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What It Means to Think Big as a Small Business

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I’ve been using this tag line of “small business who think big” for just under a year now. I took some time last year to really understand my target audience and focus my work and thought that best defines the clients I want to work with. It seems to be resonating because when potential clients reach out they often mention how they really like that line and thought it fit them well.

And then they ask me what it means.

Funny isn’t it how something can speak to us, but then we wonder if it means the same to us as it was intended? Over lunch last week a new acquaintance asked what I did. I gave her the tagline and she, quite enthusiastically (which I don’t think was feigned) said she really liked that….and then asked me what it meant.

I told her and realized that maybe it would be worth sharing with you. I’ve explained it on the website, but never through the blog, where most of you meet me. So here’s the story.

When this business first began I hadn’t really defined my target market. I always tell people to ask how I got started to never, ever, start a business like I did. I had no idea what I was doing, did not do any of the conventional things that people tell you to do (like you know, have an actual plan) and somehow stumbled and fumble into a growing business.

In the beginning, I would take almost any project. I knew I wanted to focus on small businesses, but that’s about all I knew and very early on most small businesses only wanted me to write a handbook or be someone they could call to talk through a termination. All of those things are necessary, but not indicative of businesses who think big. With these clients I would deliver on the service they asked for and then talk to them about other things. For the client who only wanted a handbook, I would ask them what message they wanted the handbook to send. What policies did we absolutely need and what could we leave out. For the business that wanted an employee termination hotline I would ask them to think about leadership training or better onboarding so that we could maybe come to the place of termination a little less often. And often I would be met with the same response.

“Sabrina, that’s all great, but that’s big business stuff. We are too small to worry about that right now or put any of that in place. It will just change when we grow anyway.”

I would get so frustrated thinking about what they could do. I would try to explain that setting those things up now would be easier than doing it when they were big.

About two years in, I received a call from a potential client for onboarding help. He had 14 employees, but had just received his second round of funding and would be adding nearly 40 more in the coming year. He wanted to get all of the “HR stuff” setup, but most importantly really wanted to talk about onboarding. He felt that he needed to start these 40 employees off right and wanted to establish a process for future growth.

I was in love. In a total, business sense of course.

I decided right then and there that these would be the clients I chose to work with going forward. Not that I would write a handbook or be on call for term issues, I still do those things, but I do them with businesses who also care about setting up, what have been traditionally held as big business issues even though they are still small.

Things like onboarding.

Culture.

Leadership Development.

Employee Development.

Branding.

Workforce strategy.

I know it’s hard to think about some of this stuff when you are just trying to get a business off the ground, but I firmly believe it’s even harder when that business is grown and some of these things have created themselves – and not in the manner the leader would have intended.

Or worse, you find out way to late that your business is behind the competition and can not compete for talent because some of these human capital strategy areas weren’t addressed.

So a business who thinks big is a business who realizes, regardless of employee population, they can still think about and focus on advanced human capital concepts. They think about how they want the business to look in five, ten or twenty years when the population size may be double, triple or more and decide what they want things to look like then and put practices in place now to make sure they do.

They are businesses who realize that regardless of whether they have one employee or 2000, they are the spirit of the business, the thing that keeps customers coming back for more. They realize it and let that drive their strategy from day one.

Thinking big as a small business means not limiting your actions to the size you are now, but the size you can be.

And those are the small businesses I most want to work with.

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Every Open Role is Newsworthy

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Yesterday I saw this article being shared quite a bit on Twitter from my HR/Recruiting friends. If you don’t want to click over and read it, I’ll tell you that it talks about how Paycor, a Cincinnati based company, is growing and will be adding 250 new hires in the next 12 months.

That’s pretty awesome.

Adding jobs, experiencing massive growth, expanding offices – all good things. And there is no doubt that adding 250 jobs will be amazing for that community. Paycor has every reason to be proud and if there was ever a good news reason for a press release, this is one.

I also think the clients I have who are hiring are pretty awesome. Being small businesses, most of them only have one opening, but several of those are growth openings. Roles that have been created as the company grows. A few are growing rapidly and we are hiring for several open roles at once. In a time (summer) when hiring slows a bit, several of these small businesses are adding jobs.

It may not be 250 over the course of 12 months, but I think it’s still newsworthy. To the people doing the hiring and the one who gets the job, it’s a really big deal.

I think all open roles are newsworthy. What if every time we had an open role we sent a press release. What if we celebrated even the one additional job that was added to our community this week? What if we started realizing what a big deal one or 250 open jobs is and acted accordingly – throughout the entire hiring process?

What if…..

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Small Businesses and the Need for a Culture Priority

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When you get to be a lady of a certain age, you start to think about all of the things that weren’t around 10 or 15 years ago that are of the utmost importance now. You wonder how you got by without certain things – like smart phones – and wonder why no one early in your career worried about the things we do now.

Like culture.

