Employee Development on a Shoestring

Boosting skills needn't take much extra time or money, but it does require thought and effort.

Your organization is only as effective as the people who work there. And the best way to develop an effective and motivated workforce is to keep people challenged. So why is employee development often overlooked at U.S. companies?

A study by Lominger Limited Inc., a leadership development consultancy in Minneapolis, looked at how well managers at many levels and across multiple industries performed in 67 defined competencies. At the bottom of the list was "developing direct reports."

Another workforce development firm, Development Dimensions International Inc. in Pittsburgh, reports that "developing others" is rated the lowest of 22 leadership competencies.

Experts estimate that about one in three workers has a written skills-development plan and is executing it. But are these employees getting better? At which skills? How good do they have to be? And at what? And what about the other two-thirds of workers? Are they getting better at anything that matters?

Consider your own organization. How much more successful could your IT department and company be if your development efforts were truly focused? Are managers rated on how well they help direct reports develop skills?

Even when employees are given training opportunities, it's not always clear that the training results in the expected outcome. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, who wrote Working With Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 1998), "Estimates of the extent to which skills taught in company training programs carry over into day-to-day practice on the job are as low -- and gloomy -- as a mere 10%."

To managers, that news is disheartening. But there is hope. Many organizations give high priority to developing employees, and -- training budget or no training budget -- anyone can do it. So before you say, "I can't do any skills development because the training budget was reduced to zero," consider this statistic from Lominger: 70% of what we learn as adults comes from our work experiences, 20% from a coach, and 10% from classes, workshops, books and articles.

Given that finding, the bulk of any individual's development plan should consist of work activities. And there are some specific and tangible things a manager can do to help employees develop their skills:

David Putrich

David Putrich

Image Credit: Sal Skog

• First, let your boss know what you're doing; you might want to establish a performance goal for yourself of developing your people. If the management team hasn't done much in terms of workforce planning, you may need to discuss future directions.

• Set aside time with each employee to discuss his career goals, particularly his understanding of potential roles in the organization. Suggest that the employee find a mentor to counsel him on long-term goals.

• Discuss the employee's short- and long-term development needs toward those goals.

• Help the employee understand which skills -- technical, process and interpersonal -- your department and company need. Role definitions come in very handy here.

• Help the employee understand his current skill level and desired level.

• Coach the employee on his development strategies. Where appropriate, suggest courses or workshops. Most important, identify specific work activities -- a project, a committee, a special team, even something outside of work such as a volunteer activity -- that will help. Make sure participating in these activities is included among the employee's performance goals.

• Stress that skills development comes in small, day-to-day steps, and reflect that in the development plan. Suggest a peer who can coach the employee, as well as a role model.

• Provide constructive feedback and encouragement as the employee makes changes in behavior.

• Encourage the employee to reflect on his plan and efforts: what worked, what didn't and what else to try.

Organizations that put a high priority on employee development stay fresher and are more capable of changing as business conditions require. Moreover, we know that challenges and opportunities to learn drive higher levels of job satisfaction, commitment to the organization, mental and physical health, and life satisfaction.

Employee development can be a simple process. It doesn't need to take much extra time, nor does it require a big budget. Can you afford not to invest your time and energy in developing your people?

Putrich recently retired from the central IT group at 3M Co., where he spent his last seven years working in employee development. He is a consultant and an adjunct professor at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn., and Cardinal Stritch University in Edina, Minn. Contact him at djweb@mn.rr.com.

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