year ago or years-past to see the growth and to have a good understanding on how learning is just part of the process.”



When asked if her experience had unearthed anything that works especially well for fostering her own professional development, Colonel Ann Peru Knabe replied, “Instead of thinking about trying to improve myself, taking risk and moving ahead. Less talk, more action.”

This is coming from a woman who has given herself every permission to pursue her interests. As a reservist and public affairs officer for the USAF, Ann has been deployed all over the globe. At home in Wisconsin Ann was worked in publishing and on the industry side of public relations. At the same time, Ann was climbing the ranks of academia, from graduate student, to university instructor, to Ph.D. and Professor.

To some, pursuits in academia, the private sector, and military service are seemingly unrelated. Ann is one of those people, but she also recognizes her sprawling experience is the only reason she was a fit for a three year assignment at National Defense University.

Ann’s appointment as a Dean of Students at the National Defense University is not one she would have considered 20 years ago, but every new pursuit has given way to even more opportunity. Things she didn’t know she’d ever want for her career are now within reach.

The effects of military deployment on the progress of her Ph.D. is just one example of the hurdles that come with pursuing a variety of passions. In spite of those hurdles however, Ann continues to permit herself to pursue her interests, regardless of how seemingly unrelated they might be.

It stands to reason that Ann’s habit of allowing her priorities and passions to guide her activity has played a role in maintaining her motivation. Not only has Ann fueled her ambitions with genuine interest in their subject matter, she has continued to trade novelty for nuance, diving deep into her education rather than moving on to the next shinny object or interesting pursuit.


Never Stop Improving Yourself

“Never stop improving yourself,” is what Ann considers the guiding philosophy of her career. She says that you should always be striving for more, pushing yourself to the level of discomfort. Ann’s warning is that, “If you get too comfortable, you grow stagnant.”

As a testament to how well Ann embodies those words, as soon as she is settled with her family, following her latest tour of duty, she plans is to relaunch the consulting business she started prior to deployment. For her, consulting is the ultimate opportunity to parlay her military experience in crisis communication to working in the private sector. Ann also plans to get her real estate license, which has been something of a peripheral interest she’s had for some time.

Ann’s advice to other women is to, “Be open to ideas – now I’m open to the idea of being a business owner. Be agile and flexible. Be able to envision yourself in different roles. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself into one spot.”


Seek Mentorship

As Alyssa Rapp builds here latest company, AJR Ventures, she still considers it her career’s mission to simply work with and be mentored by extraordinary people.

In fact, mentorship from other women like her mother Fay Levin, former US ambassador to the Netherlands, has had such a positive influence on her career she is driven to make sure other young people to have similar guidance in their lives. To accomplish this, Alyssa has joined the board of the Spark Program, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing mentorship to middle schoolers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia.

Alyssa also gives humble credit for her success to mentors like Christie Hefner, executive chairman of Canyon Ranch Enterprises, as well as her good friend, Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer.

For Colonel Ann Peru Knabe, it was a mentor and teaching colleague that challenged her to pursue an accreditation in public relation from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). That accreditation has served her well in every avenue of her public affairs and public relations career.

Adriane Wilson recalls being taken under the wing of a few journalists while still in high school. She says, “Mentorship has taught me a lot about the unspoken rules in the workplace and professionalism and the importance of paying it forward. In fact – quite a few – I am still in contact with and I’m still always learning from. Now I’m at a place where I share as well. You never get too old for advice, and good advice is even better!”


The Value of Mentorship

Conversely, we live in a world where our youngest working generation is bombarded by reminders of how important mentorship is. So much so that the construct is being formalized into coarse curriculum and corporate operations. At times it seems that informal mentorship might be losing its appeal and credibility. The prevalence of formal mentorship may even make it hard for younger professionals to simply recognize informal mentorship, even while they are experiencing it.

Speaking to her experience as a young professional in standardized mentoring environments, Catherine Barrett explained that an important component to a successful mentoring relationship is vulnerability. She says, “You have to find someone you can be vulnerable with.  When you are new in a situation it can be hard to be vulnerable. Especially with people you hope might promote you or are responsible for reviewing you.”

Because formal mentorship is often structured between superiors and subordinates in the workplace, the natural influence of organizational hierarchy can keep mentees from allowing themselves to be vulnerable. They aren’t honest because they don’t want to appear incompetent. They don’t ask for help when they need it, because they are afraid of being demoted or fired.

Be Open And Vulnerable

Catherine believes that if you can’t be vulnerable with your mentor, you probably don’t have the right mentor. She also thinks that many of her peers approach mentorship as a networking play. As if accepting someone’s counsel is only valuable in creating proximity – an opportunity to posture – a chance in which to prove yourself worth hiring or recommending for a higher paying job somewhere else.

The issue Catherine sees with such an approach is that, “You never give yourself the chance to be vulnerable and honest, and you never give them the chance to be a true mentor to you.”

Create Organic Mentor Relationships

In Catherine’s experience, her most successful mentor relationships have been formed organically. They originated from casual conversations rather than being mandated by her organization. While all have been more experienced than her, she didn’t feel threatened because they weren’t her direct supervisors. Sharing problems, concerns, and questions came naturally with these people.

It’s hard for a lot of people just strike up a conversation. For these people a more formal mentorship is probably a good place to start. Of course, Catherine cautions other young professionals to not overlook the more traditional, informal mentoring opportunities.

“When you discount the less formal mentorships, you probably handicap yourself in the more formal mentorships,” explained Catherine. For her, it was the more natural conversations with her informal mentors in which she learned to become comfortable asking questions, asking for help, and how to make the most of the mentorship curriculum she received from her managers.


The 5 Professional Development Pillars of Real-Life Career Girls

  1. KNOW YOUR PRIORITIES: Without knowing what is important you, there is no level of success that will yield career fulfillment. By knowing your purpose, having goals, and sticking to your values, you are much more likely to achieve fulfillment from your work.


  1. READ: Reading is an opportunity to discover concepts, ideas, and new ways of thinking. Your current circle of colleagues can only introduce you to so much, but a good book or article can clue you into a part of the world you would otherwise never have known.


  1. WRITE: The use of the written word has a fantastic way of making your own ideas more clear. Journaling is a great tool for synthesizing the things you learn with one another. Being able to do this will increase your professional acumen and help you work much more productively.


  1. DO: There is no greater teacher than experience. Only through trial-and-error can you prove what you think you know to be true. The word failure gets associated with some not so great sentiments. In reality, failure is a key ingredient to growth.


  1. SEEK MENTORSHIP: Otto von Bismarck is famous for having said, “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” But, not only can other people tell you what mistakes to avoid, they can become strategic partners in navigating your career. You might find out that they become just as emotionally invested in your success as you are.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Brendan Alan Barrett, writes about professional development at, a blog dedicated to the mission of career success without student-debt. Brendan is also the author of READ WRITE DO Professional Development and Career Success Playbook, a no nonsense book written for people who want to jump start the career they’ve wanted for way too long.


Priorities Peter Reed  Books Moyan Brenn Writing Fredrik Rubensson Learning India Edu

Ms. Career Girl

Ms. Career Girl was started in 2008 to help ambitious young professional women figure out who they are, what they want and how to get it.

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