Business leaders all around the world consider one of their biggest challenges the ability to attract and retain top talent to give them a competitive advantage. Despite this near universal truth, many of these same organisations are significantly under investing in their employee’s development. Instead of trying to ensure that their employees are operating to the maximum of their abilities, by aiding development, they continue to try and rely on being able to just hire more people with relevant skills. But as we are in the middle of a global skills shortage, that of course is a strategy that is failing outside of the handful of industry leading firms. The solution is of course simple, firms need to develop their own talent rather than rely on hopefully being able to buy it from outside.

Professional Development is not training

A mistake many make, is that they confuse professional development with training. They are not the same thing. As part of one’s professional development, a person may undergo some training, but training on its own is not professional development. Training is something that a person provides to fill in a knowledge or skill gap to make someone more effective in their current job. Professional development is a long-term plan that factors in both an employee and the organisations growth over the longer term. To ensure longevity, there must be a focus on an employee’s career path over the long term. It comes as no surprise that organisations that offer their employees jobs as opposed to careers see significantly higher employee turnover as a result.

The program must be voluntary

A key component of any professional development programme for employees is that the type of development must be voluntary. Neither the employee nor the organisation benefit through a mandatory programme. One of the worst things you can do is force development on to an employee. There are those that will want to grow in a particular direction and others that do not. If you force someone who wants to be a technical specialist to develop into a leader or vice versa, that is going to disengage rather than engage the employee. Likewise, this represents a huge waste of money for the organisation, when it spends a sum of money and a sizeable proportion of those on the program either have no interest in taking advantage of it, or worse leave the organisation all together.

There is no one size fits all

Microlearning is a common phrase thrown around a lot these days, and when it comes to professional development, I will give you a new one. Agile Learning. Everyone learns at a different pace and in a different way and for different purposes. There will be a driven, young, single, high potential individual that wants to immerse themselves in the programme and complete each section as quickly as possible, even if that means consistently doing extra hours every weekend and evening. There will be others, who are maybe older, with family commitments and a 20-year career behind them, who merely want to commit to a few hours every quarter to ensure they are aware of the latest trends and insights and remain up to date. There may be someone thinking about entrepreneurship currently working in finance, that want to develop sales skills for their future venture and spend some time working in the sales team. A programme should be able to accommodate for all these types of individual.

Create a culture of continuous learning

Finally, it is important to embed professional development into the DNA of the organisation and create a culture of continuous learning. This requires executive sponsorship, and this is often a lot easier to get than most people think. If you go to any competent leader and walk through a programme that will ensure employees are more capable and stay with the company for longer, they are not going to say no. Of course, there are a few imbeciles in every industry that will not be able to see the obvious benefits. But generally, speaking executive leadership is straight forward for such a program, providing it is well planned out and delivers a clear benefit.

The key to ingraining continuous learning into the organisation, is not just the funding from the leadership team, but by making continuous learning a key KPI within the organisation. One of the easiest ways to do this is by attaching a proportion of everyone’s bonus to career development plans. So, if a manager does not have a professional development plan in place themselves, or for their teams, then their bonus should be lower. Likewise, if an employee has not taken steps to further their own development as part of the plan, they suffer the same fate.