What Is Employee Development? In-Depth Strategy Guide

Sam Cook


What Is Employee Development? In-Depth Strategy Guide

The importance of employee development is sometimes best told through personal stories. That’s because employee development is so distinctly personal in the first place. Every employee has different needs, and how you develop them is rarely linear. This is why traditional development strategies often have such mixed results (and don’t work well in a modern workplace). Effective employee development increases retention, engagement, job satisfaction, and much more, but only if it’s effective.

In this blog post, we’ll help you answer three big questions:

  1. What employee development usually means and entails
  2. The types of employee development you can offer
  3. How to start creating an effective employee development strategy in your workplace right now.

That’s all going to be a moot point if you don’t have internal support. We recommend you download our quick-start guide (the form right below this line) that walks you through the right strategy for getting internal support for whichever development strategy you plan to use.

Take It With You:

Boost Employee Development by Following This Free, Question-Based Guide

Remember: Employee development isn’t just about improving people’s skills. It’s a quality-of-life improvement that holistically impacts the totality of each employee’s experience. How you go about offering that development will have significant and definitive impacts on your organization, from recruiting to retention. 

What Is Employee Development?

“Employee development” is any strategy designed to help employees learn and grow in a way that simultaneously benefits them and their company. 

Workers sitting at a table engaged in collaborative employee development with laptops open.

Does that definition seem deceptively simple? Yes. 

Is that on purpose? Also a yes. 

This post walks through many of the complexities of employee development, but to truly get the internal sell for both employees and executives, you need a strong logline or a powerful one-line description of what you’re trying to pitch. The above definition does just that for you. But, once you get past that simple definition, you’ll need to elaborate on the finer details, such as: 

  • The strategies you think will work
  • Why those strategies will work
  • How you plan to make sure you get good and measurable results

We aren’t covering the internal sell in this section (although you can certainly skip down to that part if you want to). Here, we’re just focused on the definition.

An expanded way to explain employee development

One way to help others understand what employee development should be is by defining for them examples of what it’s not supposed to be

For example, employee development is not:

  • A static training program: Employee development is not about one-size-fits-all training programs. Unlike static training, which often lacks personalization and ongoing support, employee development involves dynamic, continuous learning tailored to individual needs and career goals.
  • A short-term focus: It is not a short-term intervention or a one-off event. Employee development is a long-term strategy, focusing on continuous growth and learning over time rather than immediate, short-lived improvements.
  • Solely job-skill enhancement: While improving job-related skills is a part of it, employee development is not limited to just enhancing current job skills. It encompasses broader aspects like personal growth, leadership development, and preparing employees for future roles and challenges.
  • A top-down imposition: Employee development is not a top-down imposition where management dictates the learning path. Instead, it is a collaborative process that values employee input and encourages self-directed learning, aligning individual aspirations with organizational goals.
  • Merely an HR function: Lastly, employee development is not solely the responsibility of the HR department. While HR plays a crucial role, effective development requires a collective effort involving managers, mentors, executive leaders, and the employees themselves, all working together to foster a culture of continuous learning and development throughout the organization.

That said, there’s still value in each of these within a framework of employee development. 

Sometimes, you need one-off training events. 

Sometimes, you need a short-term engagement (that’s what flash mentoring and quick connections are all about, after all). 

And sometimes, you need to dictate the training direction because you have a specific technical need within your company that is only covered by a strict, structured development plan. 

But taken as a whole, employee development is a collaborative process between organizations and their people that ultimately seeks to boost the personal and professional skills of employees in a way that makes them: 

  • Happier at work
  • More skillful in their role
  • More productive in their daily tasks
  • More eager to contribute to the growth of the company
  • More likely to promote the company positively within their personal and professional networks
  • And ultimately, they are far more likely to become long-term employees who turn around and give back a billion percent of what they were given

If you don’t see that at your organization, your organization either lacks an effective employee development strategy or you have a strategy that needs a complete overhaul. Either way, the better your employee development strategy is, the more evident the results will be in how your employees engage with each other and the organization. 

10 Most Common Types of Employee Development 

I like to tell stories of when I was a teacher for a few reasons. For one, it was my longest career. These days, I tend to tell people I’m on a third career: First, I was a high school teacher, then a freelance writer, and now I’m an industry research and content specialist. My teaching career was foundational, however, because it gave me numerous experiences, including first-hand experience in employee development, both in being developed and in helping develop others.

One such story is not about me but about my students. During my tenure at my first high school outside of Washington, D.C., I independently started and ran a student club (for anime, for what it’s worth). This club tended to attract many of the students who were often seen as outcasts. I enjoyed that aspect of it because it turned my classroom into a safe space for alt-culture students just to be themselves with others they felt comfortable being around.

