By Markey Read
Wouldn’t it be great if every person you hired came with all the professional skills needed to work for your company? Gone would be the days of training new employees in basic concepts like quality, teamwork, productivity, and customer service. Instead they could be focusing on enhancing their leadership and management skills.
Many employers hope that only the most qualified apply for every position. Hiring managers dream of the day when they will not have to weed through hoards of untrained, unqualified candidates.
When it comes to providing employees with quality professional development, however, some of those same employers do not want to invest the time, energy, and money. Whose responsibility is it to develop people into quality employees? Does it rest with larger companies to train their people because they can “afford” it? Or can smaller companies contribute by offering professional development opportunities as a way to attract and retain highly qualified people?
Ongoing Professional Development Matters in the Long Run
There was a time when all major employers actively developed young professionals into managers, leaders, and key contributors because they took responsibility for their employees. While many employees were still excluded from those opportunities, the days of systemic professional career development are long gone and forgotten at most companies for all levels. The few companies that do still provide opportunities often fail to train their managers in how to support people in accessing the available internal and external resources.
In order to retain quality people and attract more quality people to your company, it is essential that you have a well-developed professional development process that includes formal (workshops, college classes, certifications) and informal (on-the-job, mentoring, peer-to-peer exchange, job shadowing) options. Since the average time any employee stays is about five years (less for younger professionals), investing in training may seem like a losing proposition. If, however, you consider that a bored or untrained employee can cost money in low productivity and higher turnover rates, training sounds more feasible. Most young professionals point to a lack of opportunity for personal and professional growth for their reasons to leave; and by the way, more mature professionals report the same.
Continuous professional development helps to ensure that you maintain and build a competent workforce to meet the ever changing demands of our times. Additionally, research shows that individuals who access professional development are more engaged and committed to meeting the challenges of working at a dynamic organization. When that access is supported by the company, employees are more likely to be loyal and apply all their newly developed skills and knowledge to the success of their employer.
It is generally assumed that smaller companies are the informal training grounds for larger companies and that many people start with a small company with the intention of eventually graduating to a “real job” in a “big company.” The main reasons people leave any size company are: lack of professional opportunities, poor leadership/management, and high turnover. Salary level and/or job title are rarely reasons people leave.
With the vast majority of people working in Vermont being employed by companies with 50 or fewer employees and many of those people working for companies with 10 or fewer employees, it is the smaller companies and organizations in small states that are in a perfect position to provide professional development resources.
Introducing Professional Development Opportunities to Your Organization
Developing a professional development process can be as simple as training your managers to have “career conversations” separate from compensation and annual review conversations. When managers take time to listen to what their people want from life without threat of being released for insufficient commitment, they may discover that an administrative assistant wants to be more involved with operations; a marketing assistant has some natural training and technical writing skills; a financial analyst wants to be more involved with human resource matters; and that a seeming mediocre sales representative would actually be a good sales manager.
The challenge for a manager is to balance the employees’ desires with their actual talents and the company needs. So maybe the administrative assistant is not given the title of operation manager, but she could take leadership on redesigning the office space or locating a new office; and the financial analyst could assume administration of payroll and benefits instead of becoming the human resource manager.
Some useful steps in assisting employees in their professional planning include:
- Taking an honest and thoughtful self-assessment to identify skill, knowledge and experience gaps.
- Planning practical steps with goals and timelines to fill gaps.
- Acting consistently with the plan by accessing peers, managers, mentors, webinars, conferences, certifications, and college courses, as necessary.
- Taking time to reflect and evaluate, making informed decisions along the way to allow for personal growth. If your managers are not amenable or lack the natural inclinations to having these conversations, then external professional career consultants can be useful.
Yes, Professional Development Matters… But what if I can’t accommodate employees’ professional goals?
Once company leadership decides this process is important, they fear that they will not be able to accommodate their employees’ goals and that there will be a mass exodus, leaving the company in shambles.
First, you will be surprised to find that when asked, most employees have fairly modest professional development ideas. Common requests include: attending an out-of-town conference, joining a professional organization, or being able to lead some projects. Some people will want to pursue degrees or certifications and there are a variety of options, many of which are online, for continuing education.
Be careful to set modest expectations when initiating this process. Have a budget (even if it’s small), some guidelines for what kinds of professional development the company is willing to support and/or finance, and proceed slowly. Include your employees in developing the program – it could actually be a professional development opportunity for a few people to form an ad hoc team and lead the company through the process.
It’s true that some people will reveal that they want to leave. Although this may seem disruptive and inconvenient for any employee to leave a small company, no one is irreplaceable. I don’t say this to be heartless. I say it because, as a small business owner for more than 25 years, I have always been able to turn a welcomed or unwelcomed departure into an opportunity to redefine a position or reposition the company. We get attached to the predictable because it seems easier, more comfortable; but comfort is not necessarily what will help a company or teams achieve their potential.
Making it safe for individuals to talk about their desire to separate allows for cleaner transitions for the individual and the company. When your employees live in fear of being escorted to the door at the hint of dissatisfaction, they look for external jobs in secret (often using company time and resources) and will leave without notice, causing a lot more disruption.
Additionally, when a company chooses to release an employee — for whatever reason — the costs can include: severance pay, outplacement services, higher unemployment taxes, and hiring a replacement.
Outplacement services are available to companies looking to transition employees, but professional development and continuing education is the better option. Trust me, in the long run, it is much less expensive and disruptive to the company, teams, and customer relations to provide professional development for your employees. In return, you will have a stronger, more effective and resilient workforce that actively engages in the success of the company because they want to be a part of a dynamic company.
UVM’s Leadership and Management Professional Certificate Program is designed for emerging leaders, supervisors, and managers of all levels, including professionals currently experiencing obstacles or looking for advancement, and executives who want to reassess their ability to influence others. The Leadership and Management Professional Certificate consists of eight individual leadership seminars that focus on developing leadership capabilities and skills in the context of today’s business and management challenges. The seminars are taught by industry experts and held in Burlington, VT. Professionals interested in focusing on a specific area of leadership and management may sign up for all eight seminars or individual sessions.
About the Author: Markey Read is chief consultant of Career Networks in Williston, Vermont. She teaches a Leading and Developing Employees workshop at UVM. She holds a Master’s Degree in Leadership and Group Dynamics from University of Vermont.
This article was originally published in August 2015.