This is the second in a multi-part series about career development in small businesses. This article looks at how to create a career development program and plan that works for your employees and enhances your business.
As we mentioned in the first post of this series, most business owners understand the importance of developing employees. Unfortunately, intentions and action don’t always match. Most employers admit that they don’t devote the necessary time and resources to career development.
But it’s worth devoting some time and resources to determine how you might be able to implement some type of development plan for your employees. It’s not just a “nice thing to do”— the value of having a learning and career development program extends beyond the obvious benefits the individual employee and positively impacts the business.
“Our research shows that the #3 priority issue is the need to revamp and improve employee learning. This is not only a problem of skills development, but also one of engagement. The research shows that companies with high-performing learning environments rank in the top for employee engagement—demonstrating how important learning is to engaging and empowering people.”
These career development opportunities help small businesses recruit candidates and subsequently retain their engaged employees. Positive “people results” in the form of more engaged employees also makes it more likely that the bottom line will benefit, too.
According to Training Magazine’s Training Industry Report, in 2014 small businesses spent an average of $1,238 on training expenditures per learner; with an average of 42.2 hours of training per employee. While it’s important to calibrate what you’re spending on development against other businesses in your market it’s also important to keep in mind that there’s more to learning and career development than hours used and dollars spent.
Development can occur by providing more responsibilities and increasing an employee’s level of influence. For example, development might look like inclusion in strategy discussions or an expansion over what products and services the employee manages. These types of development can be more meaningful for an employee’s long-term career than a new title in their email signature.
The best way to approach career development for your small business is to create a unique program that works within your business structure, begins as part of the onboarding process, increases employee retention, and hopefully has a positive impact on productivity and profits. A basic approach to building a career program includes integrating essential features by:
- Identifying the roles your business requires
- Talking with employees about careers
- Providing the process and the possibilities for development
- Helping employees succeed
Identify the roles your business requires
Small businesses have different duties and positions that must be handled, but may not have the luxury of a dedicated employee to manage each task. Start looking at career development for your organization by creating an “ideal” organizational chart that outlines your ideal structure:
- Identify all the roles you need to conduct business.
- Define each role.
- Determine existing employees that hold the position now, or could do so in the future.
Create career maps
This organizational chart helps you understand the immediate needs of your business when it comes to talent, and it provides a preview of the areas that will grow so that you can start mapping out career development opportunities for your employees.
For example, maybe the person you hired to work at the front desk has demonstrated his financial acumen. He might be able to develop into the role of assistant account. The person who manages shipping and receiving also speaks Spanish. Your long-term plans involve Spanish-speaking international markets—could this employee develop her sales skills to eventually work on the team that launches your product internationally?
To have an organization that makes career development a priority, it’s important to regularly review the organizational chart. Look at the possibilities and keep an open mind so you can develop the employees who are performing well and who have a desire to grow within your organization.
Talk with employees about careers
Career development is a two-way street on which the employer and the worker travel together. This mutual obligation to look for growth opportunities requires regular performance conversations. During these conversations, employees can bring up their professional aspirations as well as ideas for how they can reach their goals. At the same time, managers are more likely to gain an understanding of employees’ goals, and can support their team by offering suggestions and possible development opportunities.
For small businesses, in which moving “up the ladder” might be impossible, it’s important to talk about career development in a way that supports any movement. An article in the Association for Training and Development’s magazine described this approach as “lattice development”. This approach:
- Views all career movement—whether up, sideways, or down—as successful.
- Supports career progression that meets the employee’s desires and current life situation.
- Evaluates performance in outcomes, not in hours spent at work.
In a small business, it’s perhaps even easier for employees to take advantage of their development and proactively seek out opportunities to learn new skills and contribute to the company. They shouldn’t wait for management to assign new responsibilities.
“If someone wants to grow in their role, all they have to do is volunteer for new kinds of work. This allows for continuous learning and growth,” says Kate Salmon, who works as a Communications Specialist at Learnography an organization with about 20 employees.
