Employee Experience - Why businesses can't ignore personal development

Why rapidly growing businesses can’t ignore personal development

More often than not one huge miss for SMEs that are running like mad to keep the wheels on (barely), and always working hard towards their next critical goal, is the lack of personal development for their people.

It’s seen as a ‘nice to have’ but very expensive treat that only mature and stable companies can afford to offer. As a first HR hire in many rapid growth start ups, I got used to CFOs telling me: “but it’s fraught with hidden expense… it’s not just the cost of a training course, it’s the time away from being productive. And time is money as you should well know by now.”

Now, several years later, education technology and the entire business case and ethos behind training people has changed (especially in knowledge organisations that require advanced and continuous learning). We’re no longer having painful arguments with the CFO about why we’re spending money on training. We’re having arguments instead about what and how we need to train people. What’s the most efficient, cost-effective and impactful way to get employees tuned up, trained up and skilled up just-in-time or efficiently over the course of a longer-term program of learning (like software certifications, online graduate programs or professional certifications).

The costs have come down immeasurably. We’re spoilt for choice in terms of online learning (MOOCS, online universities and professional training organisations) and the depth and richness of delivery mechanisms has exploded to include podcasts, webinars, slideshares, millions of quick-read articles and a host of streaming media.

The one thing that hasn’t changed in that time is time itself.

The challenge around personal development for people is no longer an issue of top down mandates to reduce costs. Instead it’s often a sub-conscious issue for employees to find the time, particularly in rapid growth SMEs. Employees are more than capable of availing themselves of the thousands of learning outlets around them, but finding the head space, the physical time and ability to focus on learning new skills can seem impossible. They are already working every hour available – often nights and weekends too – in the never-ending effort to reach the next sprint deliverable. But the cost of not keeping your people trained, skilled or connected with what’s changed or new out there – especially with roles in technology, science, manufacturing, or specialised professions like medical, legal, scientific or education – is far higher than we think.

As mentioned in this Forbes article, it is often the refrain from departmental leaders that we “just can’t waste time training our people to do things they aren’t trained to do already – go out and hire them instead… I need someone who can hit the ground running tomorrow!”

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As the HR professional, I would kick off a recruitment process to find a skilled professional to do that thing no one else in the company could seemingly handle today. It would take me 3 months and 25% of that new hire’s first year salary (not to mention an additional salary and benefits to pay) to get them in the door. That’s 3 months of zero productivity. That’s 3-6 more months of reduced productivity while they get their feet under them. That’s in all about 1.5x that new hire’s salary cost to the company and half a year down the toilet. Instead I could have trained 3 people internally in 3 weeks time for a fraction of the cost,  empowered them with a sense of doing something cool and new and expanded their personal growth and knowledge base. That’s a powerful cultural message I could have kicked off – showing employees that you don’t have to feel boxed in, narrowly focused on one set of skills and tasks throughout your stay with us here. In fact you will be showered with opportunities for personal development, to learn new things, try new career paths and experience fascinating new directions you never thought possible.

The results of taking the recruitment approach? Way too much money spent, disgruntled employees who feel as if (a) they weren’t offered the new opportunity, (b) they aren’t trusted to learn new things, (c) they’re not being invested in and will never be in the future, and that ugly reality that the new hire is being paid more than existing employees for doing something they might otherwise have been able to do just as well. Not a winning combination of effect, nor likely the one anyone meant to create.

The scenario illustrated above happens in every company I’ve worked with (counting about 10 fast-growth tech SMEs now) and the aggregated costs are likely in the millions. Addressing a re-skilling and up-skilling program that intentionally stretches people into new activities, roles, jobs and careers is a huge root cause fix for the challenges that frustrate rapid growth SMEs today. Having a plethora of options available to you brings about a sense of never needing to leave if the personal development offered and learning leads to a legitimately new set of tasks, role or career patch. It reduces attrition, improves positive emotion, well being, engagement and productivity.

If you still have your doubts about up-skilling or re-skilling vs. hiring externally for new skills, have a look at what AT&T decided might be the better option financially and motivationally. And know that just because you’re a fast-growth SME company the math and logic still applies, likely more so in your frenetic and hyperactive world. Keeping your most precious advocates and evangelists engaged is the ultimate winning solution.

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