Make time for real learning and development

The Talent Blog series is a collection of perspectives from 16 social leaders in 9 different countries. As part of the series, Gaby Fisch of MaRS advises how to get the best young talent for your business – by emphasising how much they stand to learn.

Not-for-profit organisations can rarely compete for talent on the grounds of pay or perks. People join this sector to devote their intellect and energy towards making a positive impact on the world. But what else can you offer an increasingly transient workforce during their stay with your organisation?

I believe that prioritising employee learning, growth and development is the biggest opportunity for the social impact sector to tip the scale and win over top talent.

The building blocks of caring and compassion are already implicit in much of the work you do. By channelling more of your internal efforts and processes towards learning and development, it can become the centrepiece of your culture and over time, the hallmark of your employer brand in the talent marketplace.  

I am not referring to implementing a sophisticated Learning and Development framework and curriculum. You need to make actual learning and development (lower-case) a central feature in day-to-day operations, and explicitly call out informal “on-the job” learning. 

I have read too many employee engagement survey responses where it is clear that employees think only of “formal learning” (classroom or online) when asked if they feel they are given enough learning and development opportunities.

The Centre for Creative Leadership recommends organisations adopt the 70:20:10 ratio, whereby the lowest proportion of learning (10%) is formal, 20% is information sharing between peers and 70% of learning is informal and happens over the course of our work. 

This ratio is based on how we learn most effectively – how we actually turn information into a change in behaviour or a change in our thinking. Aren’t these the ultimate goals of all learning?

We are all accustomed to running fast, multi-tasking and always feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day, week, month, year. How many times have you pulled yourself away from your desk to attend a workshop, been totally inspired by the content, taken voracious notes that spawned new ideas, and then returned to the office to be promptly swept back into the vortex that is the modern pace of work, never to look back at your notes again?

But what if we prioritised reflecting and synthesizing, over running and doing?  To assimilate both formal and informal learning, we must set aside time and space to reflect, ponder, make connections, brainstorm, discuss, think critically, and plan actions that will lead to behaviour change.  

I’m not suggesting we stop investing in formal training, but amidst it all, we also need to hit the pause button to reflect and re-visit.

Here are four suggestions to begin to develop a (lower case) learning and development culture:


1. Grant equal opportunity to personal and professional development

When choosing between sponsoring an employee to attend a mindfulness workshop or an industry association conference, don’t be so quick to discount the former. 

Self-knowledge, mindfulness, and even physical fitness have a positive correlation to performance at work. Placing value on growth beyond the specific competences required for someone’s current role engenders immense goodwill from employees, and in turn, positive reverberations on your employer brand. 

In his book “Humans are Underrated”, Geoff Colvin writes that “skills of human interaction” such as creativity, social sensitivity, storytelling, relationship building, and leading, will be the most prized skills in the future, when computers take over all functions not requiring these traits.

Learning & Development professionals are already noticing a marked increase in young workers wanting to understand their strengths and tendencies better through assessments and feedback.


2. Reserve and enforce “PPD Days” 

Dedicated personal & professional development (PPD) days are an example of what I mean by creating time and space for self-directed learning and ensuring that your employees spend time reflecting and assimilating new knowledge into their work. 

PPD days might occur once or twice a month, or for a half-day on a weekly basis. Experiment to find a model that works for your organisation. 

Whatever the frequency, PPD days should be mandated for everyone and occur regularly.  And there must be an accountability structure in place – be it with a manager, peer, mentor or some other trusted accountability partner. The exercise of writing or explaining concepts to others are both highly effective ways to synthesize information and “lock in” learning.  


3. Build coaching into your culture 

As a certified coach and HR professional, I can attest to the power of coaching in awareness-raising, perspective-shifting, and ultimately, behaviour change. But you don’t need a professional coach to infuse coaching into your work culture.

The role of managers is evolving towards coaching and away from directing. When you take a coaching approach you foster a culture of trust, possibility, openness and resourcefulness on your team. 

To shift into a coaching mindset, leaders can start by simply building the following questions into their regular employee meetings (and yes, managers really should set aside time to meet individually with employees):

  • What was the highlight of your week/month? What about that was great?
  • What was one of the biggest challenges you encountered and what did you learn?
  • What will set you up for success in facing X? (an upcoming challenge)
  • What outcome do you hope to gain? What part can you play to make that happen?


4. Leverage internal wisdom

We often have highly accomplished professionals within our organisations who write papers and go out and speak at industry events, but are we leveraging them enough internally?

Build mechanisms and opportunities for them to share both subject-matter expertise with internal team members, and also lessons they’ve learned on topics like productivity, influencing, decision-making, and leadership.  

In the organisation where I work, we have a unit of group facilitation experts that are engaged by our clients to facilitate large and complex problem-solving sessions.  This unit created an internal facilitation handbook and held training sessions to share their expertise in group facilitation with others across the organisation, regardless of their role.  

Instilling a focus on learning and development will not be easy – neither practically nor culturally. 

Begin by engaging employees in the discussion around this shift, test assumptions, adopt a few initial measures, monitor the impact on employee engagement, and iterate from there. Remember, the social impact sector has a head-start in taking a stand on principle and acting from a position of genuine care and compassion. 

Carrying this through in its approach to employee development is a natural extension that will address the values of top talent, and incidentally, lead to more thoughtful, intentional and impactful organisations.  

Photo credit: Startup Stock Photos

Each article in the Talent Blog series shares unique experiences on the issue of attracting, developing and retaining talent in our sector. With contributions from social entrepreneurs, social investors, accelerators, incubators and foundations, the series highlights common challenges and smart solutions around the issue.

The project is led by the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network (GSEN) (founded by UnLtd) and supported by BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. Find out more here