On one occasion, a student who regularly attended group meetings walked into the room, breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and said: “I feel…safe here.” 

The point here is that I want you to think more expansively about what employee development is and what it should be. Just as with my students, knowledge isn’t the end-all, be-all of their development. Personal development is, as well. A student who finds a way to develop strong relationships and personal ties within the school is more likely to succeed and is less likely to drop out of school. 

Think more broadly about employee development

Employees aren’t students, but they are learners and social creatures. Workers who develop personal relationships within your organization are far more likely to succeed in their roles and will have higher retention rates. 

The Survey Center of American Life found that people are more likely to make friends at work than in any other place. Meanwhile, Gallup found that employees who report having a best friend at work are more productive, share their ideas more often, have fewer workplace accidents(!), and have better retention.

Yet only 2 in 10 employees report having that kind of relationship at work.

This may seem like a strange segue into talking about the current employee development ecosystem. But it matters for two reasons:

  1. Effective employee development is about more than just developing skills
  2. Relationship development is an important, too often overlooked factor in employee development strategies

The list below provides a mixture of development strategies that are either primarily focused on soft skills, hard skills, personal skills, relationships/culture, or a combination of all four.

Leadership development programs

These programs focus on developing leadership skills such as decision-making, team management, and strategic thinking. They are essential for preparing employees for managerial roles. Additionally, these programs often incorporate elements of emotional intelligence and conflict resolution, which are crucial for leading diverse teams effectively. Leadership development can also include mentorship opportunities, allowing aspiring leaders to learn directly from experienced executives and managers.

Technical skills training

This involves training employees in specific technical skills relevant to their jobs, like coding, data analysis, or machinery operation. Such training is not only crucial for immediate job performance but also for keeping up with technological advancements and industry standards. Regular updates to technical training programs ensure that employees are proficient with the latest tools and methodologies, enhancing overall productivity and innovation within the organization.

Communication skills workshops 

These workshops enhance employees’ ability to communicate effectively, both internally and with clients, improving teamwork and customer relations. They typically cover areas like active listening, non-verbal communication, and persuasive speaking. Effective communication workshops also increasingly focus on digital communication skills, recognizing the importance of clear and concise communication in emails, video conferences, and social media.

Mentoring programs

Pairing employees into mentoring relationships helps create social learning engagements where mentors can impart their experience through regular development meetings and discussions. Mentoring helps knowledge transfer, skill development, and building a supportive work culture, making it one of the most effective strategies for developing employees across all angles that lead to better retention, happiness, and productivity. 

Employee Resource Groups (ERGS)

Employees sitting at a long table in an office with purple theme walls engaged in collaborative engagement discussions.

ERGs are hands down one of the best ways to ensure employees develop a strong and lasting sense of community and develop important relationships and connections at work. Employee Resource Groups have historically been viewed as little more than social clubs. Considering the amount of personal and professional development, networking, mentoring, and cultural development that happens within these groups, that couldn’t be further from the truth. And yet, even if that were all that were happening, this is where Social Identity Theory comes into play. 

In the context of work, employees who strongly identify with their organizational group are more likely to stay committed and contribute positively. If they see that you’ve both created and strongly support places for them to create authentic connections and protect their psychological safety in the workplace, your workplace will become part of their social identity. 

Emotional intelligence training

This focuses on improving employees’ ability to understand and manage their emotions, as well as recognize and influence the emotions of others. Emotional intelligence is increasingly part of school curriculums, but for many older Gen Z workers, Millennials, Gen X, and Boomer employees, emotional intelligence was never part of a formal education. A meta-analysis on the influence of EQ on employee outcomes has discovered that high emotional intelligence is positively correlated with a stronger commitment to the organization, positive organizational citizenship behaviors, better job satisfaction, and better workplace performance

Work-life balance programs

Work-Life Balance Programs: Initiatives such as flexible working hours, wellness programs, and stress management workshops help employees balance their professional and personal lives. These programs may also include resources like employee assistance programs for counseling, fitness memberships, and opportunities for remote work or job sharing. Such initiatives demonstrate an organization’s commitment to the holistic well-being of its employees, which can significantly reduce burnout and improve overall job satisfaction and productivity

Conflict resolution training

These programs equip employees with skills to effectively resolve conflicts in the workplace, promoting a healthier and more productive work environment. Training often covers techniques for active listening, empathy, and negotiation, allowing employees to address and de-escalate conflicts before they escalate. Such training can also include role-playing exercises to provide practical experience in handling disputes, fostering a culture of open communication and mutual respect.

Career development planning

Assisting employees in mapping out their career paths within the company enhances job satisfaction and employee retention. This planning might involve regular career counseling sessions, mentorship programs, and succession planning to prepare employees for future roles. Career development planning not only helps employees see a clear future within the company but also aids organizations in identifying and nurturing talent, ensuring a robust pipeline for leadership and critical roles.

