By Diane M. Calabrese / Published February 2019
When an individual develops by learning and mastering new skills and information, communities and society also reap benefits. Every activity—from church to sports—gives people the chance to develop. The workplace should also be in the mix.
“We encourage and offer opportunities to employees to attend classes, conferences, and other educational opportunities that will focus on skills involved in our industry,” says Doug Rucker, owner of Clean and Green Solutions in Porter, TX. “When warranted, we will even pay for the expenses involved to attend such events.”
The exchange of information and the opportunity for employees to learn does not end at the off-site events. “Many of our employees have attended several UAMCC conventions,” says Rucker. “Following such events, we have a time for them to share what they have learned in staff meetings.”
Structured settings are merely one way to facilitate employee development. “I think one of the most important ways to motivate my employees is by being a great role model,” says Rucker.
“I want my employees to see that I am also taking advantage of opportunities for continuing education and improving my skills as well,” explains Rucker. “Having our professional society certifications on our uniforms, trucks, and media items, I feel, is one way of showing our commitment to furthering our development as a company.”
There’s a thorny issue that arises when employers consider fostering employee development. Some express concern that if they offer employees too many opportunities to learn and grow stronger in their abilities, the employees will become exceptionally good—outstanding—and then leave to take another job. The other jobs might even be with competitors.
So we put the issue to Rucker. How does he respond? “Wow, with great pride and humbleness at the same time is how I respond.”
Rucker explains that he sees the outcome as wholly positive. “What an awesome testimony to the job we have done training and developing employees,” he says. “Seeing someone further their career and opportunity for the better is always a satisfying and rewarding feeling. And then we get to do it all over again. It’s a great feeling.”
Indeed, the chance to repeat a cycle of positives fuels the quest for excellence. By surpassing the best to date, there’s a new and higher standard—just waiting to be surpassed—by individuals and organizations of all sorts, including companies.
The uniqueness of the individual brings vitality to the world. In a particular setting, one person may not be as adept as in another. Assist the employee with development by taking a direct approach to the mix of strengths and weaknesses we each bring to any group.
“I think the one opportunity that every employer should offer is the one that helps the individual overcome or improve a weakness they may have,” says Rucker. “I’ve never felt there is one specific opportunity for every single person because we are all different.”
Engagement is part of helping employees develop. “Work with and communicate with employees to determine their weakness or weaknesses, and then offer an opportunity that helps them become stronger and better,” says Rucker. “At the same time, make sure you are using their strengths to your and their full advantage and continue improving those as well.”
As Rucker says, professional organizations that offer seminars and certifications are good sources of education for employees. In addition to the group he cites, there are PWNA, CETA, IWCA, and WJTA. And there are the government entities, such as OSHA, EPA, and DOT, which provide training in both the virtual and person-to-person worlds.
Federal websites are also a good source of background material on the how-to of employee development. We review some solid tips derived from those sites in the next section.
Feedback enables employees to better understand whether they could be doing things better. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management at OPM.gov identifies three components to feedback: specificity, timeliness, and manner.
Make feedback specific by telling employees why they are doing a good job: i.e., “Your service vehicle is a model for other team members. Tools are maintained. Everything is in its place. Thank you.”
A tangible illustration works better than a nebulous statement such as “You do a good job. Thank you.”
Timely feedback is a must. Don’t wait two months before telling a team member that tools, debris, and machines piled in his or her service vehicle will not do—and what is expected. Begin with what’s expected—“Clean vehicles inside and out. Tools secured, machines tied back—those are all the things that keep our company working efficiently and safely. The van is also one of our biggest advertisements to customers. Make getting the van in order your top priority, and let’s look it over together when you have finished.”
Feedback can be difficult if an employee has veered too far off course—i.e., a van is more than untidy, it’s an unacceptable mess. It’s still important to keep feedback as measured as possible.
By providing feedback in a quantitative and universal way at least some of the time, an employer can boost employee development via a relatively painless path. A contractor can post a weekly tally of jobs completed by the team. A distributor can post a monthly tabulation of sales made. And a manufacturer can send out periodic statements on new orders. All such feedback reminds employees they are part of a team working toward a goal.
In smaller companies, employers often work alongside employees, so they have a direct way of informally assessing whether an employee might benefit from more training. They are also likely to hear from employees about aspirations for more education.
At larger companies, there are many options for promoting employee development. Requiring training and certifications is a given, but tools such as job rotation and assignment to taskforce groups allow employers to encourage employees to grow.
Much can be done informally to help employees learn and grow. On the formal side, some companies ask employees to make an individual development plan (IDP) in consultation with their immediate supervisor. An employee might set goals for six months or a year, such as attendance at one professional meeting, completion of a new certification, and identification of one way to be more efficient each day.
When formulating an IDP, the employee should have the mission of the company in mind. We would not expect the pressure washing contractor employee to set a goal of being scuba-certified in an IDP, but attaining certification in CPR could very well be justified.
In a less-than-direct way, of course, an employee who earns scuba certification in his or her free time will bring something extra to a day job, as will a woodworking hobbyist or a boating enthusiast. Skills and talents have a way of crossing over and informing decisions at the most unexpected times. The employer is often the recipient of insight or understanding that is relayed from an employee with experience in an unrelated area.
Employees determined to fulfill their potential also enhance the ability an employer has to win contracts. To even submit a bid on contracts with government entities and large companies, an employer must now document that its employees have the competencies to do the job.
Similarly, manufacturers seeking to obtain or maintain any type of ISO certification will have to document the competencies of their employees. And companies committed to Lean principles—eliminating waste in programs and processes—will have to do the same. Employees who are highly motivated to develop professionally streamline such efforts.
A company does not have to be a subscriber to the Lean method to want to achieve improvements in efficiency, effectiveness, quality, speed, and transparency. And whether or not it subscribes, it will naturally make gains in all the areas with employees who are working to hone their skills.
The continual learning that girds employee development is tied to other welcome attributes of employees. As an employee grows professionally, problem solving ability broadens. With more confidence in his or her knowledge base and support from a supervisor, the employee will likely be able to resolve more issues without seeking help or asking verification of how something should be done. That’s a time saver—and a customer pleaser.
Employees developing professionally also tend to be more flexible and more resilient. There will be setbacks during their day—a breach in a hose, a shipment does not arrive—but they deal with the situation without becoming frustrated or angry. That’s a huge bonus for employers because problems are more easily overcome when team members remain calm and clear headed.
The old U.S. Army recruiting slogan “Be all you can be” applies in every setting. Employee development is a crucial part of building a business and a society.