4 ways to make your professional development budget go further
College Football Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz once said, “In this world, you’re either growing or you’re dying, so get in motion and grow.”
That quote is more relevant today than ever. Those straightforward words can help you develop resilience, manage your time more effectively and improve your efficiency.
Unfortunately, investing in your employees’ growth isn’t as simple as sharing inspirational quotes with them. To create a culture of continual growth, you have to create the right environment. In a period when many organizations are facing budget shortfalls, the leaders who make shrewd choices about how to invest in professional development will flourish.
Get that environment right, and you’ll gain a competitive edge, strengthen your culture and increase retention and engagement. Even if your employees move on to other pastures, they’ll spread the word that you’re the sort of employer that people want to work for.
Those advantages make professional development a smart investment. But in these leaner times, how can you maximize your professional development dollars? Four strategies stand out:
1. Provide an abundance of opportunities.
Without a goal to grow toward, some workers will happily tread water. But give them something to aspire to, and most of them will rise to the occasion. Remember, not everyone wants (or is cut out) to be a manager. Provide lateral and role-specific opportunities as well: That marketer might always have wanted to try her hand at PR. Your engineer might simply want to write cleaner code. You can’t know until you ask.
Be a mentor, particularly to younger team members. John Bradshaw, president of Appointment, puts it this way: A requirement of being an entrepreneur is paying it forward with mentoring. He notes that it’s not just about being kind, but also about creating an environment of teaching and a culture of learning for your team.
2. Offer focused tuition assistance.
In the simplest terms, tuition assistance is where you reimburse employees for educational expenses. Under most programs, workers enroll in and pay for courses themselves. Only after they’ve completed a course satisfactorily do you reimburse them for some or all of their tuition expenses.
The days of paying for employees’ MBAs or even their undergrad degrees are waning in these lean times, but focused non-degree courses can sometimes deliver even better return on investment for employee and employer alike, and most of them will now be online. Identify the skills that are in demand and hard to find in otherwise qualified applicants. Then give your existing workforce the chance to develop in these valuable areas. Offer assistance only for highly relevant programs, and tie reimbursement amounts to letter grades, with full reimbursement requiring a “B” or better to inspire a quest for excellence.
3. Embrace self-guided learning.
Remember that traditional courses are only one option. Although they vary in terms of educational value and time commitment, MOOCs, webinars and book groups are inexpensive alternatives.
Through its OpenCourseWare platform, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology puts virtually (no pun intended) all of its course content online. IBEX, an IT consultancy, provides many e-learning courses that cover leadership and project management topics, as well as IT training and certification. I think you will see more consulting companies and other vendors coming up with more of these courses as a source of revenue and to improve customer relations. TED Talks are popular and fascinating lectures that span subjects from mental health to accounting. Project Gutenberg puts out-of-copyright books online, and your local library stocks more recent reads. Create a program that rewards employees for the time they invest in these pathways.
Certain employees might also benefit from coaching. Coach.me can help them build healthy physical and emotional habits, while Lumosity is a brain-training app. One-on-one coaching is often best for identifying growth areas and building skills like leadership, time management or resilience.
4. Help your team grow together.
They might not seem educational in nature, but team-building activities are important for professional development. Employers value soft skills such as emotional intelligence and personal branding at least as much as they do role-specific ones like engineering or sales.
Make clear that you consider bonding to be a valuable use of your team’s time. Taking an hour or two a week to engage in a group learning program or play a game can boost communication, collaboration and problem-solving skills without creating pressure to perform. Rotating the role of leader on team learning experiences and games can help all learners build management skills.
Professional development takes time, but it doesn’t require an onerous financial commitment. As long as you invest carefully in both dimensions, you’ll realize the payoff is well worth the price. And as a bonus, you’ll build your personal brand as a talent developer and leader.