Employee growth is critical to employee engagement, which in turn is tied to company growth. Companies often have a clear management track and a less-clear IC or peer leadership track that engages employees who aren’t interested in managing people. And while companies often offer benefits that promote degree or certificate programs, one-size-fits-all approach increasingly doesn’t work for all employees.
Employees generally fall into three categories: individual contributors that have little interest in pursuing management positions, ICs hoping to move into people management positions, and peer leaders who are interested in culture initiatives.
Improving employee education programs to support each of these types of employees creates a richer experience for all and gives people the educational experiences they need to grow, no matter their long-term goals.
Building better subject matter experts
Not everyone wants or needs to be a people manager, so companies have to provide other options for top talent who would rather not manage. Usually these come in the form of providing continuing subject matter education.
Pablo Listingart, Founder of ComIT, suggests that companies provide access or reimbursement for educational resources of varying lengths. “Opt-in courses and no-cost resources are shown to be the most favorable option, compared to mandatory learning experiences. Most employees prefer shorter-term courses that go in-depth on a relevant subject. There are a number of low or no cost options on the market. Coursera, EdX and Skillshare are all incredible places to start.” Giving employees credit in recognition, pay raises, or educational bonuses can further incentivize individual contributors to build their skills.
This knowledge should also be transferable to other people at the company. Charles Catania III, MBA, at Modulus recommends that companies take a legislative approach to knowledge sharing. “In the legislature, where there are thousands of individual bills, it is impossible for any one politician to keep track of all of them. Instead, legislators serve on committees, meaning that they are the subject matter expert on a few particular topics, which then allows them to share the information related to those topics with colleagues.” Individual contributors can distill their learnings into a short 5-10 minute presentation video that’s saved in a shared location or added to the company’s monthly internal newsletter. These types of tools mean that learning is shared and individuals can use the videos as reference or go to the creator for further explanation.
Joanne Cleaver, author of The Career Lattice reminds us that training, like all company initiatives, should tie into long-term goals for the employee and the company. “Simply piling up training credentials and even certifications is pointless in the absence of career goals. People need the bigger context:
- How does this particular class or training fit into my personal career goals?
- What complementary training do I need to qualify for the next position I envision in my career path?
- How do these classes add up to ‘more than the sum of their parts’ to illustrate my motivation, ability to self-direct and ability to set and accomplish goals on my own?”
Growing tomorrow’s people leaders
Most people managers aren’t born coaches. Managers often find themselves directing others because they are accomplished subject matter experts and it just makes sense that they direct less experienced members of the team. But subject matter expertise is not the same as good people management skills. These often have to be taught.
TJ Hoffman of Sibme suggests a continuous learning cycle to build the coaching skills that people managers need. “In order for employees to grow into managers and leaders, they need to develop a new set of interpersonal skills that can’t be so easily “taught” as most of the technical skills they already have. Real practice happens in real conversations, not simulations. Optimally, young managers should capture actual evidence of this work as they’re doing it, and then share it with other people who have strong emotional intelligence for feedback and iteration.” Learning people management skills in a cohort of similarly-positioned people managers provides the peer support to gather open and honest feedback.
Listingart agrees, suggesting that these coaching cohorts can extend to interdepartmental teams with stratified layers of leadership. “Enacting a workflow in which projects have sub-groups with clear team-leads allows companies to provide more opportunities to those employees wanting to experiment with the responsibilities of leadership. This can be done under the supervision of a higher up, but with minimal intervention so as to create an authentic experience.” These projects give newer people leaders the ability to lead independently combined with the support of experienced leadership who can step in or advise when necessary.
Engaging peer leaders
Somewhere in the middle of confirmed individual contributors and people management hopefuls are the employees that are unsure of their path. For these employees, companies should provide plenty of peer leadership and company culture initiatives that act as lower-stakes experiments.
Amy Williams of Austin Fraser suggests offering peer leaders a cooperative role in learning and development, often in combination with certified learning and development employees. The L&D team directs the training and coaching portions of courses, while individual contributors provide deep technical background. “Our high performing individual contributors contribute to social/formal learning by hosting roundtable discussions or masterclasses that stretch their skills and comfort zone as well as give back to the business at the same time.”
Williams’s team also employs informal mentorship to give peer leaders some experience. “This enables individual contributors to test whether they truly desire a leadership position and, if not, it gives them an opportunity to continuously develop themselves personally through reverse mentoring.”
Mark A. Herschberg, author of The Career Toolkit suggests that companies put their employees into peer learning pods organized around similar learning needs. “Traditionally employers have identified a few high performing individuals and sent them to expensive training programs. A better approach is to use broad based peer learning pods. While the traditional classroom approach of an expert conveying information still works for knowledge transfer, e.g. rolling out a new tool, updates on new tax laws, for skill development peer learning is better. This is how top business schools have taught these skills for years. It applies to leadership, negotiations, networking, communication, team building, career development, ethical issues, and more.”
Companies need to support educational initiatives
What’s clear from these experts is that trusting your employees to support one another is key to ensuring their growth. High performing individuals have lots of knowledge, and many of these employees are happy to share their expertise with their colleagues. HR and L&D departments must make these initiatives a company priority, however, and show their support through time, money, and training.