Providing Learning & Growth Opportunities for Employees, Even in Austere Times
Finding low-cost learning opportunities can be the difference between keeping an employee and losing them. According to an international poll by McKinsey, 41% of workers who quit their jobs in recent years did so because of a lack of career development opportunities, the most commonly cited reason for voluntary departure.“It’s important that we’re retaining our employees because we need that knowledge internally,” said Nicole Underwood, VP of HR business partners at visual media company Getty Images. The company’s workers are highly specialized, and it can be tough to find replacements. If they’re not able to backfill a vacated position, Getty offers others the chance to volunteer for the responsibilities on the table, opening up reach projects and promotable work. Underwood sees it as an investment “not only in the individual who gets the opportunity, but in the others who are surrounding them and see this as an opportunity to look for their own.” Watching colleagues grow can spark the motivation to do the same.During From Day One’s May virtual conference, Underwood and four other leaders in people operations and learning and development participated in a panel discussion, which I moderated, on how to provide career development opportunities for employees even in austere times.Fellow panelist Madhukar Govindaraju, the CEO at coaching and networking software company Numly, said that in the past he’s been in the unfortunate position of choosing who gets access to opportunities like coaches and mentoring. It’s a choice he’s not willing to accept anymore.“Even in a public company, I could afford executive coaching for only the top 4% of my organization. What do you do with the bottom 96%? Do you tell them to wait until they get promoted? You have to do something about it,” he said.“We do find ways to be scrappy,” said Jennifer Muszik, the head of worldwide field learning at biotech company Biogen. For instance, if you’re forced to roll back a third-party coaching app, replace it with an internal program. “Not everybody can get a coach, but who can get a mentor?” Biogen pays for some of its leaders to train as certified coaches with the expectation that they pass that knowledge along. “They’re going out into the organization and coaching others, then others get the benefit of that skill, and then can apply that within their own teams,” she said.“Internal talent is an amazing resource, and I’m always surprised at how interested people are to hear from one another,” said Greg Hill, the chief people officer at corporate wellness and fitness center operator Exos. He calls it “relatable learning.”The panelists from top left, moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, Madhukar Govindaraju of Numly, Nicole Underwood of Getty Images, Jennifer Muszik of Biogen, Gina Larson of Teneo, and Greg Hill of Exos (photo by From Day One)Internal programs have their limits, and not everyone who wants a shot will get one, so panelists recommended selecting workers who already have specific goals in mind. “A lot of people say ‘I want to grow,’ and then when we talk to them about how they want to grow, they’re not really sure,” Hill noted.Gina Larsen, the senior director of talent development at PR advisory and executive consulting firm Teneo, said she likes to identify an employee with leadership potential, someone on the succession plan, but with some obstacle in their way, like a missing or underdeveloped skill.If you’re in a position where you do have to roll back a development program or be more selective with participants, speak frankly, but don’t spook the staff, said Hill. “Personal professional development and career growth is a non-starter, if you don’t offer it in this day and age,” he said. So rather than telling employees, “we’re not doing it right now,” tell them, “we’re going to do it differently for a while.” Some employers are designing elaborate development programs inside their organizations. At Getty Images, cohorts of about 25 employees go through a nine-month intensive where they learn how the business works and receive mentorship from senior leaders. At the end, they’re expected to document and pitch a new business idea.Not all proposals are chosen, but some are. Underwood said that one of the first cohorts came up with a mentoring program for members of underrepresented demographics. “It’s been wildly successful, and all of our senior leadership team has been tapped,” said Underwood. “We’ve seen over 75% of these employees have been promoted into the next role.”If you don’t have the HR budget for learning and development, check the sofa cushions, panelists said. Sales teams have learning and development budgets, and so do employee resource groups, said Govindaraju. “We have had very good success working with companies that have ERGs that are already chartered to drive engagement because now we’re bringing learning and engagement into one bucket.”If budget isn’t the problem, then it’s time, Govindaraju added. The HR department is overloaded, as are people managers, and there’s often little time left for running skill development programs. “Managers [are] already burdened with various things. Now you’re adding an element of learning how to code, and now suddenly you are responsible for the development of your team members,” he said. Teneo’s Larsen argued that austerity doesn’t require sacrificing ambition. When time is a luxury, she chooses fewer but bigger projects. Teneo recently flew in 25 senior leaders from around the world with the remit to collaborate and grow the business plan. It was a huge financial investment–but she was confident in the returns. If they put in $150,000 and just one of those leaders produces a $500,000 increase in revenue, the investment would be worth it.“It goes back to rigor and discipline,” said Larsen. “I think a really important part is not overburdening the learning team, because this takes a lot of time. So if we do an ambitious program that makes a big impact, you say goodbye to another program or two that’s less impactful so that you have the bandwidth and opportunity to make something that [requires more money], but is super impactful.”Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women's experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Quartz at Work, Fast Company, Digiday’s Worklife, and Food Technology, among others.