Leadership is a multimillion-dollar industry. From online articles to MBAs, business coaches to executive retreats, we are all finding ways to spend our organization's money developing our leadership skills.

But there is a huge difference between learning leadership skills and applying them. Here are three practical steps to taking all that leadership knowledge and applying it right now.

No free lunches

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is not going to help us lead our teams.

In the movie "Good Will Hunting," Matt Damon's character upstages a Harvard graduate student while pointing out that he could have saved his money and acquired the same knowledge going to the public library instead. While it is great to take advantage of any additional educational opportunities — especially if our companies are paying for it any opportunity is only going to be as valuable as our ability to apply it.

We must find a way to translate that knowledge into action. And the first step in doing so is deceptively simple: We must decide.

In other words, before taking a class, reading an article or registering for a seminar, we must take a minute or two to decide what we want to learn. By asking ourselves where can I apply the knowledge I expect to gain, we shift our focus from simply absorbing the information to looking for ways to use the information.

Take note

By looking for opportunities to apply the knowledge before we engage in the activity, we are primed to take full advantage of the information. But to do so also requires us to do a little work during the activity as well.

Specifically, we need to create space to practice applying the knowledge. For example, if we read a tip on how to be a more effective communicator, we should make a note of that tip in our calendar right before our next presentation.

Similarly, if we know we are about to face a challenging or new situation, we can research the issue and make a list of the different tips, tricks and perspectives we learn about how to address it. That list can then be reviewed any time we face a similar situation.


Finally, while it is helpful to set expectations and take notes, the most critical step is setting time to review our performance. Armed with knowledge and a list of potential opportunities to apply it, we must set time after each potential opportunity to evaluate whether and how we applied our new-found information.

If we missed an opportunity, we must take note of the next chance we may have. Or, if we found a way to practice what we learned, then taking note of what worked and what did not, what we learned and what we can do next time (and noting it in our calendar for next time) will ensure we continue to practically apply what we are learning.

The bottom line is: Professional development is only as good as what we do with it. Start incorporating these simple steps to apply all those theories, tips and tricks to get the most out of any learning opportunity.