Employee Education an Important Investment for Businesses

The opportunity for professional growth was too good to pass up. I was in a junior role at the National Basketball Association, looking to strengthen my professional skills at a more senior level. I was excited when the opportunity came up to lead web content management for Avis Budget Group, which I took on when I joined the company in 2011.  However, my passion went beyond the web and was far greater in the area of mobile apps – a discipline I had been exposed to in my last few months at the NBA.

I didn’t want to be defined by my 9-to-5 role as a “web” guy. But – and this is on me – I also didn’t express to anyone at Avis that I had an interest in learning more about mobile apps. Instead, I picked up a book on the topic. I read about developing, marketing, and monetizing mobile apps at a time when there were about 425k in Apple’s App Store (vs. 2.2m+ in 2021).

I didn’t just read, though, I began creating. That same year, I launched LetterSlider, a word-search puzzle that went on to become a Top 100 Word Game in the App Store in 105 countries. I spent my mornings, evenings, and weekends working on the app – all my free time, which was already limited by having a newborn in the house.

I took control of my future, building a new knowledge set in an area of digital where I saw the industry heading. This not only benefited me but Avis, as well. Less than one year after launching LetterSlider, Avis had an opening to lead its mobile product and marketing strategy. Since there weren’t many people who knew “mobile,” I had made myself more valuable in that new role than staying in my current one.

The Benefits of Professional Development

A 2019 LinkedIn report found that 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if that company invested in their careers. According to the Work Institute’s 2021 Retention Report, the most common reason for turnover was career issues, a category that includes opportunities for growth.

The workforce is results-driven, which often forces managers to think about what their employees are doing now as opposed to what they can do in the future. I’ve written about awareness in the past. It is no different in this case, where you need to remove yourself from the north star performance metrics for a moment and think about the opportunities you can provide your employees to prepare them and the company for the future.

Proactiveness, however, is required on both sides to further one’s education. It’s on the company to make employees feel empowered to ask to attend classes, seminars, conferences, and order books. It’s also on the employee to be vocal and ask to participate, or simply take the education into their own hands, as I did.

I’ve seen companies that offer internal training and others that provide a set financial amount that can go towards professional development expenses each year. Each company is different – both in what they offer as part of the official (or unofficial) benefits package and the leaders who make sure their talent takes advantage of these opportunities. But there are many that still don’t put a value on employee growth. Exactly why isn’t well known, but I have some assumptions.

Why don’t companies invest more in training and development?

There’s the old school mentality that someone was hired for a specific role and they should do that role. That’s a bit shortsighted as the tasks of that role are likely to evolve, preventing future-proofing for these changes. I think of employees put into this position as depreciating “assets.”

In this example, think of a “V.” The employee is hired to complete a role and is successful, but the needs of the role change (e.g. think of a digital marketer in 2010 vs. 2020) and they aren’t able to adapt. Managers eventually realize this and get them the proper training, but that brings the employee back to where they started because the entire industry has adapted rather than staying ahead of changes.

Those employees who seek or are afforded the opportunity to further their professional expertise can be considered appreciating “assets.” They continue to add value in the areas they were hired for, but also begin to provide incremental value beyond what they were hired for. There is no letter representing their path, only the “/” symbol, indicating continuous growth. Nurturing this growth is important, regardless of whether a company funds it or not, because without it, your professional expertise could be stunted, hindering future opportunities outside your current organization.

I used the word “value” twice in the last paragraph and it’s a critical word here. It’s important to remember that your job at any company is to drive value. They pay you to drive more value for that company than the money they spend on you. It may sound crass, but it’s the reality of the business world. When thinking about it in this context, it behooves the employee to seek ways to improve their own professional value – whether it is recognized at their current company or not.

The shifting nature of creating value

Historically, as described in Daniel Pink’s book “Drive,” jobs were algorithmic. There was one set of instructions that led to one outcome. You could become more efficient at acting on those instructions, but the outcome would remain the same. The last few decades have seen algorithmic jobs continue with manual labor or be replaced by machines programmed with artificial intelligence. There was also another type of job that emerged in greater numbers than ever before.

Heuristic jobs are the creative ones that require experimentation to pursue an outcome. There isn’t one linear path to get to that desired outcome and the result of the conclusion may be different depending on how successful the experimentation is.

At the NBA, we use several forms of artificial intelligence to help our content team editors cut highlights from every game. Instead of manually having to do that, these editors can focus their attention on creative content packages to engage global fans across a range of platforms. The role went from algorithmic to heuristic. As media distribution platforms and consumer habits evolve, further education will prepare these editors for expanding their creativity.

Another negative reaction to employee education I’ve heard in the past is that there’s an inherent fear that someone will get the training they requested, then use that newfound knowledge to get a different job. This is a short-sighted way of thinking. First off, you’ve already invested in that employee by hiring them: equipment, onboarding, benefits, recruiting, etc. That employee may leave with or without training. It’s the reason we use the word invest here – there’s always a risk of negative return – not all investments pay off, after all, right?

In my case, I lasted only nine months in my mobile role at Avis Budget Group. The New York Times recruited me to lead their entrance into the mobile subscription business. I didn’t go looking for the opportunity, but my proactive self-education had made me a valuable asset to the famous media company.

Counter to this, as we learned from the aforementioned studies, training reduces the odds that employees will leave. Nintendo president Shuntaro Furukawa recently said that he would rather invest in his in-house employees than pursue acquiring new talent. He feels that if current employees believe in the Nintendo mission and values, and they become better professionals, they will continue to work at the company.

“Our brand was built upon products crafted with dedication by our employees,” Furukawa said. “And having a large number of people who don’t possess Nintendo DNA in our group would not be a plus to the company.”

Furukawa knows the feeling employees get when someone believes in them and recognizes their potential. People step out of the spotlight shielded by the work that they’re doing and into a new one that makes them feel appreciated and recognized.

What training should a company invest in?

Deciding on the right training for your employees depends on a number of factors. If the training has to do with soft skills, such as communication, leadership, organization, etc., those are valuable no matter the level or role. Meanwhile, hard skill training related to their responsibilities – either enhancing their existing knowledge or gaining insights into areas that touch their responsibilities – can make that employee drive more value.

There’s also the cognitive-emotional derivative I alluded to with the Nintendo example above. In some cases, that’s more valuable than the actual training itself. It’s the feeling the employee gets that someone cares about them and their future. This creates a circle of safety for that employee to feel as if the company and their manager believe in their abilities and expertise, feel supported, and this could inspire improved work performance.

In either case of soft or hard skill education, set a meeting for after the training to recap with the employee some of the things they learned and how you, as their manager, can help enable them to utilize their new skills. By even setting learning outcomes ahead of the training, you and the employee can be clear-headed as to what they’re hoping to get out of their time in the classroom. This continues to show support for the employee and allows you to vocalize ways that the learnings may relate specifically to the organization. You may also learn a thing or two.

In my teaching at NYU’s School of Professional Studies, I strive to make every class impactful, not only to improve every student’s hard skill knowledge but their soft skills as well.

While I’m no longer at Avis or The Times, I did eventually return to the NBA in 2017 to lead their emerging technology product team. It’s a role in which we introduced NBA fans to augmented reality experiences and innovative ways to watch the game of basketball digitally. My job continues to be to think about what’s next, which hinges on continuous education, both for myself and the teams that I support.

This post originally was published July 14, 2022 on the NYU SPS LinkedIn newsletter series, “The Pitch.”

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