This is the fourth article in our series on the Simply Irresistible model, (reach prior articles here), and in this we discuss one of the most urgent and critical issues in business today: providing growth opportunities to employees.
Source: Deloitte Consulting LLP © 2018
Why growth and development Is urgent
Let’s start with a little motivation. In today’s hyper-growth economy (e.g., unemployment rate at record lows, technology advancing rapidly, companies reorganizing around automation), worker skills have become the currency for success. As we like to put it, “The Learning Curve is the Earning Curve”—and people know this. In the most recent Deloitte Millennial survey (which surveyed more than 60,000 young professionals and workers), people rated “opportunity to learn” as their #3 criteria for a job (tied with “flexibility”). And yet they also see most organizations as failing to provide them with the skills they need to be relevant in the next wave of “Industry 4.0.”
We’ve always looked at employee learning from two perspectives. From an organizational perspective, the CEO and other line executives want people to be proficient, productive, and on-track. People with deep skills and proficiency are simply able to get things done faster, produce fewer errors, and have more fun. In Teresa Amabile’s book, The Progress Principle, she discovered that the single most important event leading to positive inner work life is making progress in meaningful work, even seemingly incremental progress or “small wins.” This is the progress principle.1 Certainly, nothing is more frustrating at work than not knowing how to do your job well, or worse, knowing what to do, doing your job day-to-day, and yet seeing no progress come from your efforts.
On the employee side, we are all becoming continuous learners. It doesn’t matter if you’re a software engineer, a nurse, a salesperson, or a senior executive—if you aren’t reading, talking with peers, going to conferences, and continuously re-educating yourself, you’re falling behind. So, providing growth gives people an existential sense of progress, economic value, and upward mobility.
How is this done well?
Employee development is a complex and richly studied topic. In this model we point out four important elements, and each are very relevant and critical today. It’s not enough to just put out a great new learning portal or teach a bunch of courses. These are important, but it goes much further. Let’s cover each of the topics in turn:
- Training and support on the job
The first part of growth is making sure that each individual employee has the support he or she needs to do their job well. This means providing a tapestry of training, tools, support, and coaching to help people do their job well.
In the early weeks of a new job, employees need a lot of onboarding. They need to get to know the role, the systems, the people, and the rules. Leading companies invest heavily in this time, because it establishes the ground rules for success and gives every employee a set of cultural values they carry into their career going forward.
We’ve talked with dozens of companies about their on-the-job support models over the years and they vary from highly sophisticated tools (telecommunications companies for example) to almost nothing (many startups). When you, as a customer, call a service agent or talk with a sales person, you hope they really know how to answer your question. When a service rep comes to your office or home to fix something, you really hope they don’t break something and make it worse. All this takes off-the-clock and on-the-job training.
In our latest research we call this “learning in the flow of work,” and today there are tools like micro-learning to help. But in most cases this simply means developing performance support tools, checklists, onboarding, and manager coaching to help people feel productive early in their role.
One of the pioneers in this space was a British telecommunications company we wrote about a few years ago. They train their new service reps in detail, but to go even further, they give them an online learning platform that lets them ask questions, search for answers, and even upload videos of problems they’ve solved. This new approach, providing continuous learning support for employees on the job, is growing explosively, giving fuel to the fast-growing learning experience and micro-learning market. Nearly any company can afford to do this; it just takes focus.
Remember also that in any career, most growth occurs without an upward promotion. In our careers (Josh over 40 years now, and Burt over 30), we’ve had many jobs that were lateral promotions. Josh went from customer service, to sales, to product marketing to business development, to corporate marketing, to becoming a CEO over 25 years, and rarely got promoted unless it involved changing companies. Burt served in the military for five years coming out of college and has had a long tenure at Deloitte, with many roles along the way, yet only two promotions in the military and three “promotions” at Deloitte. For both of us, every new role or job assignment taught us many things—we’ve loved them all for the new challenges and opportunities they brought.
Josh was able to work for some leading companies (e.g., Exxon, IBM, Sybase, and a few startups) and these companies were willing to invest in his development and learning despite several lateral moves. Yes, Josh’s salary inched up, but real vertical growth only occurred every two to three years. Burt’s career has progressed on a steady path at Deloitte, with new roles and new assignments marking his career growth much more so than titles and promotions.
Today most younger employees are quite impatient about their job titles and career level—but we suggest they are making a mistake. Most of us will have careers that last 50 years or more, so we have plenty of time to get promoted. It’s just as important to learn as it is to progress, and your company should support this. There are many ways to enable this: create professional career paths (Deloitte just created a whole series of new senior career roles for its specialists); give people new titles (the title “Senior” or “Consultant” or “Principal” or “Fellow” is often used for specialist roles); pay people for their value, not level (a big issue we’ll discuss in another article); and just reward and tell stories about people who changed roles and brought a new perspective to the business.
