'Employee growth’ is a phrase that often gets thrown around in board rooms and team meetings: The goal is to build a workplace where every employee is empowered to do their best work and learn and grow in their roles and careers.
When done right, employee development can lead to a motivated and engaged workforce, boosting productivity, reducing absenteeism, and increasing customer loyalty and profitability, according to Gallup’s 2020 report The Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organizational Outcomes. But without a framework that guides how companies cultivate employee growth, efforts to bolster it can fall flat. And these days, amid the COVID-19 pandemic and all the upheaval it’s brought to workplaces and even our ideas about work, how to support the employee development isn’t so clear-cut.
As workers leave their jobs at record rates, they’re increasingly seeking work-life balance, flexibility, and opportunities to make a difference as part of a broader team — not necessarily just higher compensation and advancement up the corporate ladder. According to recent research from Gartner’s 2021 Hybrid and Return to Work Survey, 65% of respondents said the pandemic made them rethink the place work should have in their life.
“The reason we’re seeing this Great Resignation happening, this great turnover, is because people have realized that [work] isn’t just about [their daily tasks],” said leadership coach Meredith Turney. “They are thinking holistically about life, not just a paycheck.
As leaders build a company-wide foundation that makes it possible for employees to experience their own definitions of growth, and that simultaneously drives business strategy, they’ll need to think intentionally about the support that today’s workers require. To better support your workforce in being successful personally and professionally at your organization, here are the four pillars of employee growth.
4 Pillars of Employee Growth
1. Alignment at All Levels
When then President John F. Kennedy Jr. toured NASA, as the story goes, he asked a janitor what his role was in the agency. The janitor might have spent his days mopping the floors, but he replied that his role was to help put a man on the moon. In other words, the janitor was fully aligned with NASA’s mission and understood how his role to keep the offices clean would help make the moon launch possible.
“For a lot of employees, success to them is, ‘I feel like I’m part of something bigger,’” Turney noted. “Employers can give that vision to employees that they’re not just mopping the floor — they’re helping put a man on the moon.”
It’s easy to hang posters of an organization’s mission and vision on the wall; it’s a lot more difficult to drive home how they relate to an individual employee’s daily work. But this is a question more and more workers are asking themselves these days. According to the Gartner research, 52% of surveyed workers said the pandemic made them question the purpose of their day-to-day job.
To help workers see how they fit into an organization’s overarching goals and, ultimately, feel successful, good communication is critical, said Carrie Missele, Learning and Development Practice Lead for management consultancy Inspirant Group. Missele recommended that HR leaders, company executives, and managers make their organization’s vision, mission, and core values a regular part of their messages to employees.
In practice, this could look like talking about the organization’s vision, mission, and values during team meetings and company-wide gatherings and sharing examples of how individual employees have been working toward those shared goals, as well as including this type of content and messaging in internal newsletters, Missele advised. She also suggested giving leaders and managers talking points about how departments and teams fit into the company’s broader work, and why everybody’s work matters.
“As a general rule, people want to feel connected,” Missele said. “They want to know that what [they’re] doing is impacting someone in some way.”
2. Agency and Autonomy
Employee growth relies, in part, on a workplace culture that invites opinions from individuals at all levels and across teams, encourages questions, and considers failure an opportunity for professional and personal growth. Workers need some level of control over their day-to-day tasks and responsibilities, and the freedom to speak up and show vulnerability when they have questions.
Missele explained this as a mindset of: “I can decide what I’m going to work on right now, what I’m thinking about, and how I might approach it. I can solicit ideas and feedback when I need them. And I can admit when I need help.”
Cultivating a company culture that embraces employee autonomy takes intentional work around an organization’s language and rituals, decision-making practices, and people. Executives must demonstrate that it’s safe to be vulnerable and okay to make mistakes (by, for example, admitting when a strategy didn't work out as planned or explaining the learnings and steps forward from this misstep).
Helping employees hone their soft skills, such as communication and conflict resolution, is another way to ensure that workers have some autonomy and agency on the job, said Sarah Skidmore, CEO of Skidmore Consulting, a consulting company that provides leadership training.
For example, leadership development programs can teach workers how to be an “influencer” — speaking up when there are issues and confidently leading conversations on topics they’re experts in. These programs shouldn’t be reserved only for workers who intend to manage people some day; everybody can be a leader in their own way in the workplace, and companies can encourage and facilitate this.
“We want every single person in the company to be a leader,” Skidmore said. “We want everybody to be empowered to make decisions [and] use their influence to make smart decisions.”
3. The Right Tools — and Enough Time
Often, while focusing on goal-setting, organizations forget to equip their employees with everything they need to be successful. People might be capable, Skidmore said, but the real question is: Do they have the capacity? If they don’t, she said, “you’re going to set them up for failure, which is going to lead to burnout and turnover.”
The necessary tools for the job include staffing. A company’s marketing department, for instance, could map out its strategy to sell a particular product. But those initiatives could fall flat if the organization’s sales staff doesn’t have the personnel to actually close a deal.
Also crucial are the instruments, devices, and technologies needed to get work done efficiently. Today’s employees are used to seamless online experiences at home; juggling paper files, fumbling through clunky databases, or searching for data across siloed software systems can be frustrating — and can take staff members away from more meaningful work.
And, said Turney, enabling employees to develop requires a corporate culture that doesn’t set unrealistic expectations that force people to work to exhaustion. “Employee success is making sure, holistically, [that employees don’t just] have the tools [they need], but [that] the culture and workload is [also] set up for them [to succeed],” she said.
4. Opportunities for Growth
Employees have made it clear, especially in the last two years, that success for them doesn’t just mean meeting daily deadlines, but growing professionally. According to Salesforce’s 2021 survey of US knowledge workers, more than 70% of respondents said that an increased investment in learning and development (L&D) programs would make them more productive and engaged. And 66% of respondents believe that such an investment in increased L&D would make them more likely to stay with their company.
“When I talk to people, a lot of them feel like they are going to leave their organization because they don’t feel like they are growing. They are stuck in one role, and they are tired of it,” said Turney. “We’re not static beings. We want growing and learning. That’s going to be really important going forward.”
Individual growth and development plans, based on an employee’s interests and needs, can be crafted with managers as part of the formal performance review process. Managers and their direct reports should then continue to review these plans periodically during one-on-one meetings, and as requirements for new skills or interests emerge.
Once these growth plans are established, it’s critical for managers to follow up with their direct reports to ensure they have the time and resources they need to complete their goals, said Skidmore. Because of positional power dynamics, some workers may never alert their managers to obstacles they encounter as they attempt to sign up for a training program or try to meet with a mentor. So managers need to take the lead in checking in and making sure their employees are on track.
“Whatever skills that employee needs to do that job well, make sure you’re giving them resources,” Skidmore said.
Like any initiative, focusing on employee growth takes time and effort. But organizations don’t need to roll out sweeping changes all at once. Start small, advised Skidmore. And include employees in the conversation to find out what’s missing and what they need to achieve success.
“Our organizations are living; they’re not machines,” Skidmore said. “[And] our people are living [beings], so we really need to think about our processes and systems in the same way and iterate them over time.”
This can be a daunting process, especially with all the massive changes to the workplace, the nature of work, and what’s important to employees after everything that’s transpired over the past two years. The most important step? “Start somewhere,” Skidmore said. These four pillars will give you a place to begin to make impactful changes that will enable your employees — and your organization — to be more successful.