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Hit The Ground Running

How To Get Employees To Care About Their Professional Development

It might not seem like a thrilling task, but professional development can be a positive experience if you do it right.

[Photo: Flickr user Apps for Europe]

Jim sits in front of his workstation with a grin on his face as he prints off his training certificate. It’s proof that he completed a compulsory four-hour online course on workplace safety; in reality, it only took Jim 18 minutes to click through the videos and pass the assessment with educated guesses.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s typical of many companies’ approach to professional development, which is scary when you consider that U.S. companies spent more than $70 billion on corporate training in 2013.

To employees, training is often irrelevant, dull, and compliance-oriented, and leaders sometimes make the mistake of thinking training is a waste of time and money when they don’t see dramatic results right away. But when professional development programs work, they help companies attract and retain top talent, increase employee engagement and satisfaction, and boost innovation. Most importantly, when your team is excited about professional development, your employees are more likely to gain and retain knowledge that they can translate into real business results.

So why do so many hate professional development? It’s not the training itself, but how it’s executed. Here are a few pitfalls of ineffective professional development:

1. It’s Repetitive And Boring

We need variety. My employees can only watch so many videos and attend so many seminars before they’re bored out of their minds. It’s important to find fresh ways to challenge even superstar employees and give them more than an excuse to fly out of town for a conference.

2. Development Isn’t Personal

Employees often view training as something that’s mandatory and irrelevant to their personal needs. This can happen when training just offers more of what they already know or when it doesn’t take their life stage into account. For instance, an employee fresh out of college will probably be more enthusiastic about career development than an industry veteran who’s 30 years into his career.

3. Leaders Just Want To Check It Off

Candor is the foundation of trust. If employees don’t think you’re candid with them, they won’t trust you to supply the critical information they need to succeed. The only way to encourage candor across an organization is to talk about it constantly. Even then, it takes time, coaching, and reinforcement.

Companies often approach professional development with gusto—often following a period of slow growth or high employee turnover. But professional development isn’t something you can tackle once a year and cross off your to-do list. It requires continual effort throughout the year to check in with employees and set new goals.

The average workplace makes some or all of these mistakes, so it’s no wonder that only about half of non-managerial employees believe their companies genuinely care for their well-being. But training doesn’t have to induce groans and eye-rolling.

The factors above are honest mistakes, but if you want to reap the benefits of professional development, infrequent off-site training and the occasional conference won’t cut it. I’ve tried to make professional development more effective at my company with these five steps:

1. Make Professional Growth Personal

The key to effective goal-setting is making goals personal. Any fitness expert will tell you that it’s not enough to want to "be healthier"; it’s much more effective to envision what that means to you individually, whether that’s fitting into your jeans or being fit enough to run a 5K.

Managers should sit down with every employee on a quarterly basis and discuss professional goals in a personal context. By taking 10 minutes every two or three weeks and breaking people into small groups to discuss their personal and professional goals, we allow people to create relationships with teammates that will help them engage in their own development.

2. Create Opportunities For Mentorship

People really like learning from others, yet mentorship rarely happens organically. Our leaders pick specific high performers who are interested in mentoring another colleague. I formally ask each person to be a mentor for a particular person, or ask who he or she would work well with in a mentor/mentee relationship.

3. Be Candid About Your Own Growth

You have to show employees how the leadership team values reflection, growth, and development. When employees see firsthand that it’s okay to be imperfect (and our team can tell you the many ways that I’m imperfect), they’ll be more likely to admit their own shortcomings and take advantage of opportunities to improve.

4. Make Growth Part Of The Weekly Conversation

First, I have team members write down their personal and professional long-term goals. Then, managers schedule a one-on-one conversation every month specifically dedicated to feedback about those goals. We document the discussion, then we revisit it before the next meeting so the team member and his or her manager can talk about what’s working, what’s needed, and what’s superfluous with respect to that team member’s goals. We can then revise the goals as needed.

5. Let Staff Share Experiences

We host brown bag lunches and encourage team members to share anything they think would be interesting or relevant to the team. Our "brown bags" are a way for our team to come together for an hour around a dedicated topic, which can be company-related or completely separate from work. We’ve had presentations about everything from professional poker careers to Nobel Prize-winning physicists.

We still have plenty of work to do to make professional development relevant and useful to all employees. But if professional development is a priority for your company, you can either waste a lot of paper on meaningless certificates or use training to energize your workforce and improve your company in the long run. By personalizing your efforts and encouraging your team to be candid and proactive, your business can start singing a new tune.

Jason Lange is the CEO and cofounder of BloomBoard, a company dedicated to bettering the K-12 education space by providing a marketplace for personalizing educator development. BloomBoard uses the data collected from free observational and evaluation tools to create individualized learning plans and recommendations for teacher growth. Connect with Jason on LinkedIn.

Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program.

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