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Every employee wants to feel they’re making an impact and that their employer values the experience and expertise they bring to the table. Whose responsibility is it to make sure there are sufficient professional development opportunities available for employees to grow?

You guessed it: everyone’s! Let’s dive into what professional development is, why every company needs a professional development plan, and what your company can do to become a place where employees soar towards their full potential.

Understanding professional development

Let’s start by talking about the different generations populating the workforce and the job market today. While the Silent Generation and Generation Z supply valuable talent, the former accounts for only 1% of today’s workforce and the latter group’s oldest members literally just graduated college this summer. That leaves Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millennials filling the seats.

What do those three groups — born over a 50-year span between 1946 and 1996 — want from their companies? Our data shows that while each group prioritizes and values different things, they all have 17 drivers of engagement in common. One of those is professional development.

So what is that? The official definition is “the process of improving and increasing capabilities of staff through access to education and training opportunities in the workplace, through outside organization, or through watching others perform the job.” The definition also explains that “professional development helps build and maintain morale of staff members, and is thought to attract higher quality staff to an organization.”

So, the overarching goal is to create a high-performance company that meets its objectives, while helping its employees progress in their respective career paths. Talent development is different from talent acquisition but they’re symbiotic, as top talent wants to work for companies with a strong professional development strategy.

“What’s needed is a deep-rooted conviction, among business unit heads and line leaders, that people really matter,” a McKinsey study concluded. “That leaders must develop the capabilities of employees, nurture their careers, and manage the performance of individuals and teams.”

Why do companies need a career development strategy for employees?

The quick answer is that most employees who value their own talent and earning potential want a clear pathway to growth. If they feel they can’t do that with your company, there will never be enough free snacks, meditating rooms, and kickboxing classes to lure them in, let alone keep them there to leverage their talent and achieve company objectives. Many CEOs and HR leaders acknowledge the need for professional development practices but few provide the coaching and training. The barriers often include a scarcity of time, managers focused on other higher-level strategic priorities, or lacking a culture of development throughout the company. Or, they simply miss the less obvious payoff of building and developing talent.

That organizational blind spot masks the underlying danger of active disengagement. Our 2018 study found that employees who are two to three years into tenure with a company struggle the most with the lack of engagement drivers utilization, role clarity, and professional development. Employees who have been with a company for two decades also struggle with professional development. What does this mean? Employees need to feel that the organization effectively uses their skills and abilities, need to be able to connect their daily work tasks to the purpose of the business, and have a manager who promotes and encourages their growth at the company.

If a company lacks those engagement drivers, an employee can begin to regress into apathy or join the 18.4% of employees in our study who scored as “disengaged to extremely disengaged.” Those are workers who carry a minimum workload needed to collect a paycheck and go home. The organizational ecosystem suffers exponentially if an employee becomes disengaged and feels they have to leave, possibly taking their expertise to a competitor. If employees are treading water, the company is treading water. By focusing efforts on a professional development strategy, business leaders can improve engagement and unlock better business outcomes.

It must start at the top of the organization and filter through the management structure. A PDI Ninth House study found that as leaders move up the corporate ladder, their ability to develop others decreased. It spotlights one of the most important competencies of leaders — the ability to build talent. “Exemplary leaders have differing styles, approaches, and traits,” Matt Myatt of professional development firm N2growth said. “But they all share the commonality of placing the care and development of their people first.”

What Can Companies Do to Help Employees Grow?

While each company needs a professional development strategy tailored specifically to its own culture and workforce, there are three keys to consider to do it right.

First, understand what engages your employees to make sure you’re actually engaging them. All 17 engagement drivers are important to keeping your team dynamics healthy, but the three groups that make up the majority of your workforce — Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials — are driven by specific things. For example, Baby Boomers enjoy purpose and utilization, but need more activities like partnering with younger co-workers to build friendships. Xers prioritize being valued and learning, but need more team-building initiatives to encourage rapport through relationships and shared values. Millennials thrive on purpose and shared values, yet can more fully buy into the company mission with corporate philanthropy opportunities. It’s critical to measure the drivers of engagement for your workforce to see exactly where foundational improvements to procedure and culture can be made.

Second, employees must take responsibility for their own careers — and you can help them do that. If individual employees are not actively planning their own lives and career trajectory, they aren’t likely to successfully participate in any development initiatives you create. Make sure managers and HR leaders maintain an open dialogue with direct reports to understand what an employee’s professional goals are. This will help determine how those goals might align with the company’s needs and possibly create organic opportunities for career advancement. Motivated employees can accelerate professional growth through self-directed learning and participation.

Third, executives and managers must take responsibility for developing employees. Make development a central part of your job, look for ways to support employees in their efforts to learn and grow, and hold employees accountable for their development. Managers especially need to make sure they have the right people doing the right work now and in the future. HR must understand the experience, expertise, and goals of employees so that successors for positions can be groomed, talent can be identified to fill newly created roles, and personnel can possibly cross over into different departments for greater effectiveness.

Learning from experience is the primary way people develop the skills to be effective. Your professional development strategy can include providing on-the-job experience with assignments that add breadth or depth to an employee’s work, tasks that stretch them to learn new skills, new roles that give them the career experiences they need for future positions, and certain types of assignments just for employee development. Provide encouragement and feedback along the way, and ask what they’re learning as a result of any new opportunities.

Next Steps

Employee development is a strategic tool for an organization’s continuing growth, productivity, and ability to retain valuable employees. Organizations need to make employee development a shared business and HR responsibility. Business leaders need to actively engage in the employee development process and hold themselves accountable.

Make sure you understand your company’s engagement data to craft a strategy that engages your workforce and positions your managers to own professional development initiatives for their teams. Your employees and your bottom line will thank you.

Get started on the road to your own professional development strategy by downloading our latest Employee Engagement Trends report. In it, you’ll find data-driven trends from thousands of employees across multiple industries, providing deep insight into how today’s workforce thinks. Need to know how to engage your employees for optimized performance? Emplify has the solution.

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