Many of the companies we visit and work with have a formal “rule” or expectation that people change jobs every few years. This culture creates a dynamism inside the company, it shows a respect for learning, and it fosters a path for growth.
- Facilitated talent mobility
The second practice to consider is your company’s (or team’s) ability to facilitate talent mobility. In other words, if an individual says to his or her manager “I want to become an IOT engineer” or “I want to become a sales manager,” how do we take this information and give this person an opportunity to learn this new role?
As most of you know well, taking on a new role is a huge opportunity for learning—but the company has to support the change. Most companies are not designed to facilitate mobility—in fact, many are designed to lock you in place. Your manager has targets, you have production goals, and when you change jobs you move from “highly productive” to “brand new,” radically lowering your output. So, for an employee to take this risk, and for a manager to “let you go,” you need a value system that promotes mobility. Are your managers talent hoarders or talent producers? This is an important cultural topic to address.
Second, when someone moves into a new role, even if the culture supports it, will the “receiving manager” give your employee the time and support to learn their new job? In most cases a hiring manager would much rather hire an outsider who “knows the job” than take an internal candidate who is new to the role. You need to incent managers to look at internal candidates. Ultimately, as much of our research has proven, hiring an internal candidate offers many benefits—they know the company, they have relationships, they fit the culture, and they know the customers and products well. But without good incentives and onboarding programs to support these internal moves, people can languish in their silos, or the opposite extreme, get shoved into rotational assignments where they often fail to get traction.
Josh remembers vividly a meeting with the SVP of HR for a very large consumer packaged goods company years ago. This SVP had discovered that his company was losing some of their most valued, experienced product leaders because they were taking international assignments and then returning to headquarters without a job. This “derailer analysis” showed him that each of these transitions needed a carefully facilitated process, so people weren’t shipped off to a rotational job (ostensibly as a development opportunity) and then not afforded a “right of return.”
- Self-directed, dynamic learning
The third practice is to have a fantastic tapestry of formal and informal learning programs. We know how hard it is to run L&D well—but right now you have better tools available to do that than we’ve seen in a decade. You should have a rich set of in-person, online, and micro-learning content available to your employees. If you’re a small company you can sign up for online libraries from many vendors and you can now buy a Learning Experience Platform that enables your employees to share and publish their own content.
It’s important to realize that face-to-face learning is more important than ever. In many leading learning companies, courses are taught by leaders and internal experts, not trainers. Deloitte, for example, has no expert trainers. Nearly every course our professionals take is taught by leaders. This supports a tremendous cycle of learning, and lets instructional designers serve as instructional coaches, not teachers.
We know most companies have lots of courses and the library of offerings gets expensive. Companies should revisit their content libraries every one to two years and weed out the topics that are no longer relevant or perhaps just out of date. Let usage statistics guide you. You should outsource any programs that are non-strategic (the Learning Investment Model below can help), and custom build only the courses that are highly strategic to your company. This simple chart can help you think this through.
Fig: Learning Investment Model © 2007 Bersin & Associates
- High-impact learning culture
Finally, perhaps the most important topic of all: you have to build, reinforce, and constantly care for your corporate learning culture. One of the most interesting studies we ever did was on this topic, and we found a whole set of practices (most of which are not in L&D) that drive a culture of learning.
For example, do your managers take time to discuss mistakes, errors, and failures? Do you have after-action reviews? Do you give employees time and budget to learn, go to conferences, or attend external programs? Are managers and leaders incented to teach and develop others? Our research in this area carefully assessed 40 cultural practices (Bersin members can get the details here) and found that companies exhibiting these attributes were 35 percent more likely to be market leaders in their segments, enjoy 40 percent higher profits, and accrue many other financial benefits.
Bottom Line: Development and growth matter more than ever
The bottom line on this chapter is simple. Every penny you spend on employee growth is well worth it. We’ve done many ROI analyses of training over the years, and the return is always many times the investment. How much does it cost in lost productivity for your employees to feel uncertain about their jobs? How much does it cost for a team to fail to produce their product on time or miss their sales target? How much does it cost when you lose a high performer for more growth opportunity at a competitor? The impact of learning is far bigger than you realize—this is why the most successful companies invest in learning in both good times and bad.
And this is our final point. We know it’s easy to invest in learning when times are good. You also have to do it when times are bad. One surefire way to overcome a slump, turnaround, or poor product cycle is to give people the time to learn, think, reflect, and develop a new approach. For all the years Josh was at IBM, the company never lost its ability to learn. These types of enduring organizations have thrived during many product cycles, many economic cycles, and lots of very tough competitors. How do they do it? They help their people learn—unleashing the energy, innovation, and passion of their people.
Stay tuned for part 5, where we will discuss the attributes of an environment rich in “trust in leadership.”
1 Teresa Amabile, The Progress Principle, the single most important event leading to positive inner work life is making progress in meaningful work, even seemingly incremental progress or “small wins.”