Employee development is a critical issue for any business: People don’t just stay as they were when you found them—they change and develop over time. So you want them to grow in a direction that suits you, to make the most of their talents, and to add better skills to your organization.
Before you think about developing your employee development, though, you have to ask yourself how you can make sure you’re encouraging people in the right direction and not just going through the motions.
In one sense it’s obvious why employee development matters. You want the people working for you to be better skilled and more able to fulfill the tasks set before them. Getting recruitment right is one step towards that, but you won’t often find the perfect candidate, and even when you do you’ll want them to keep learning and to stay ahead of the competition.
Training is vital to the skill mix of your company, but employee development is about more than that. Employee development is vital to employee engagement. Putting time, effort, and money into developing your employees shows them that they are important to the business, that you care about them and what they are capable of doing.
It shows that you have a long-term commitment to their presence within your business, allowing them to become emotionally invested in your company and what it does. It answers your employees’ implicit question of "why should I be loyal to your company?" and gives them a reason to engage with you.
Employees are the best way that companies have of standing out from the pack and of differentiating themselves in a sustainable, long-term fashion. If you compete purely on prices, then others can undercut you. If you compete purely on product then you’ll be in trouble when your current product loses its novelty or someone else imitates your most valuable features. And if you compete through marketing, then you’ll provide a hollow experience customers will tire of.
But if you compete by developing the best possible employees then you will have a real and enduring edge that gives you better products and services again and again.
It’s important that you give your employees the skills that they need to do their jobs. This means not just the obvious training—the latest software for software developers or the latest project techniques for project managers.
It means giving them skills from outside their area that will help them understand each other and get new insights into their work. Train marketers on the processes that create the products they market. Train designers in marketing so that they know how their products will be sold. Let the ideas mingle and cross-fertilize into something new.
But go beyond those technical skills too. More fundamental human abilities like the ability to trust or to the take the initiative can lead to superior work and a far better culture in the workplace. We tend to treat these behaviors as if they just happen, but they don’t. We usually learn them as we grow up and then stagnate at a certain point in adulthood, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
Modern psychological insights and counseling skills let us nurture these tendencies better than ever before. These are behaviors that can be taught and encouraged, and just like technical skills they should be developed.
The structure you use for development matters just as much as the details sitting inside it.
The traditional way of approaching development was as rigid as it was off-putting. Annual and bi-annual appraisals in which strengths were applauded, weaknesses were identified, and plans were put in place to remedy those weaknesses. For a few weeks each year managers and their teams would scrabble to pull the evidence together and write up reports before forgetting the results for the next eleven months. Even if development plans were maintained they were primarily about filling the gaps and demonstrating attention to the weaknesses rather than developing strengths.
This once-a-year approach encouraged complacency. It’s far better to break out of that structure and ensure regular, meaningful development meetings. Change goals as they become redundant or something better shows up, not just because it’s January. Be flexible so that objectives and development plans stay relevant. Build on strengths as well as addressing weaknesses to create real expertise within your business.
This doesn’t mean giving in to vagueness and objectives that are never met. You should still be specific and open about the results that you want, so that people know what is expected of them. But make sure that is the scaffolding around which meaningful development is built, not the chains weighing it down.
Employee development isn’t just for those at the top of the business. It sets the tone throughout your organization, showing people that they are valued and encouraging them to do their best. It’s a difficult balancing act, finding the sweet spot between flexibility and firmness, skills and behaviors, the interests of the employee and those of the business. But these factors aren’t opposed. Rather, they are parts of the development mix, allowing you to build a pattern that suits your business.
Because if your business matters then your employees matter, and so does their development.
—Mark Lukens is a founding partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20-plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including health care, education, government, and talent/human resources.