By Diane M. Calabrese / Published March 2021
Built a birdhouse? Baked an impossibly delicious cake? Created a simple radio receiver from wire and crystal? Simple stuff in the big scheme of things, but accomplishing them the first time as a young person is something everyone remembers.
A recollection of learning and successfully doing strengthens resolve. It’s all a reminder something more difficult can be learned and something more complicated can be accomplished, time after time.
Employers who emphasize ongoing employee development strengthen their employees—and their companies. What if an employee becomes so capable, he or she decides to leave for more or different challenges?
“What ifs” have a way of stomping on the best concepts. And ongoing employee development is a model that serves everyone in the workplace.
An employer benefits from encouraging everyone to excel. The employee benefits by fulfilling potential. The industry as a whole, of course, also reaps the reward of a huge pool of talented, engaged, and skilled members who aim to take it to the highest level possible.
As for the “what if” regarding employees leaving, it is likely to be just the opposite. Loyalty is actually fortified through ongoing employee development.
“Employee development is nurtured through a very simple but apparently hidden secret,” says Gregg Brodsky, senior western sales manager with Alkota Cleaning Systems Inc. in Alcester, SD. “The secret is loyalty through relationships built on education.”
Brodsky laments that more employers do not do all they can to offer continuing education to team members. Experts on the employer side of the team should be encouraging all team members to satiate themselves with knowledge.
Indeed, Brodsky recalls the words of an old friend of his, Walter Ray, who has passed. Ray owned Taylor Parts in Andalusia, AL
“Know your stuff” is how Ray began his advice about imparting expertise, says Brodsky. Then, it was a matter of figuring out the inclinations and capabilities of those to be taught (“Who you are going to stuff?” goes the quote) and fill them up with knowledge (“and stuff ‘em”).
“If you are going to develop a long-term employee, the ultimate goal of loyalty is only achievable through trust,” says Brodsky. “Using Walter Ray’s analogy, we need to educate our existing employees as well as new hires on what it is specifically that we do.”
Where to begin? “Ask yourself and your employees, ‘What is it precisely that we do?’” says Brodsky. And don’t focus on products but focus on assisting customers with solutions.
“It is not the tangible items that we sell, build, or service, but the relationships that we construct with vendors, manufacturers, distributors or dealers, and the end user,” says Brodsky. “In other words, ‘Know your stuff.’”
Customers remember weak links, such as inability to provide speedy answers to technical questions or order snafus, even when links are repaired quickly. “A satisfied end user will only return when convenient, but a loyal customer becomes an evangelist for your brand,” explains Brodsky.
An employee is analogous to a customer in the loyalty-building scenario. Be as committed to employees and their ongoing education as to customers is the advice of Brodsky. “A loyal employee engenders a loyal following with fellow employees, business partners, and most of all the recurring loyal user of our offerings.”
Providing the opportunity for ongoing education demonstrates to employees that the employer is committed to them. “Loyalty needs to be recognized as a two-way street,” explains Brodsky. “The employer has to have the employee’s best interest at heart, as well as the reverse.”
Brodsky says it should not be a “novel idea” that training, or education, builds confidence and trust while fostering loyalty. “The common objective of an organization and its valued employees should be to share the same desired outcome of attaining the highest level of achievement, correct?”
The process never ends and is in progress “every minute of the day” when supported by “great communication and on the job training,” explains Brodsky. “My father always said, ‘The day that he thinks he knows it all is the day he retires.’”
Brodsky encourages us all to take to heart the commitment to learning every day as his father advocated. The commitment gets noticed by employees and encourages them to mirror the same. Loyalty is built.
“Loyalty is not just a word, but a trusting bond,” says Brodsky. And it emanates from a strong, capable team that is always engaged and learning.
It all keeps circling back to you. The owner of the company is the model for all that transpires, including ongoing education for employees.
“As a leader, the most difficult dimension for ongoing employee development is yourself,” says Branden Robinson, vice president of sales at Chappell Supply and Equipment Co. in Oklahoma City, OK. “Your team and focus will be challenged, distracted, and pulled.”
Step back from the peripherals with assistance from managers and group heads. “Empower them to lead and develop those around them,” says Robinson. “Develop leaders, not employees.”
At the same time, the company leader must remain accessible and attuned to what is taking place. (It’s not unlike the carpool mother or father who is reputed to have eyes in the back of the head, and thus is equipped to keep track of all that’s taking place in the back seat while safely steering a vehicle.)
If an owner notices a problem, it must be addressed without delay. And with a tempered approach.
“Honest and timely feedback is essential for ongoing employee development,” says Robinson. “Not just for specific employees, but feedback is also imperative for organizational growth and development when it is embraced.”
Logistics of ongoing development vary from company to company. Riley Prettyman, HR generalist at Hydra-Flex Inc. in Savage, MN, advises involvement of all players in planning.
“Who is responsible for employee development within companies?” says Prettyman. “The question needs to be asked as employee development requires collaboration and teamwork from managers, HR, coworkers, and the individual. It takes more than just a single person to help develop and grow an employee.”
Whichever model for incorporating education with business activities emerges, its existence is the most
critical factor. “Continuous training and education must always be part of ongoing development as jobs are constantly evolving, requiring people to stay up to date on new skills, trends, and requirements,” says Prettyman.
No employer wants to lose a good employee, but professional paths do diverge. In many cases, they diverge within the same company—from sales to design, for example, so overall retention is enhanced.
“The most difficult part of ongoing development is determining where an individual would like to go career-wise and tailoring development toward that career path,” says Prettyman. “Not all employees know where they would like to go in their career, making it sometimes difficult to develop a clear path.”
An individual development plan (IDP) is more than a way to encourage employees to keep learning. The IDP, which an employee constructs, includes short- and long-term career aspirations. It also includes opportunities the individual plans to exploit to achieve goals.
The IDP identifies target dates for completing planned activities, which could be web-based training, self-study, seminars—any learning experience. Managers must sign off on (agree to) the plan, which should not interfere with completion of job responsibilities, but managers do not dictate the form the IDP should take.
By reviewing IDPs, managers can gain an understanding of the expectations employees have. With that understanding, they can better refine their approaches to providing ongoing education to the team. Moreover, IDPs provide a tool managers and employers can use to align the business plan of a company with employee training.
Advocates for IDPs suggest that heads of companies consider making their own plans, sometimes referred to as EDPs (‘E’ for executive). An EDP may seem to reproduce a business plan, but that’s not always the case. For example, an owner might want to devote more time to a hobby or sport that is restorative (and in turn will provide more energy for business responsibilities).
Training in safety and health programs mandated for our industry is already incorporated into ongoing education. OSHA-mandated education is part of, but not the whole, of ongoing employee development. That’s well known.
OSHA deserves mention, though, because the training structure that it recommends for mandated programs can be adapted to other kinds of education. See https://www.osha.gov/shpguidelines/education-training.html for a structure that may work well.
Program awareness training, or the scope of the training, is the first action recommended by OSHA. Everyone in the workplace is introduced to topics to be covered, the importance of feedback, questions, and suggestions, and so on—i.e., the purpose.
What’s the purpose? The best educational settings—in virtual or real space—make that clear. At an educational session’s end, there will be a birdhouse or a cake or a basic radio…No one is ever in doubt what the goal is or what outcome is expected.
Ongoing employee education is good for the individual, the company, and the industry. It is a can-do and will-do approach.