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The Employee Experience Platform | Culture Amp
Aligning business needs to employee development goals
Dany Holbrook

Dany Holbrook

Senior People Scientist, Culture Amp

In an ideal world, your team would have unlimited budget and resources to invest in employee development. After all, professional development is pivotal to motivating employees, improving retention, and even boosting productivity. Unfortunately, it’s not financially or organizationally responsible to let your employees one-sidedly pursue only what they’re most passionate about – especially if there isn’t a business case for that investment.

Rather, employee development goals should carefully balance employees' desires and aspirations with business needs. As a manager, it can be challenging to guide your direct reports toward this place of equilibrium, but once alignment is established, development becomes a win-win for both your employees and your business.

Read on to learn how to keep business goals top of mind when creating your team’s development goals so everyone can benefit from employee growth.

Why employee development goals need to align with business needs

Today's employees want more than a paycheck – they want meaningful work that motivates them to learn and grow at work. A manager’s role in this process is to provide the direction and purpose that steers that growth.

While employees typically know where they want to go, they might need help figuring out how to get there, which is where development goals and a manager’s guidance can help.

At Culture Amp, we’ve found that effective development goals combine three elements:

  • Employee skills/strengths
  • Employee aspirations/motivations
  • Business needs

The “sweet spot” of development lies at the intersection of these three elements.

The sweet spot of employee development

At this sweet spot, employee development goals:

  • Motivate employees by playing to their strengths and their personal aspirations
  • Help employees understand what the business is trying to achieve and how their individual growth fits into the picture
  • Meet the company’s business needs

Achieving this three-way balance can be tricky, but it’s essential. For example, if an employee’s development goal doesn’t meet a business need, it can be frustrating for other team members who are being held accountable for reaching a business goal. It can also affect the employee’s performance assessment later that year, which means that encouraging your direct report to focus only on their passions and strengths can actually deter their ability to move up in the organization.

Likewise, if a goal incorporates an employee’s strengths and aligns with business needs, but doesn’t match the employee’s desires or aspirations, then the employee may become demotivated. Culture Amp data has shown that lack of development and career progression is the #1 reason an employee leaves a company. The wrong development goals can fuel employee turnover by pushing employees to look for growth opportunities outside of your organization.

As a manager, you might run into a situation where an employee wants to pursue a growth opportunity that doesn’t align with a business need. For example, they may want to move into a different role, but there is no open role that matches their interests; or they may want to be promoted, but your company doesn’t have the additional budget to warrant a more senior role. How can you bridge the gaps between what your direct report wants and what the business asks for?

In the next section, we’ll explore a framework for guiding your employees towards development goals that do just that.

A framework for shaping employee development goals

As a people manager, it’s up to you to help align your direct reports’ needs and strengths with the overarching business strategy. While this might seem challenging, we’ve broken it down into 4 straightforward steps for shaping growth goals that land in the “sweet spot” of development:

1. Understand your employees

Part of your job as a manager is to understand your direct reports. This includes learning their career aspirations, strengths, areas of improvement, motivations, and so on. When you know your team well, you can be a better coach and manager, helping to foster the growth and passions of each of your direct reports.

Questions to ask your employees:

  • What are your biggest strengths?
  • How do you think you can best contribute to our company goals?
  • What types of projects do you enjoy working on?
  • What do you want to achieve in the next stage of your career?

2. Understand your organization

In addition to understanding your direct report’s career aspirations and strengths, you also need to understand your organization’s needs.

Start by sharing your intentions with your own manager, as well as HR. Ask about the following:

  • Promotion eligibility: Be the best advocate for your direct report by knowing how and when to recommend an employee for a promotion.
  • Internal job postings: Check if any current job postings might align with your team member’s interests or aspirations.
  • Future hiring needs: Connect with other managers and peers in other cross-functional business areas to understand the company’s future hiring needs. That way, you’ll be aware of and prepared to recommend opportunities to your direct report.
  • Lateral move opportunities: If you can’t offer growth on your team, see if there’s a possibility for them to grow in another area of your organization.

As a manager, you have a unique vantage point that your direct reports do not. Your goal is to understand the options and limitations so you can best help them navigate internal processes and connect them with the right people.

Questions to ask your HR team:

  • What development opportunities exist in our organization?
  • What is our process for hiring from within?
  • What roles will we be hiring for in the coming months?

