How To Create a Culture of Development

Three ProfessionalsFast-paced, entrepreneurial operations (like the one I’m part of) face many challenges, but – as you may have read – growth isn’t one of them. Retention can be.

The tech and media sectors are growing at a fast clip, and industry-wide some employees don’t stay put more than three or four years. Add the increasingly aggressive recruiting and poaching we’re seeing, and retention becomes even more of a challenge.

So how do we keep key employees feeling valued and fulfilled in their roles, while positioning our business to thrive? How can we be sure to understand and address what drives each employee so we can usher them successfully to the next level of professional development?

Building a culture of development is fundamental to making this happen. I’m not saying you should implement a one-off training program. I’m talking about embedding a long-term culture of development at the core of your business.

Here’s how:

  1. Start with team leaders. Bring managers into the development conversation from the very beginning, so they understand your objectives. If you don’t have their buy-in — if they’re not ready to prioritize development for their employees — you may as well quit now. On the other hand, if they recognize the opportunity for their teams and the support you’re able to provide, they’ll be your most vocal advocates.
  2. Skip the needs assessment. The formal needs assessment, that is. It’s usually a waste of time — most people don’t know what they don’t know and haven’t had any exposure to the types of training available to them. At the same time, it’s even more critical to make sure your HR team has its collective ear to the ground. Know who your employees are, what kind of skills and experience they bring and what their goals are, and you’ll find the gaps you need to fill. Finally, raise awareness with each individual employee and manager to help them understand how they can change and grow. Help them draft a plan to make change achievable.
  3. Collect intelligence. Don’t just write a check. Consider corporate goals and revenue drivers before spending. Meet with management about long-term objectives. Ask your managers about their teams’ needs. Talk to peers in your space about the vendors they use for training programs, and look for vendors who operate in your specific industry and can customize a training module tailored to what you do.
  4. Keep it concrete. Don’t try to cover everything at once: Identify one or two skills that need attention, and focus your efforts there. Make the content of your programs tangible — incorporating real-life scenarios, if possible — and accessible to employees.
  5. Evaluate, two ways. Conduct a post-mortem of each program. Look at the content, trainers and structure, and ask employees and their managers what they took away from it. And don’t stop at the conventional course-evaluation form; also ask the trainers for feedback on your staff.
  6. Try something old. Remember that the only way to change behavior is through practice, practice, practice. So don’t do something new every year — reinforce and follow-up on the behaviors you’re trying to change. When you can, bring the same trainers and programs back from year to year. Encourage managers to offer refreshers when possible.

Believing and investing in development can be among the biggest challenges for a growing company, but one that certainly has its rewards. After all, we’re only as strong as our weakest link.

31 Responses to “How To Create a Culture of Development”

  1. Sadly, almost every corporate entity I’ve worked for has exhibited leadership that has single-handedly attempted to quash these qualities. The consensus seems to be that people exhibiting “ideas” or “a unique approach” are undermining the status quo.

    How dare they! 😉

    This is why I’m working my butt off right now trying to make a go of a completely freelance life. I’d love to see these qualities embraced, but in my 20-year history in the public and private sectors, I see little evidence of that…

    • I’m with you Mikalee . . . the reality hasn’t been too encouraging in my experience either. Heard a report on NPR just a week or so ago where a woman did some research on what kind of people were the most successful in the business world . . . they weren’t the nice guys, let’s put it that way.

  2. In the past, as an employee I have been acknowledged and awarded for simply just being myself. Not hiding behind any false pretenses.

    I have been known as the one who brightens up the office, particularly on a Monday morning. Being unassuming and respectful of others has always worked well!

  3. As someone who works two different positions within two different departments in the same company I think I might have the answer.

    Position one (has been held for over three years): Department is small. Director for this department is the director for another department and rarely interacts with this departmental staff. Supervisor works only the morning shift and hates to work any other shift even if that’s the only option. A few years before I started working here they had staff meetings within the department. Shifts only change for per diems. Office is often stuffy and I was forced to call housekeeping myself and ask for cleaning supplies and clean the office myself. I retyped papers that looked old, torn and wrinkly. Also, some coworkers have caused several conflicts for years before I started and still continue to do so, even though human resources and our supervisor has been notified several times that person continues to work here. Teamwork is not really necessary.

    Position two (has been held for less than 1 year): Staff is very welcoming and helpful, minus one or two. There are four supervisors and one director. The director works her own shift. Supervisors are forced to work one weekend yes, one weekend no. Shifts rotate and you never work with the same person for weeks in a row. Staff meetings are held at least once every month. For all positions within the department teamwork is a must.

