6 Steps to Make Professional Growth a Powerful Tool for Employees

At the center of our efforts to build employee engagement and retain employees is the question of professional growth. Unfortunately, many organizations struggle with this part of the employee experience. Why is that?

Most organizations certainly value and benefit from their employees’ growth and professional development. Of course, employees also value and benefit from various growth experiences. Given that this is such a mutually beneficial activity, you might think organizations would be going out of their way to provide ample opportunities for growth and development, and that employees would have their pick of attractive opportunities. And yet our efforts still often fall short.

At DecisionWise, we find professional growth to be a key driver of employee engagement. To understand why, let’s reframe this discussion by referring to two basic questions:

  1. What is Professional Growth?
  2. Who owns Professional Growth?

Answering these two questions for your organization will provide clarity on how to improve this critical part of the employee experience.

What is Professional Growth?

Most people are comfortable with “professional growth” as a general concept. Rather than define it generally, however, I suggest we reframe the question into two separate questions.

  1. What is professional growth to the organization?
  2. What is professional growth to the employee?

Splitting the question is necessary because how an organization defines professional growth may be completely different than how an employee defines it. I learned this important lesson from my own career. 

Early on as a manager, I paid close attention to the growth and development of my team. I tried to challenge them, and I monitored their progress. My goal was to help them to grow, so they could meet the challenges of their demanding jobs. Then, one day, my perspective on professional growth changed during a one-on-one I had with an employee. She told me that since she had been in her position, she felt challenged every day. She felt that she was experiencing a tremendous amount of growth, but she added, “I am growing in ways I don’t want to grow.” In other words, the growth that I needed from her to make my team and the organization better did not align with the direction she wanted to grow. She left the organization for a different opportunity a couple of months later. 

Clearly not all professional growth carries equal value in employees’ minds. Organizations need employees to grow to better fulfill their current roles and responsibilities and to prepare them for future roles and responsibilities. Whether an employee finds this type of growth attractive is predicated on whether they find the growth to be an opportunity or an obligation. Thus, whether growth results in engagement depends upon how an employee perceives the growth challenge.

Look Through the Employee Lens

Accordingly, the first step is to look at each individual growth experience through the lens of the employee who is experiencing it. Will the employee look at the experience as attractive or unattractive? Will the experience help them improve in their current role or prepare them for some future role? If they can see no application for the challenge and painful stretching now or in the future, it will be viewed in a negative light.  

Paint a Compelling and Connected Picture

Many professional growth plans fall short because they do not paint a compelling picture for the employee’s future. Often, development plans are a series of disjointed and unrelated goals for improvement. They do not connect to organizational initiatives and they do not build toward a realistic future vision of what the employee wants to become. When employees have a vision of what they can grow into, it becomes easier for them to mentally endure the day-to-day grind. It becomes easier for them to see how the challenge and stretching they are presently experiencing will make them better now and in the future. The challenges they are going through on a day-to-day basis may very clearly be making them better now and preparing them in the future, but if they do not make that connection, the challenges will just feel like stress. 

Defining professional growth is difficult, because the definition will be different for every employee in the organization. This means that individual employees play a critical role in determining how happy they are with their own growth, which leads us to the next basic question.

Be Clear on Who owns Professional Growth

Part of understanding professional growth is to define who is responsible for it. Is it owned by the organization? Is it owned by each individual employee? Is it owned by managers? If I asked most executive teams who owns professional growth, they would tell me that employees are responsible for their own growth. If I asked employees in most organizations, they would tell me that their professional growth is owned by the organization. Neither party takes ownership of professional growth, and many employees end up leaving the organization to find it. Obviously, the organization cannot completely own the professional growth of its employees, and employees are powerless to own their own growth without resources and opportunity. Managers are also reliant upon resources to be available and upon employees to take initiative.

The employee, the manager, and the organization all have roles to play in bolstering professional growth. Defining the role of each party can clarify where disconnects might be happening. For example, employees might be responsible for understanding and clarifying their long-term direction. They may also work to identify opportunities to pursue, goals to achieve, and the mentors to help them move toward their long-term direction. The role of the manager might be to facilitate regular discussions with employees about their long-term goals and how they are making progress toward them through daily challenges and stretch opportunities. The role of the organization might be to supply the resources and opportunities for managers and employees to leverage in building professional development plans.

Conclusion and Recommendations

By defining professional growth from the employee’s and organization’s perspective and by defining who owns professional growth in your organization, you can begin to develop a plan for how to improve it.

Consider taking the following six actions to help improve perceptions around growth in your organization:

  1. Clearly define the roles of the organization, the employee, and the manager in the professional growth of employees.
  2. Provide organizational resources to allow for people to own their individual growth (i.e., training budgets, mentors, professional development plans).
  3. Ensure managers have a clear understanding of the short and long-term career and growth objectives of their direct reports.
  4. Build professional development plans with the long-term vision of the employee in mind.
  5. Help employees see how the challenges and stretching they are experiencing now will help them in their future careers.
  6. Empower employees to seek tasks and assignments that fit their long-term growth objectives.

In most organizations, employee growth happens organically. Naturally, some employees are happy with the growth they are experiencing. Many others will struggle to find meaningful growth. Being intentional about understanding what professional growth means in your organization and who owns it can be the beginning of building a culture of growth that will benefit many more employees. When employees feel good about the opportunities in front of them, they are more likely to stay and engage in their organizations.

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