Team building activities

Activities designed to enhance teamwork and collaboration can improve communication, boost morale, and foster a positive workplace culture. In our increasingly remote workplace, company offsites have become a popular medium for team-building activities. The thinking goes like this: Employees spend most of their time working remotely and producing great work, but when it’s time to boost team engagement and culture building, you bring them together for a remote off-site. This can occur at the company headquarters or in different remote locations.

How to Communicate the Value of Development to Internal Teams

In theory, employee development should be an easy sell, especially in light of the many benefits it brings to companies that invest in the various strategies available to them. That’s not always going to be the case. Developing employees usually requires money, and money usually means a budget, and a budget means (gulp) having discussions and debates on why that budget is necessary. 

Yes, you will ultimately have to pitch why you want to invest in one or more employee development strategies. It doesn’t matter how effective that strategy may be. When budgets are concerned, executive leaders and decision-makers will have a long list of requirements for you:

  • Why do you need it?
  • What business need(s) is it aligned to?
  • How much do you need?
  • What ROI can we expect from it?
  • How quickly can we expect to see that ROI?
  • How will you measure success?
  • Do you have case studies or industry benchmarks related to the effectiveness of this strategy?
  • Have you performed a risk assessment?
  • Have you performed a comparative analysis?
  • Is it aligned with long-term strategic goals?
  • What feedback mechanisms are in place?
  • Is it scalable and adaptable?
  • Do you have a post-implementation review plan?

Phew. That’s…a lot to work.

Building the case alone or even in a small team is going to be challenging. We have a few tips to offer to help you reduce the stress a bit and downloadable that will help you brainstorm all of these questions.

Take It With You:

Download our free 13-question guide to navigating the internal selling process

1. Create a simplified pitch to get your idea in the door

In his award-winning book Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need, Blake Snyder explains that the logline (or one-line) should be able to pitch your idea in just one sentence. That doesn’t mean your executive teams are going to open the coffers and give you a standing ovation in the process after hearing your one-line. It just means it should be strong and compelling enough to tell the story of your need in a compelling and complete way

Snyder puts it this way:

“Because if you can learn how to tell me “What is it?” better, faster, and with more creativity, you’ll keep me interested. And incidentally, by doing so before you write your script, you’ll make the story better, too.” 

While his book is about screenwriting, think of it as valuable to you, as well. You’re trying to sell someone on an idea that’s going to require them to spend money on that idea. If you can’t easily communicate that value in one sentence, you’ll have a hard time keeping their attention.

Try crafting the value of employee development in one strong, impactful sentence before you even start developing answers to all of the questions written above. 

For example, let’s say you want your company to invest in a mentoring program. Your one-line might be something like this:

“Implementing a robust mentoring program directly addresses our urgent need for skill enhancement and leadership development, ensuring a competitive edge in the market by fostering a dynamic, knowledge-intensive workforce.”

OK! Tell me more! That’s what you’re out to do after creating your logline. Answer all of the questions in the previous section in a way that will prove that the strong value proposition you created will be a reality if you can get the budget you need.

2. Learn how to get executive buy-in 

For this last tip, I’ll stop doing all the talking and let this video do the rest. Here, you’ll find some excellent tips on how to get executive buy-in. While this video looks at it through the lens of mentoring programs, it’s easily applicable to getting buy-in from your executive team for any other type of people development strategy you have in mind. 

Employee Development Is Best When It’s Human

When I began my nearly decade-long teaching career in 2007, you could say it was a bit of trial by fire. I got hired on a Thursday and started that following Monday. The faculty member in charge of teacher training handed me a large binder of the curriculum, told me “good luck”, and that was it. Within that context, my employee development was effectively a test of willpower. If I could make it past the first year with minimal assistance, I’d pass the test (or at least survive longer than the last guy).

Consequently, there was a lot of turnover that year (I was replacing a teacher who had quit mid-school year, after all). And in many school districts, like the one where I started my teaching career, turnover is high. Education is its own monster, but the fundamentals of employee needs are consistent across industries.

People want and need development from the moment they’re hired. If they aren’t getting that development, they’re likely going to quit and go where they are getting the support they need.

If there’s one thing you should absolutely take away from this, it’s a reminder that employee development is distinctly human. There are real, personal needs underlying development that extend beyond just the need to make people more productive. An effective development strategy focuses on building up all aspects of the humans you have working for you, and not just their skills.

Companies that invest in the whole person are the companies that win. 

We strongly believe mentoring is one of the best ways to invest in developing the whole person and that mentoring programs are one of the most cost-effective and people-centric ways to do that. 

Check out what mentoring software can do to help you be the winner who brings effective development to your entire organization.

Sam Cook

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