Last week I had a catch-up meeting with Beatrice, a former coaching client in town for a short visit to corporate headquarters. This rock star, high-performing employee had recently taken over a global office, all on her own, with just two years’ tenure at her firm. She wanted to talk about how the year was going, and how she hoped to continue improving. What a positive scenario – she’d essentially become a director of global operations, taking on a significant leadership role in a very short period of time, and was excited about her professional development and future with her company!

So I wasn’t quite prepared for the question Beatrice raised at the end of our conversation— “Who do I speak to about training and next steps in my career?”

Identifying Needs and Wants

As a coach, I am of course happy to assist with questions like this, but as an employer, I would be concerned if my employees did not know where to turn for professional development. Beatrice’s situation really brought home to me how critical it is that developmental opportunities and resources for employees are not just put in place, but are actively promoted and openly supported. And, ideally, such programs should not be limited to just the “basic training” employees need to perform the job (functional skills); they should encompass personalized help and skill-building geared to meeting the wants of the employee (career goals).

Building and sustaining a program that effectively incorporates both of these dimensions of professional development requires that companies:

1) Implement a continuous performance feedback program, and

2) Align development programs with employees’ expressed interests, desires, and career ambitions – not solely with manager feedback (typically given two to three times a year, at best, during performance reviews)

If employers are focusing just on training, and using the annual performance review primarily to surface training needs, they are missing out on the valuable insights that ongoing check-ins and regular solicitation of input from their employees would provide. These insights form a key component of successful development plans – which, in turn, are critical to employee satisfaction and retention.

Investing in Retention

Most employers know only too well the costs associated with high turnover. According to Forbes (2/24/15), the average “tenure” of today’s employee is less than five years – and for millennials, who are projected to make up almost 75% of the global workforce within the next decade or so, it’s a mere three years (Fast Company, 12/1/14). To retain talented staff, companies must engage employees at the very outset of their tenure (at orientation, during onboarding, throughout the first 90 days), not only to identify their needs, but to understand their wants. This kind of early engagement to determine both needs and wants clearly demonstrates the degree to which the company values its employees. Individual development opportunities, identified through regular or, ideally, continuous feedback, then become levers with which to drive the employee’s growth and enhance career advancement potential. The year-end review may arrive too late for many employees.

Early and continuous engagement in development should provide the guidance and resources to help the employee move forward into a leadership position where he or she can take on greater responsibility, perhaps in client-facing and business development roles. Research has shown that employees who grow more quickly in their careers are more likely to enjoy their jobs and to see future growth potential where they are. All of which translates, of course, into measurable benefits for the company and its bottom line as well as for the employee.

Push and Pull

Training and development should be a response to both “push” and “pull”: to managers pushing employees to pursue development, and to employees pulling resources and support from their employer. If development is limited to push, employees generally have only one to two opportunities a year to talk about what they need to make strides and move ahead. For some, year-end may be too late: they might already have decided to look for greener pastures where they can grow more quickly, or may have suffered some reputational risk within their firm. But if employees are given the opportunities to express wants, goals, and ambitions more routinely, then the power to shape their development is in their hands. The employer can then integrate needs and wants, through training and coaching, and provide a supportive environment in which employees want to stay and grow and to tell their friends about.

Where Coaching Comes In

A survey with our Springboards Consulting coaching clients over the last three years indicated clearly to me the value of coaching to employee satisfaction, which is so important to both retention and recruiting. Fully 90% of respondents said they were likely to recommend their employer to peers based on the fact they received coaching and advanced professionally as a direct result of that coaching.

While I agree that sustained coaching is not a viable option for every employee who expresses a development need, employers should ensure that some mechanism for supporting individual development is in place. Because let’s face it – everyone is more motivated and successful working with a personal trainer than watching an exercise video. And it may just be a few sessions that make all the difference.

Below are some specific recommendations to employers interested in engaging employees earlier, and keeping them on longer:

  • Increase opportunities for employees to get feedback earlier – don’t wait until development needs turn into performance problems. For example, early intervention could have helped an associate at a litigation consulting firm who was not a native speaker of English and whose writing skills needed help. Without the benefit of focused training and support, he was rarely assigned casework, and ultimately his career spiraled downward. (See “Helping Multinationals Succeed,” below.)
  • Consider coaching – even if just a few sessions – not only for the highest performers, but for junior level, up-and-coming employees who need a little extra individual attention at the beginning of their careers, or a boost to get to the next level.
  • Communicate that training and coaching are not “feel good” things, but investments with huge benefits to both employees and the company. Maintained continuously, and incorporating both needs and wants, training and coaching programs will yield a positive, measurable ROI in the form of greater employee engagement and retention, and enhance the employer’s reputation in the talent market.
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Helping Multinationals Succeed

In our extensive work with multinationals, Springboards coaches have found that non-native speakers of English may be hesitant to express development needs, as in many cultures, training is viewed as remedial. With someone championing their development—or better yet, a visible corporate culture of coaching and learning—multinationals develop faster and have a better chance of keeping pace with native English-speaking colleagues.

One such Springboards client, Naoko, a highly valued, Japanese female portfolio manager at a leading investment firm, faced being eclipsed by same-level native English-speaking peers. Her communication skills, both internally and in client-facing situations, were not sufficiently polished or confident, limiting her potential for advancement. Following a multidimensional coaching program designed to meet her specific challenges and objectives, Naoko increased her communication effectiveness, especially in presentations; improved her leadership presence, taking a more assertive approach; and experienced an uptick in opportunities to lead client meetings and develop business.

In another setting, a medical practice group with a diverse multinational staff of physicians needed to improve patient satisfaction scores associated with some of its multinational providers. Springboards developed a multifaceted coaching model to address culture, language, and communication within specific medical scenarios. The program helped turn around very low patient satisfaction for two physicians, resulting in a marked increase in the number of patients now indicating they would recommend these providers to a friend or family member.

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