During my high school, college and early new graduate days, not one of my employers thought about culture. It wasn’t a word that was spoken. If someone brought up the working environment or leadership style, leaders would talk about how people were just lucky to have a job.

And for the most part we were.

But that was then and this is now. And unlike many who reminisce about their youth, I do not consider the times of no culture talk the “good old days”. I absolutely believe that culture matters. But it’s more than that. For my clients, business who are still in startup or early development stage, I encourage them to make culture a priority.

Included in the development of the idea for the business should be thoughts about culture. What type of culture does that founder want to build? As the company grows, how will that change? How will the leader ensure the culture is created and maintained? What are the tenants of that culture?

Of course there are many reasons for focusing on culture. In today’s job market it can offer a competitive advantage. It creates employee loyalty and long-term commitment. It ensures that the values the founder started the business with remain and are emulated throughout every interaction.

That last point may be the most important.

Let’s be honest for a moment. For those of us who start businesses, there is a reason we start them. And with that reason comes a way we want to conduct ourselves as business leaders. One of the scariest times in my entrepreneurial career has been the times I have thought about hiring help and wondering how they would sustain the values I have created in this business. That way of doing business and interacting with others becomes a culture and if leaders aren’t deliberate about the kind they want to create, one will develop organically that they may not be happy with.

If you have been in business for a while and haven’t made culture a priority or even thought about it, you are missing an extraordinary opportunity to direct your business in a manner that resonates with your values. If you have been in business for a while and haven’t made culture a priority, one has been created whether you know it or not.

And it may not be the one you want.

It’s time to make creating and driving the right culture a priority. It takes deliberate action of rewarding and rebuking behaviors consistent with the values of the business. It means holding everyone accountable to the characteristics that are important to the company on a daily basis. It means calling out behaviors, even in the highest ranking officials, that are inconsistent with the environment being built.

Culture matters and it should be a priority for small business and big business alike. Waiting to think about it in hopes that it will fall away as a passing fad is crippling business growth.


Looking for a way to understand the culture that has developed organically in your business? Join me on 7/28 for our complimentary webinar!

Register for How to Conduct a Culture Audit!

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Three Words Every Leader Needs to Know

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Leaders need to know a lot of things. Not only must they be tactically capable in their industry, they must also navigate leading, supporting, nurturing and holding accountable other human beings. Some leaders think about their leadership style and work towards ensuring that they exemplify that style on a regular basis. Others just wing it and let things unfold as they do.

Regardless of their approach, every leader thinks certain things about themselves. If you were to ask a leader three words to describe themselves they would probably come up with them fairly quickly. They would likely be words they pride themselves in and would almost always be positive.

And they may mean absolutely nothing.

No matter how certain a leader is in the words he or she would use to describe themselves, they aren’t the words that matter. The only words that matter are how others would describe them. Particularly, others who happen to work with them and for them.

And there may be more or less than three.

Not that long ago I was in a new client meeting with a CEO and the HR leader. We were discussing creating leadership development webinars for the team. I asked the CEO what type of leadership style he tried to emulate. He gave me a brief description, but the turned to his leader and asked what she thought. When she was a bit taken aback, he explained.

“It doesn’t really matter what I think I am. It matters how you guys see me. If my thoughts and yours are way off, we have more work to do than creating a few webinars.”

Yes.

1,000 times, yes.

It’s important that leaders know how their team would describe them. Those descriptions can tell them so much about themselves and the team. They may also uncover why certain things happen the way they do in the business – because people have adjusted to a certain aspect of the leader’s style.

It’s easy enough to find out if you are willing to ask. If the team wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing their thoughts directly, then having someone else ask may be appropriate. The key is not in getting the information, but what is done with it.

Because the words are only important if they are used to create positive change – whether that be focusing on keeping the words as they are, or making a change for the better.

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The Shelf Life of Bad Leaders

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I have a friend experiencing something very interesting with her employer. I’m sure it’s something many of us can relate to so I thought I would write about it.

She has been with her employer for nearly 2 years. The company is a rather large, well established brand that is public but family led. A leader who she interacts with but does not report to has been with the company for many years and, at one point, did great things for the growth of the company. He was a friend of the CEO before joining and because of his past exemplary performance, the CEO thinks very highly of him. But there is one major problem.

He is an awful leader.

The brutal truth is that he is near retirement and probably should have left the corporate world a few years earlier. He has become a tyrant and while it isn’t clear if he was always that way, he certainly is now. Turnover in his department is the highest in the company and if you ask anyone they will tell you he is the problem.

Anyone but the CEO of course.

This has been going on for a while. It isn’t new, but it is getting worse. And finally, the right people are starting to notice. The right people who can actually do something about it. Other high level executives, his peers, are rallying together to confront the CEO about the damage he is doing to the brand. Now my friend understands one simple truth that is a good reminder for us all.

Bad leadership does have a shelf life.

