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August 08, 2014

Getting Serious About Professional Development and Career Paths

August 08, 2014

In the early days of SmallBox, professional development was a reactive endeavor. We'd encourage and support it, but rather than having any plan in place, we made one-off decisions about whether we should invest in each opportunity as it arose. We knew we wanted to move beyond our amorphous approach. We conducted a 360 Review of our CEO Jeb, and feedback confirmed that an intentional focus on professional development was a major opportunity for growth. Our team wanted more clarity on what was available to them, and were asking for more investment. No big surprise, coming from a crew who has whole-heartedly embraced curiosity as a core value.

If you're like us and take employee experience seriously, you're probably thinking about this stuff too. The stats for doing so are compelling. According to SHRM:

42% of employees report that career advancement opportunities are very important to their sense of job satisfaction.

So while we knew it was important, and we'd agreed to do something, we had to figure out where to begin. As we dug in, we realized professional development meant different things to different people. Some wanted more conferences, while others wanted independent R&D time, certifications or classes. Some of us didn't know exactly what to pursue, just that we wanted to be on a path of growth. With lots of possible ways forward, and knowing we couldn't do everything at once, we decided to look at how we could impact the whole team and embed continual learning into the rhythm of our work flow in a way that would benefit everyone. With that in mind, we started with a few initiatives:

Cultural Ownership

First, we asked the team to choose culture groups from our growing list of side projects – Factory Week, 24 Hour Web Project, Think Kit, Nice Grants, as well as other focus areas, like wellness and games. When we were smaller, we were able to be all-hands on deck for all of our side projects and institutions. As we grew, we had to divide and conquer to disperse ownership and provide new leadership opportunities. Each group is responsible for the vision and guidance of their project, and for letting the rest of the team know how and when they can participate. For example, the 24 Hour Web Project core group will plan the timeline, assign roles, vet the applicants, while the whole team will get a chance to vote on a narrowed pool and will have a role in the actual planning, designing and building of the nonprofit website.

Knowledge Share Lunches

We also wanted to create better knowledge sharing amongst our team. We weren't looking to start anything too disruptive, like adding another Factory Week, so we decided we'd buy lunch for whoever wanted to participate two Fridays per month. We polled the team about what they wanted to learn more about, created a calendar of topics, and then asked our most knowledgeable expert on each to present. We decided not to create a rigid structure for how these lunches should be facilitated, and we've ended up with all kinds of formats – casual conversations, formal presentations, workshop-style lunches. These have served as a platform to refine ideas, test new collaborative exercises as well as disperse knowledge.

Skillz Groups (yes, with a z)

We encouraged people to form into groups around focus areas. Again, we didn't want to dictate structure, but we provided some possibilities. These groups could have a shared R&D project, read books together and hold discussions, organize a field trip or volunteer opportunity. They set their own schedule and find a way to fit this exploration around other work.

Career Paths (plus goal setting and mentor-matching)

When we first started focusing on career paths, we had to ask, "If we're going to invest, well... to what end?" It seems obvious now, but we had never had intentional conversations about long-term career goals with every single employee. We knew perhaps the next step for some people, but not for everyone. We started by connecting some existing dots. We'd already conducted a talent audit, created individual north star statements, conducted a team-wide "greatest gifts" exercise, and each person had short-term individual goals. We hired Bright Corner Group to facilitate a team-wide Myers-Briggs session to better understand our personality types and communication styles. After compiling and reviewing all of this we asked, "If we really want to prepare every employee for the next ten years or more of their career, what's missing here?" These questions turned into a framework for a career path session I conducted with each team member.

Our career path conversations uncovered two opportunities – better goal-setting and mentoring. Clarifying our hopes and dreams made it easier to choose impactful individual goals. While we already had our own goals, we all reset goals based on our career paths. We also noticed that many of us didn't have mentors, or serve as a mentor to someone else. We were more likely to feel like we had internal mentorship, with very few of us having external mentors. We believe more exposure to external perspectives will help us grow. So we're currently seeking people outside of our four walls for knowledge-sharing.

What We've Learned

  • Internal projects are the perfect place to test out new skills and methods, and to practice leadership roles.
  • Facilitating learning and knowledge sharing between employees gives a quick return on investment. We've noticed fewer bottlenecks, and a general sense of empowerment to run with things.
  • Had we just thrown a budget toward professional development without the career path findings, our investment would have been pretty aimless. Understanding where people want to go long-term really gave us clarity on how to move forward.

As creatives in an ever-changing industry, we know we'll never be done. There will always be the next big thing, but we do feel energized by our initial progress and positioned to take on our next professional development planning steps – mentor-matching and an increased budget for training, conferences and the like.

Have you embarked on any meaningful professional development recently? We all ears if you have successes to share!


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