“Most small organizations don’t have the capacity to hire specialists in every area of their work, so the team is comprised of generalists taking on a wide variety of things. At Learnography, our marketing team is cross-functional, so our assignments are often based on our work load and interests instead of a clear-cut responsibility,” she says.
Provide the process and possibilities
A career development plan should include a set of objectives and the path to achieving those goals. The employer’s responsibility is to provide a framework for the process, as well as some options and ways for employees to increase their skills. Historically, the standard approach to development may have been to send an employee to a workshop, but that’s not the only answer. Other less-expensive options include:
Look for areas in the organization that could use some extra help or attention. Uncover problems that need a solution or roles that need to be filled. Assign an employee with untapped skills or an interest in that area to fill that role for a designated amount of time, or put them on a project to review an issue and deliver a solution.
Books and education
It may be seen as dated, but when it comes to training and development, books still work. As Josh Bersin reported in Forbes, younger companies such as the tech firm HubSpot are focused on development. At HubSpot, employees receive free books and education.
Look around for employees who have accomplished significant goals, or who have expertise in a given area. Set them up to mentor other employees in those areas. A mentor can help provide employees with ideas about how to improve, how to address career obstacles, or provide insights and valuable information about what has worked in their career.
Employees don’t have to leave the comfort of their work environment to learn something new. Set up a way for existing employees to share their knowledge by offering in-house workshops led by their colleagues. Let the technical expert share his word-processing tips and tricks in a 1-hour class each week. Ask the marketing lead to teach everyone how to use Twitter. Using internal instructors not only saves money, it also offers the instructor an opportunity to develop their facilitation skills and helps establish a community focus on development.
Salmon has first-hand experience with a few of these approaches to career development, including the opportunity to expand her current role for a trial period.
“I’ve always expressed a desire to grow in my role, and an opportunity presented itself a few months ago as my team grew and my boss became less available to help with the day-to-day task management,” she says.
“I offered to take on more managerial responsibilities, and we worked together on a proposal that determined the scope and the objective of this new role. We presented the idea of a ‘trial promotion’ to our CEO who, after doing her due diligence and asking some very important questions, agreed to a four-month trial to see how it worked. We’re in the fourth month now, and I think we’re all comfortable calling it a success,” Salmon adds.
Use career development to help employees succeed
With a career development program, employees can set goals, learn from what they achieve, and demonstrate positive business results. As employees actively work to develop in their career, be sure that you’re providing a way for them to track what they do and capture any relevant results. It can be as simple as starting a journal or online document that tracks what the employee does, and any results those efforts had on the company. The employee and their manager should use this tracking document during their regular status meetings. This way the manager always has the information required to discuss performance and growth opportunities with the larger management team.
When employees know that their organizations encourage career development, they feel hopeful about their long-term career path and are more likely to engage with the team on a deeper level. These programs help boost employees’ confidence in their skills; they enjoy putting their new strengths to use at work, and they appreciate the support of their manager and other coaches within the company.
“I think internal coaching is a great way to approach career development. The informal feedback and advocacy that’s afforded by assigning someone to take responsibility for another person’s development is incredible,” says Salmon.
“I’m fortunate to have a boss who not only supports my career goals, but my personal and interpersonal needs. That human connection is the strongest asset of a small organization, and it should be used to its fullest advantage.”
As you put a career development program in place, include an annual program evaluation as part of your process. Make sure you’re achieving the goals you set out to achieve. If you want to increase employee engagement, ask employees to complete a satisfaction survey. Did you meet your goal? If you were you trying to improve your retention rates, identify any changes in employee retention since you implemented the program. If you’re not achieving results, look for ways to improve or modify the program to better meet employee and business needs.
Recognizing individual talents and assigning employees to roles that make the most use of their skills is one of the keys to successful talent management. Organizations that provide opportunities for employees to grow and develop can maintain institutional knowledge, save on costs associated with turnover, and most importantly create a place where people enjoy working for the long-term.