3. Understand the options

Growth doesn’t always have to come in the form of a promotion or lateral shift. Other types of career growth can be equally, if not more, rewarding and open up a wide variety of opportunities for your employees. So, before you move on to the goal-setting process, take the time to learn all of the available learning and development opportunities your business offers.

At Culture Amp, we use the 3 E’s model – Education, Exposure, and Experience – to assist with development planning. Here’s a quick breakdown of the framework:

  • Education: Any formal business-sponsored training or learning an employee wants to do to further their education, like enrolling in an online course or attending an industry conference.
  • Exposure: Any learning that is done by observing or working alongside others, particularly mentors, coaches, or teammates, such as partnering with a more senior colleague to complete a project.
  • Experience: There’s a common belief that “70% of learning comes from experience,” meaning that your employees need to practice skills in real life in order to truly learn them. For example, while an employee can spend hours in a classroom learning UI or UX, the best way for them to truly learn is to try the task themselves and practice.

While traditional classroom learning certainly has its perks, learning via exposure and experience is often more impactful. Keeping this in mind, try to find opportunities around the organization that will allow your direct reports to learn from others and try new skills out first-hand. This might not have the same allure as a promotion, but these opportunities can provide purpose and meaningful growth.

Here are a few common ways to invest in employee development:

  • Match employees with mentors: Introduce your employees to someone who can provide career guidance.
  • Leverage job shadowing: Have employees “shadow” employees on their team or around the organization, so they can get a better understanding of different roles and responsibilities.
  • Introduce stretch projects: Assign direct reports projects that encourage them to go outside of their comfort zone and learn new skills.
  • Try secondments: Encourage your employees to temporarily shift into another role, so they see if it's a good match for their interests and skills.
  • Enroll employees in internal training programs: See if there are relevant training programs around the organization that your direct reports can attend.
  • Use L&D stipends, if offered: Remind your employees to use their personal growth stipend to attend a conference, take a class, earn a certification, etc.

Questions to ask your HR team and other managers:

  • What is the budget for learning and development?
  • What can our L&D budget be used for?
  • Do we have any internal mentorship programs?
  • What internal training programs do we offer?

Once you’ve done your research and familiarized yourself with the above, it’s time to share this information with your employees and put a career development plan into action.

4. Create employee development goals and a path to follow

Then, find the “sweet spot” of development by connecting your employee’s aspirations and strengths to current business needs and opportunities.

How might this look in practice? Here’s an example:

Say you’re having a development conversation with an employee who mentions that he wants to improve his project management skills and grow to be a Sr. Project Manager one day.

As a manager, you decide to look for a way to map his strengths and career goals to an important upcoming business project. For example, say your team has a significant project lined up for the next quarter. You can ask your employee if he’d like to take a more prominent role in the project to gain more project management experience.

Then, you can set up a bi-weekly meeting with a current Sr. Project Manager on your team so your employee can ask them questions about their job and get advice on the new project.

Moreover, you know that your business just signed a few large contracts with new clients. Demand for project management skills will increase in the coming months, so now is the perfect time to invest in this employee.

Once you’ve identified a way to align business needs and employee desires, leverage the “3 E’s model” to help shape your direct report’s development goals and determine the next steps. You can even tie professional development goals directly to performance goals to improve accountability and motivate employees to do their best.

For example, the development goal might be “Become a stronger project manager.” You can use this goal to evaluate the individual’s overall performance objective (e.g., “Serve as the lead project manager on Q3 project for X company.”) The purpose of an employee development goal is to give employees an understanding of what success looks like and the steps they can take today to achieve their personal and professional targets.

Remember that professional development is an ongoing process. The work isn’t over once your direct reports have set their goals – in fact, it’s just beginning. Be sure to meet frequently with your employees. During weekly or bi-weekly 1-on-1s, share feedback and goal progress, identify blockers, and work together to build development into your employee’s day-to-day.

Make employee development personalized, simple, and effective

As a manager, you’re responsible for juggling the best interests of your employees and the organization – which is no small feat. Luckily, by learning more about your direct reports, understanding current and future business needs, and familiarizing yourself with the development opportunities available within your organization, you’ll be ready to help create employee development goals and plans that benefit everyone.

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