    How does the department where I just began to work encourage me and others to create a better workplace? Teamwork should be necessary. It creates bonds between workers therefore reducing any conflicts and stress within the department. Cleanliness is definitely a must. It’s like when you have a cold, you don’t want to work when you feel all stuffy. It’s the same way when it comes to tidiness, clean areas make it easier to work and sometimes feel like the work space is more ample. Departmental meetings keep people on track and on the same page, these are meetings where employees can voice out their concerns and ideas. In my first department you usually contact the supervisor by email or phone if you are not scheduled to work with them which doesn’t necessarily allow you to explain your idea so thoroughly, otherwise you’d end up with an email as long as this post. Also, in department #1 many of the employees find out about changes through email only or when you are told you just made a mistake. When there are new policies and procedures within a company, it is better to speak directly to the staff rather than writing out an email. Now the last point, shifts. Supervisors work every other weekend in department #2 which makes every employee feel good. Why? Because although they hold a higher position within the department or company they are meant to rotate so that you can work with them as well. It shows fairness and a sense of equality.

    There are obviously different methods that other companies use like employee of the month or rewarding employees for excellent customer service or teamwork. Sometimes the most simple tasks can make employees feel welcome and needed. No one likes to feel like they’re just another employee.

    Great post and sorry about my seriously long comment.

  4. uniqueness
    social smarts…defined as? This feel vague to me.
    adaptability…yes, that’s important.
    inquisitiveness. Many corporate cultures hate this!
    focus. Obvious.
    the urge to tinker with the status quo. You’re kidding, right?
    a desire to prove they’re right. I think not.
    they praise others in public.
    they complain in private

    I’m cynical enough to find this list bogus and implausible.

    Most employers want docile, cheap labor. The last thing they want is someone full of new ideas. New ideas cost money! New ideas can fail! New ideas mean….change!

    Which is why, like Mikalee, I am also working for myself these days.

  5. Hello,

    I saw this post in the sign-on window at WordPress. As for the content, I try to live this way all the time — whether working or not. That is, I do so except in the case of #7, which I think I must not be understanding correctly. While presenting a new idea as VALID is worthwhile, I actually find that insisting one is “right” is off-putting.

    However (and hoping not to be seen as violating #9), I did notice that your image is backward (i.e., the checkmarks are facing the wrong way. Since this is in public view right now, I thought I’d tip you off so that you can reverse the image. If you were set on having the hand at left, I’d be happy to Photoshop the checkmarks to face the same way. If you’d like this option, please email:


  6. It is a bit discouraging to see that if two candidates are up for the same position, 56% already knew which candidate they wanted for whatever reason. Perhaps the reason is because they had worked with one of the candidates before, and it was successful. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the other candidate is unqualified, it is just a matter of wrong place, wrong time, Unfortunately it is challenging to overcome these biases in the workplace.

  7. Good points! I just checked my criterias for “being employee of the day” with yours above and of course scored high. ( ^-^)
    I would therefore add self reflection.

    And because I see it all the time: be able to communicate the important stuff! Just because you answer every mail with a polite “thanks for your efforts” you are not a good communicator.

  8. Do you have any tips for people thinking of working overseas, in a non-english speaking european country perhaps? Although I believe I have these qualities, I think they would be lessened with the language barrier.

    • I would also look into cultural boundaries. You can pick up the language when you are emmersed in it pretty quickly from what I gather, but you should always be aware that different cultures act and react in different ways.

  9. I’m with Mikalee and Nat above…I’ve seen these same qualities actively quashed in the workplace. I think that these are platitudes. This is what employers tell themselves to feel good. And if you are the bosses in-law or willing to work cheap, just about everything else can be overlooked!

    And another freelancer here.

  10. teddevito

    Sorry Donna. I think this is a poor representation of the original article

    For instance, you summarized the point on Tinker as “the urge to tinker with the status quo”. I don’t think that captures the point that was being made. Your summary implies mischief and deviation from guidelines and lost the original point which is more about refining and improving processes.

    Here’s another one. I believe I’m connecting your point on focus with Jeff’s point about starting work on time? Seems like the meat is gone. Focus is no doubt an important quality, but the point there seems to be about personal standards.

    Kind of makes me wonder what your business experience is. BroadsideBlog had a few points I agree with – this person your post describes has some qualities I raise my eyebrows at. I recommend reading the original article for deeper insights.

