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Five simple employee development strategies - that won't cost you a cent

Jim Ice, EdD -

The annual global spend on training and staff development is estimated by to be $366 billion in U.S. dollars. Even with this enormous investment, many CEOs complain that they are not seeing performance improvement or a satisfactory ROI for this investment. Making a meaningful workforce development impact that provides a return on your investment does not have to be costly.

I'd like to offer you five very effective career development tactics that can be implemented immediately and will not cost a cent. Each tactic is simple, practical and has been demonstrated to make a significant impact on employee development. These tactics have been developed over years of observations of organizations and managers that effectively developed their staff. 

Make learning part of your daily conversations

Somewhere along the way - perhaps rooted in our educational systems - we developed the belief that learning is an "event," something to be scheduled separate and apart from "real life." Wrong. Real life is learning. We are each a sophisticated learning machine, constantly gathering and synthesizing data, testing hypothesizes, and learning how to adjust our thinking and behavior to reach desired outcomes. Learning is so ingrained in our daily lives that sometimes we need to bring it to the surface and remind ourselves that learning is real-life exploration and application, not an event. Ask these three questions in your daily conversations to build a learning culture:

  1. What are you learning - in your daily activities; in that new project; about your work team; about the customer; about the work process; about the boss; about yourself?  
  2. How can you apply what you have learned to other situations?
  3. What do you need to learn next to continue to advance your thinking and capability?

Invest in two minutes for purposes of setting expectations for learning and development

It is just common sense. If you tell me ahead of time what I should be looking for in the upcoming situation, I am more likely to find it. In other words, if I had the test ahead of time, I would be sure to study the right material. In a similar way, as a leader you can help an employee (or yourself) achieve the desired development benefits from each learning opportunity by simply sharing your expectations before their experience. This focuses their attention on looking for this information and its application. This works for all kinds of learning experiences: training classes; the first days on new job; a project assignment; or the passing around of an article. It seems so obvious, and it only takes a minute. But it is rarely done, leaving the employee to sort out the important applications from all the background information. You also can reinforce and embed learning after the event by investing in another minute to ask employees what they've learned. You can use the same questions outlined above. This one technique will enhance the Return on Investment (ROI) of learning opportunities tenfold.

Focus on developing strengths

It may seem counterintuitive and is definitely not the traditional approach to development planning, but invest in developing the strengths of others. Granted, there are weaknesses or skill gaps that must be addressed through targeted development. But it has been proven over and over that if we have the potential, interest and passion, we can grow our strengths far beyond our weaknesses. If you have limited funds to invest in development, invest in growing strengths. It brings a greater return. We each have natural talents and capabilities that make us different from others. Invest in that diversity. Successful organizations assemble talent breadth - not talent clones.

Leverage different development methods

It is revealing to review the development plans associated with the annual performance appraisal process within most organizations. If there are defined action plans, 95 percent seem to recommend participation in a training class. Several years ago the research of the Center for Creative Leadership demonstrated that there are many ways adults learn. They explained that while training is effective to meet some learning needs (for example, building basic knowledge, detailed tasks and workflows,) it is not the optimum method to address all learning needs, such as concept application, behavior change and general management. They identified five different methods to develop and enhance capabilities within individuals:

  1. Existing role: stretch and project assignments
  2. New Role: accountabilities and increased scope
  3. Feedback: performance and developmental
  4. Coaching: mentoring relationships
  5. Training: targeted skill development   

The important applications for this discussion are two-fold: 

  1. Consider the different development strategies as you define ways to address the specific learning need/objective you are trying to impact.  
  2. Understand that a combination of methods is always more effective than one method. These strategies complement and enhance each other and the overall ROI.

Define your development objective first, then move to the method

You maximize your ROI for employee development when you start by clearly identifying and agreeing upon the learning objective. "Take a class in Excel" is not a learning objective. But "Develop the ability to maintain data within the master customer spreadsheet by the end of the quarter" is. Learning objectives should be specific and measurable and integrate into the "real world." You may wish to use the traditional SMART tool to define a development objective:

S - Specific

M - Measurable

A - Achievable

R - Realistic

T - Timebound

A good development objective targets the desired capabilities of the individual, defines clear expectations for the learner, and helps you to select the best development strategies for an individual. Once defined, the development objective also can be used in daily conversation to track progress and encourage learning application. I also recommend that you limit the number of development objectives to one or two. Too many objectives diffuse resources, time and attention, reducing the return of the development investment. 

Give these tactics a try to impact employee development within your organization.

Learn more about innovative ideas for developing your workforce. Visit Carlow University's College of Professional Studies at

About the Author: Ice serves as the Dean of the College of Professional Studies at Carlow University. For more than 30 years, he’s served as an advisor to global business leaders on issues of talent strategy, workforce alignment, strategic planning, employee engagement, change leadership, building learning organizations and equipping leaders for success.
Contact: Jim Ice, EdD