There are many organizations, whether they are small non-profits, bootstrapped start-ups, or even larger organizations going through cost cutting efforts, that cannot afford to invest scarce funds to hire external leadership development professionals or to send their high potentials to expensive executive education programs. While some organizations may not be able to afford the cash outlay for these types of programs, they cannot afford to not invest in the development of their people.
Providing career development opportunities is a key factor in employee engagement and retention. In other words, your people need to feel like they are learning and growing – or they will leave. According to a 2014 study by BlessingWhite, development is more important to employees than advancement. If you don’t have the budget, here are 10 ways to invest in your employees’ development that require virtually no cash expenditure:
1. Action Learning Projects – Action learning projects look at real business problems or questions that the organization is facing. Assigning a cross-functional team to examine these questions cannot only help build new networks across the organization, but can also yield innovative solutions. These projects typically have an executive sponsor who both gives feedback along the way and evaluates the team’s recommendation. These projects might be around improving operational efficiency, exploring new markets, or improving customer retention, among other potential topics.
2. Learning Circles – Learning circles are comprised of individuals who are interested in learning more about a specific area of interest, like artificial intelligence, ethnic marketing or product innovation. These learning circles can range from email groups or chat rooms that share information online to in person meet-ups, like brown bag lunches or business book clubs.
3. Job Rotations – Sending an employee to a new team, department, function or geographic office for a period of 6-12 months can be a tremendous development experience. It’s an excellent way to develop networks across the organization, build cross-functional knowledge and understanding, as well as cultivate “all-purpose players” and the next generation of leaders. Many top professional services firms employ such mobility programs.
4. Mentoring – While the best mentoring relationships happen organically and typically have a larger impact on career outcomes, organizationally led mentoring programs have been shown to still have a materially positive effect on an individual’s career, according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior. Often, the mentor is either someone who is more experienced, or has been at the organization for a longer period of time than the mentee, or both. Mentoring involves imparting sector or functional knowledge and experience – providing a resource who can give valuable advice when needed.
5. On-the-Job Coaching & Feedback – Since 70% of development happens on the job, hiring leaders who are good coaches and can also give direct feedback – both positive and improvement feedback (and not shy away from tough conversations) – is key. Good coaching isn’t simply a question of telling people what to do. It’s using inquiry and engaged listening skills to help others think through their own situations to come up with the right answer. It’s teaching people how to fish – while blending in feedback to help course-correct, where appropriate.
6. Job Shadowing – Job shadowing might happen over a day or two, or even a week. This might entail shadowing someone more senior within the same function or shadowing someone in a different function altogether to learn more about the nature of their role and how it intersects with the individual’s role and other roles in the organization.
7. Stretch Assignments – As the name indicates, stretch assignments are given to an individual to allow them to go beyond their normal role to stretch themselves in a new way – whether that is tackling a problem with a higher level of ambiguity, complexity, visibility, or all of the above. When an employee has mastered her role, by definition, she has stopped stretching. Stretch assignments will feel uncomfortable or even scary, and should also involve appropriate coaching and feedback so the individual feels sufficiently supported and it’s not a ‘sink or swim’ situation.
8. Non-profit Board Positions – Encouraging employees to hold non-profit or industry association board positions is a great way for them to build their skill set and confidence, as well as broaden their external network. I have incorporated seeking out these types of external board positions in the development plans of several executive coaching clients.
9. Project post-mortems – A valuable source of learning is for your team to regularly do project ‘post-mortems’ – What went well? What didn’t go as well as you would have liked? What might be done differently next time to achieve an even better outcome? Employees can learn from their own projects as well as those of other team members. In doing these post-mortems, it’s important to make it ok to fail and to share these failures openly, but not ok to not examine and learn from the failure.
10. Company Visits – Visits to other organizations, either within your sector or even better, beyond your sector, to learn how others address various aspects of their business – from diversity, to innovation to working globally – whatever is the topic of interest, can be a wealth of information and generate learning. These can be brief visits – 90 minutes tends to be a good duration for both the host and the visitors. I recommend two leaders from the host organization who are ready and willing to share best practices and a team of visitors who are curious and well-equipped with questions. Hosting such visits can also be equally beneficial.
These above-mentioned development tools are available to virtually any organization and can be done with no (or very little) budget. So which ones will you try with your organization?