  11. My company is pretty insistent on sticking to its own ideas even if people bring other ideas to the table. But I saw a recent article on ‘intrapreneurship’ which is about people who take on the role of
    entrepreneur for the companies they work in. Google is actually such a company. But the majority of industries in the corporate like to stick with what they think will work in the future because it has worked in the past.

  12. It would seem that having both adaptability and uniqueness would be near impossible to find in an employee, but if you can, having someone be able to adapt to tired-and-true ways of the trade while bringing a fresh, new unique spin to the company/strategy.

  13. Well according to this post I am and have always been an “Outstanding Employee.” Now for reality. Everywhere I have worked since I left the military has frowned on my ideas, innovation blah, blah, blah. I quit my last job and am unemployed. Although struggling now, I cannot bring myself to go into another dead end job ruled by dead end thinking people. Yes, I am jaded to this degree. So can someone please tell me what company actually appreciates these traits? I just created a LinkedIn account and through my Jaded eyes wrote this under ‘Interests’

    “I am going to be blunt simply because I have nothing to lose at this point, I am already unemployed. I quit, and refuse to go back into another dead end job.

    I am tired of leading from the bottom, working at least twice as hard as anyone else with no chance of advancement, because the Senior people can’t be fired. I am tired of being the “pick up” guy: “Jeff, we need you to go to this customer’s site and save this major account for us, no one else has been able to do it.” Yep, account saved and customer happier than ever. (Took a month), Being paid as a novice and yet being sent to customer sites to fix issues that 3 senior technicians before me couldn’t fix in a year (Took a week). I am tired of being given major awards, but then those awards are broken down to certificates of appreciation because “He’s brand new, there is no way he did all of that.” I’m tired of being a proactive problem solver with viable solutions, but management is afraid to take action because its layoff season.”

    Now I know the “Sheep” will read this little spiel and say “That’s why he’s unemployed.” Where are the innovators? The free thinkers? Where can I go to feel normal? Anybody, anybody…

    • Hey Jeff, Sounds like you’re pretty beat down right now. Understandable. I’ve been working in IT for 10+ years now and started at the very very bottom. I worked my way up by being tenacious and gracious. That’s not always easy to do. I had to be willing to allow bone-head leaders to take the credit for awesome things I brought to the table. Why? That’s the game. There is no way you can change the game from the bottom. You need to get to the top by playing the game. As you move up the ladder you get more and more opportunities to change the rules of the game. Any company can be a great company to work for if you allow yourself to learn the game. Being completely honest, I’d find it pretty annoying to hear a new employee going on about making changes. Your first year at a company is meant to learn the company and take notes about inefficiencies. Learn the processes in and out so you have real knowledge and legitimacy when it comes to effecting change. You also need to remember how you propose change is more important than the change itself. Remember that somebody developed the original process and going on about how inefficient or stupid it was is a career killer anywhere you go. That goes for ripping senior technicians that can’t figure out a simple problem. Perhaps you’ve had a problem in life that was obvious to someone else. If they shoved it in your face, you wouldn’t feel so keen on promoting that person in your life. It’s all about perspective.

      All I can say is, play the game. Strategy is your best friend. Ask more questions than you answer. And please… Remove that LinkedIn statement. You’re making yourself un-hireable to companies that have never even met you. I say that with all due respect. I know you’re jaded, but you need to help yourself because as you know, nobody else will. I understand feeling beaten down and unappreciated. Make people appreciate you by being the cool calm center of your own world. People will gravitate to that. Even if you have to fake it for a while.

  14. When I was working, the urge to tinker with the status quo, was encouraged by top management but not by the people in the middle (and since we were trainees, some people tried to smother us until we quit…their techniques worked against me because I quit in the end, but I don’t regret it, it wasn’t a place to stay…

  15. I feel that focus is one of the most beneficial attributes that allows colleagues to see that the employee is a goal-oriented and “go-get-’em” type of worker. People are never totally blind to hard work and progress that is made due to this type of attribute and eventually it will be rewarded with personal success and professional growth.

  16. ahhh, the whole tinkering w/the status quo thing. one of my first professional jobs I implied in the job interview that I had no qualms about tinkering with the status quo and rocking the boat. I got the job, and was later told it was that response that cemented my hiring.

    a number of years later at a company in the same exact field, I was fired for tinkering w/the status quo.

    I have to believe it depends on the employer. Do they want people who will bring about evolution and helpful change, or do they want employees who will simply say “yes, of course I agree!!” all the time.