Why Employees Need to Be Sold on Professional Development

Everybody wants to climb the ladder, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need some institutional encouragement. Associations can take some lessons from how they court members to make it happen.

It’s not picking much of a fight to say that employees should have opportunities to grow in their organizations. What’s to debate? For staffers, such opportunities seem like a no-brainer: Everybody wants the authority, autonomy, and better compensation that’s comes with being higher up the org chart. The job sells itself.

With so many distractions, young professionals today could benefit from focused communication.

Or does it? After all, potential members need to be pitched on the value of engaging with your organization in ways that go beyond the tried-and-true methods of generations past. (Meetings! A magazine! Discounts!) In the same way, employees may need to be sold on the virtues of professional development, and in some cases immersed in it.

This point is a running theme in a recent Forbes article in which a host of nonprofit leaders share their advice on the subject. Many of the suggestions are of the vague “create a supportive work environment” type, but many are impressively concrete. One nonprofit gives each employee a dozen free sessions of leadership coaching; another holds “enterprise-wide, resume-enhancing training on new platforms”; another actively solicits employee interests and hosts a pair of employee development days; yet another curates lists of relevant classes and podcasts that it invites workers to engage with and report back on.

Not all of these ideas will necessarily sail with employees in your own organization. But the point isn’t the tools so much as the fact of the perceived need to provide them; without some demonstrated effort among leadership that their professional development is important, workers may assume that it’s not on your agenda. As I wrote earlier this year, that point is particularly pronounced among millennials, who are temperamentally and financially motivated to climb the ladder but are quick to bolt if they’re skeptical about your interest in keeping them around.

Here again, associations might take a few lessons from the world of membership engagement. Last fall, when Naylor Association Solutions released its 2017 Association Communications Benchmarking Report [PDF], it identified a disconnect between its confidence in what associations were producing and how well they were communicating its products to members. Eighty-four percent of survey respondents said they are good at creating content, but only 17 percent said they had a “good understanding of their reader, member, and advertiser needs.”

Part of the reason for that split, the study suggests, is that associations are only slowly getting used to the notion of segmenting their communications with younger members. Barely half of the survey respondents (51 percent) create targeted communications with them, with only 7 percent creating content specifically for those who have been members for less than two years.; 56 percent create events specific to them; 57 percent offer volunteer roles for them.

Those numbers are on the rise, ticking up from previous Naylor surveys. But Naylor’s Elyce Gronseth points out a conflict that persist in making such communication a challenge. “The newest generation of professionals is accustomed to interacting with many more information sources than ever before,” she writes, then adds: “With so many distractions, young professionals today could benefit from focused communication.” Which is to say, you need to do a lot more communication, but keep that communication on point.

Easier said than done, of course. The upside, though, is that those younger employees, like younger members, are motivated to improve quickly and have a healthy appreciation for structure. “Setting [millennials] up for success means regular check-ins (annual reviews aren’t enough), both positive and constructive feedback as a rule, and structured mentorship,” write the authors of the recent “Millennials + Work” [PDF] study published by Department 26. “Once these pieces are in place and expectations are set, it’s critical that performers who own their roles are rewarded for their hard work. Millennials want to be treated like adults— they don’t want something for nothing, but they believe that proven responsibility should afford some autonomy.”

To put it another way: Workers will rise to the occasion if it’s made clear to them what they’re rising up to, and they have evidence that they’ll be supported along the way. But that’s unlikely to happen in a vacuum, and without leaders speaking to the virtues of professional development. Associations do this naturally with members all the time; it would be a small but necessary leap to apply it to the staff office as well.

What does your organization do to promote professional development to employees, especially younger ones? Share your experiences in the comments.



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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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