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3 Ways to Boost Retention Through Professional Development

With Americans continuing to quit their jobs at a record pace, leaving companies with more openings than candidates, it’s no surprise that attracting and retaining talent tops many leaders’ priority lists this year. While increasing compensation, promoting from within, offering flexible schedules, and making remote work easier are always good talent strategies, there’s one lever leaders can pull that’s highly accessible, doesn’t have to be expensive, and gives employees something they really want.

I’ve found that on-the-job professional development is a nearly perfect solution to many of the problems facing companies today. why? First, your people want it. The 2022 LinkedIn Global Talent Trends Report found that employees believe professional development is the number-one way to improve company culture. And the consequences of neglecting development are significant. According to a report by The Execu|Search Group, 86% of professionals said that they would change jobs if a new company offered them more opportunities for professional development.

Second, it’s good for business. A recent survey from Better Buys found that employees who get professional development opportunities are 15% more engaged and have 34% higher retention than those who don’t. And consider these stats from Deloitte that show that:

Organizations with a strong learning culture are 92% more likely to develop novel products and processes, 52% more productive, 56% more likely to be the first to market with their products and services, and 17% more profitable than their peers. Their engagement and retention rates are also 30–50% higher.

Evidently, prioritizing learning and development is crucial to the bottom line. And it doesn’t even have to cost much. But you do have to make professional personal development. In other words, make it real and truly connected to your employees.

Here are three ways to prioritize learning and development in your organization.

Learn Early and Often

All too often, we wait for our new employees to be firmly ensconced in their new roles before we start making professional development available. However, by connecting them to learning right out of the gate, our offerings can have a much deeper impact on their experience in the company.

Truckstop.com, a freight company, gets employees started on development early on by building professional development into the onboarding process. On the first day of onboarding, new Truckstop employees engage in discussions about the company and its mission and journey. The next day, newcomers are given the whole day and the space and tools for their self-discovery. Victoria Roberts, chief people and culture officer told me, “Throughout the day, our partners not only dive deep into the MBTI [Myers-Briggs assessment] and discover their results, but they also engage in interactive experiences through activity-based breakout rooms, thoughtful discussions, and an action plan on what to do with what they have learned.”

The employee continues to use this onboarding experience in their day-to-day interactions with their manager. Together, they answer these questions: “What motivates you?” and “How should we work together?”, allowing for personal connection right away. According to Roberts, Truckstop.com’s goal is for employees to be “able to show up feeling like they are doing their best work because they are doing work that aligns with their talents and they feel like they matter.”

LinkedIn, which has one of the most regular, integrated, impactful professional development programs out there, gives employees the opportunity to learn often. One “InDay” per month is set aside for employees to focus on “themselves, the company, and the world.” Each month has a theme, and employees are invited to participate in whatever way works for them, through the many scheduled activities or on their own. (Or, if they’re really backed up, not at all.)

Because InDay happens every month, as soon as new hires get started, they’re sure to have an opportunity to explore themselves alongside their colleagues. LinkedIn is essentially baking development into onboarding.

I attended a wellness-themed InDay when I was doing research for my second book, and between morning meditation class, a country line-dancing class, and a wellness fair, it was impossible not to make professional personal development. There was something for everyone.

A 2018 LinkedIn Workplace Learning Report showed that a staggering “94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development,” but the biggest obstacle to employees learning and developing is a lack of time. LinkedIn’s strategy addresses this problem by building development time right into employees’ schedules.

Make Learning a Ritual

Rituals help employees feel a sense of belonging and a connection to purpose, leading to higher performance. Udemy, the online learning company, is home to one of my favorite rituals of all time: It’s called Drop Everything and Learn, or DEAL.

Every month, on a Wednesday at 3:00 pm, Udemy employees participate in DEALs, where everyone drops whatever they’re doing and takes an online class — in anything they want.

When I learned about this cool ritual, I assumed employees would take classes in subjects that helped them become better at their day jobs. I was delighted to learn that while some did, others made professional development very personal. For example, during Thanksgiving, one employee took a class on how to make a turkey since she was hosting the holiday that year.

Giving employees professional development opportunities keeps them engaged, which is important, because according to a 2016 Udemy study, disengaged and bored employees are twice as likely to leave. The same study showed that 80% of respondents agreed that learning new skills would make them more engaged.

Prior to the pandemic, AT&T’s marketing and growth organization had an in-office culture that was fun, engaging, and centered around professional and personal growth, according to Jeannie Weaver, VP of retail and Hello Lab marketing. Weaver wanted to foster an environment for those same types of connections and outcomes for employees working in a 100% virtual environment.

That’s why Weaver started a new ritual: a book club, which gave employees the opportunity to think and learn together. As Weaver told me, the book club ritual “let [them] laugh together, talk candidly, and even demonstrate real vulnerabilities. It’s been so important to show up as our ‘full human self’ during this time…team dynamics are being strengthened paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter.”

Provide Coaching Beyond the C-Suite

Coaching is one of the most requested employee benefits and is a proven win. However, until recently, coaching was reserved mostly for senior executives and high performers whom a company deemed worthy of investment. Over the last few years (and especially since the pandemic), managers and HR leaders have been overwhelmed by the employee need for coaching, especially since they don’t have time to do it themselves.

Unlike many retailers, in late 2021, Sam’s Club’s 600 locations were fully employed. How did they do it? In a SHRM article, senior director of field learning and development, Jennifer Buchanan, attributes the success to the company’s robust employee development program, where all 95,000 associates are able to “develop essential skills for the roles they’re in now, as well as the roles they’d like to see themselves in down the line.”

Betterment, an investment software company, provides one-on-one coaching to employees at all levels. Directors and above get six sessions per year, and anyone below director gets three sessions per year. As Susan Justus, former VP/head of talent development described to me, “Employees look to coaches when they’re trying to get promoted, wondering how to skillfully advocate for themselves in meetings, or struggling with a hard time managing a team member and not sure how to have this hard conversation.”

Another exciting development in the coaching space is increasing access. There’s a whole new category of companies popping up that offer organizations coaching beyond the C-Suite. Forinstance:

  • Bravely, which has a “population-wide, bottoms-up” approach to coaching and can provide all employees unlimited access to coaches.
  • Terawatt (a client of mine), an early-stage startup that provides group coaching, or what they call “masterminds,” to groups of employees across the organization.
  • Torch, a data-driven platform that helps HR leaders offer classes, coaching, and mentoring to employees.
  • Modern Health (a company I’m an investor in), which uses AI to determine what type of support is the best fit, from life and career coaching to therapy, and whose growth puts it in “unicorn” status.

Coaching allows people to really take their personal and professional development to the next level. As Deloitte notes, “A coaching culture is the practice that’s most highly correlated with business performance, employee engagement, and overall retention,” and companies that are considered high-impact leadership organizations “spend 1.5–3 times more on management development than their peers .”

People’s lives and priorities are changing in dramatic ways before our very eyes. By offering those very same people the thing they want the most — on-the-job personal and professional development — not only will you invite employees to be a part of your team and encourage them to stay, but you’ll be contributing to a world that’s more rewarding for everyone.

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