There are a seemingly infinite number of initiatives that can lead to success at your company. You can pull levers on product development, QA, sales, marketing, customer success...etc... but prioritizing what will have the greatest impact is tough. It's no wonder that employee development often ends up at the bottom of a very long list.
Leaders are constrained by time and are often biased towards short to medium term growth. This is especially true at startups, where we anxiously look ahead to the end of the runway. Can we really trade tomorrow's ROI goals for benefits that we will reap next quarter or next year?
But that is the wrong lense through which to view employee development. Your people are your company. They want to feel that their managers genuinely care and are committed to supporting their professional advancement and even their personal growth. Millennials in particular desire support, coaching and paths to advancement.
Employee development is a long-term initiative, but it also leads to short-term benefits like increased loyalty and improved performance and engagement. Let's look at 5 ways to improve development at your company:
1) Professional Training
Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way.
Depending on the role, formal employee training may be required to ensure competency and even excellence. Create a knowledge-base of critical information and best practices to pass on to new hires as you grow your team. This will be time-consuming at first, but will pay off in the long run.
For many roles above entry-level, training manuals are as obsolete as time-clocks. When you hire experienced candidates, they will put their existing skills and knowledge to work. At first you will mainly have to teach them the particulars of your offering and acclimate them to your company culture. If your culture is healthy and other employees believe in your product or service, this will happen almost organically through conversations and regular interactions.
As time goes on, you can augment their knowledge and abilities with business books, seminars and access to e-learning on topics from project management to demand generation. By simply reading one or two online articles per week, employees can stay up-to-date with marketplace trends and new practices, strategies and tactics that others have found successful.
2) Coaching & Mentoring
According to this piece in Harvard Business Review, managers today are overburdened and "no longer pass-on knowledge, skills and insights through coaching and mentoring. Organizations need to support and incentivize managers to perform this work."
Coaching may seem intimidating at first, especially for managers that have little to no experience. But today's employees demand more than just telling them what to do. To ease into coaching, start by asking some simple questions every week:
- Are there any obstacles you are facing, and can I help?
- What's an action you can take next week to improve your overall performance?
- What would you like to learn that could help you in your role?
When company leaders are intentional about having the right conversations regularly take place, employees can self-reflect on their accomplishments and managers can support them in achieving their true potential.
3) Cross-Departmental Training
I like to think of my business as an ecosystem. In nature, all of the different species of plants and animals are interdependent. They ultimately create a harmonious balance in the system by constantly making corrections. For example, a shortage of vegetation during drought creates competition in prey species. This in-turn creates greater competition among predators and their numbers decline as well. A new balance is formed where the healthiest individuals of every species can thrive.
In business ecosystems, equilibrium does not occur as naturally. Management must guide each of their teams to improve the overall health of the company. Take as an example how Customer Success (CS) impacts product development initiatives and vice-versa. Customers demand a new feature and CS passes that information to the product team. When the new feature is released, CS will likely have to answer customer questions about best practices with the feature.
You can encourage cross-departmental training and have a developer review a customer email or sit in on a call with support. Members of your CS team can join a scrum meeting or stand-up with the development team. No one is likely to make a career shift, but they can each see the impact of their efforts more clearly. What they learn can also inform the fine details of dev's work on the product, or CS's conversations with customers.
4) Develop "Soft-skills"
It's unfortunate that these vital skills have been de-emphasized in corporate environments. Even the name "soft skills" makes them seem relatively unnecessary. Dan Goleman's framework of emotional intelligence at work is just as important as the intellectual know-how required to perform a specific task. Self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill all play a vital role in effective leadership and execution at all levels of the organization.
Try bringing in an expert to teach your team how to read body-language or practice non-violent communication. This may not seem as important a skill as learning to code or creating a pivot table, but it goes a long way towards improving communication and cohesion between employees. When the team is in harmony, work gets done more efficiently and with greater ease.
5) Personal development
Your employees don't just exist in a professional capacity to serve your organization. They are whole human beings comprised of physical, intellectual and emotional experiences. For them to evolve both personally and professionally, employee development must be holistic:
- Emotional Balance
Ask questions like, "How do you feel about your work lately? Are you struggling with anything?" This meets our basic needs to be seen, heard, acknowledged and validated -- needs that go unmet in many work environments. A supportive manager who is skilled at listening and staying present to employee challenges can help raise them out of a tough emotional space.
- Intellectual Growth
Books and seminars don't just have to be about business. You can provide continuing education around personal finance or fostering healthy relationships. When you have occasion to reward an employee for stellar performance, sponsor their attendance at a class that will further their personal goals and hobbies.
- Physical Health
In accordance with our core value of cultivating health and vitality, every employee is provided a gym membership. We have also offered classes in many disciplines that contribute to the physical health of employees, from Qigong to breathing techniques. An easy and inexpensive way to develop employees' physical health is to stock your office with healthy food options.
When people are given the tools to do their jobs well and training to advance in their careers, they feel supported and happy. Not only are they likely to stay longer, but they will also perform better and contribute to overall company growth. And your reputation for stellar employee development might just encourage the best and brightest candidates to join your team.
David Hassell is the founder and CEO of 15Five, performance software that creates an open weekly dialogue about what's most important, so that managers can react quickly to employee challenges to increase employee engagement, productivity and morale.