It may be longer than we all want, but eventually, bad leaders falter. It is hard for individuals reporting to or having direct interaction with this leader to endure at times. They see it first and therefore have to deal with it the longest, but eventually things change. The right leadership notices and forces anyone blind to the actions to take a closer look.

Unfortunately, this leader has caused many good employees to find success elsewhere, but for those who have stuck it out, change is coming. They are finally going to get relief from a tyrant and, hopefully, a better leader who can be effective without also being a dictator.

I’ve seen this in my own career and I bet you have too. When dealing with a poor leader, there is always a trade-off choice to make. Asking ourselves whether the other aspects of the job are enough to make dealing with the bad leader worth it.

Sometimes just knowing that bad leadership does have a shelf life makes them easier to deal with on a daily basis.

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Smoke and Mirrors – The Lies We Tell

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I’m pulling out another oldie, but possibly one of my favorite posts ever. I love the comments on this older post and how employer brand was really just starting to be talked about at a high level back when I first wrote it. Unfortunately, between then and now, not much has changed for some companies….

This post could have been titled The Newlywed Game or The Honeymoon’s Over or even Bait and Switch – all of which would be appropriate for the content.  I have talked to several people this week, in jobs for less than six months, who feel like they were sold a bill of goods, and I still have a few more to talk to.  Without revealing too much in order to protect their privacy, I will just list the following scenarios:

One moved their family due to a promotion that ended up not being a promotion and may actually result in a layoff.

One accepted a lesser position than what they were used to and was promised a title change and pay increase at 90 days – this hasn’t happened yet and they are working on 180 days – of course that change was not in writing.

One took a position where they were told they would have complete autonomy in how their department was run, could be extremely innovative and were being hired to implement “new” ideas, like social media, into the fold.  After three months all they have been met with is contention and the “this is the way we have always done it” mentality.

Smoke and mirrors, bait and switch, nothing but lies.  Robin Schooling wrote a great post about this over at the HRSchoolhouse.  The reality of the world we live in is that  people will often say and do anything to achieve their end goal.  Recruiters, HR leaders and hiring managers are no exception.  To lure a candidate, we will tell them how wonderful the company is while beefing up our own resume.  We tell them about how employees are valued and welcomed with an open door policy when the truth is we have not seen the CEO in months and the last time we felt valued was….well we are not sure.  We say whatever they need to hear to close the deal and get one more thing off our plate.

The most refreshing interview I ever had was one where the hiring manager was brutally honest with me.  She told me that the job I was interviewing for was going to “suck daily and be extremely challenging at all levels”.  She said that I would be seen as nothing more than a means to a payroll end, would not be heard on real issues and would struggle beyond belief to be included in the leadership team.  I took the job anyway and she was right.  I took the job in part because of her honesty.  I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what I was getting myself into.  I had no illusions about how my days were going to go.  I was aware and that made all the difference in the world.

So what would happen if we used a little honesty in our dealings with candidates?  Would it really be that bad if we admitted that the company had a ton of faults and that this job actually might “suck” for a little while?  I took the job anyway – isn’t it possible that others would do the same?  At least then they couldn’t say we didn’t warn them……

What do you think?

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Three Reasons Employee Documentation is Necessary

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At least three times a week day I have the following conversation with a business leader.

Leader: We want to terminate an employee for some awful offense.
Me: Ok, what documentation do you have to support prior offenses?
Leader: Grrrrr. You know I hate documentation.
Me: I know you hate it, I just don’t care.

Ok, maybe the conversation doesn’t go exactly like that, but pretty close. It’s true we HR types love documentation. I knew a corporate HR Director once who’s motto was, “if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen”. Ok, it was me. That was my motto. Starting my own business has made me way cooler than before….I think.

It’s equally true that business leaders abhor documentation. Taking the time to write things down just doesn’t fit into their agenda. They don’t see the need and want to skip anything that they deem unnecessary.

At least once a week one of my clients will ask me if anyone pushes back on writing up documentation as much as they do.

Yes. All of them. Every. Last. One.

It’s kind of like this dance we do. I say document, they say they don’t want to and round and round we go. If I don’t think of it that way I will poke my eyes out from the sheer exhaustion of having to explain it over and over again.

So here’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m going to put my top three reasons in this blog post. From now on when a client pushes back, I’m just going to send them this blog post. To all of my clients who actually read my blog, you’ve been warned.

History:
My biggest reason for pounding the documentation pavement is not due to legal reasons, although we will obviously get to that later. The number one reason I like documentation is history. Here’s my line: “If you and all of the other leaders went down in a plane crash tomorrow, how would someone coming in to salvage this company have any idea what has happened in the past several years?” Of course they roll their eyes when they get to the plane crash part, but I don’t care. These are small businesses who carpool to lunch in a Prius (my CA clients anyway) not a plane, but they get my point.

Forget the plane crash, three months from now we are going to wonder what we said about this employee today and I’m not counting on any of our memories to remember. Now write it down….

Proof:
Back to my ever so creative HR lady line from earlier, if it isn’t written down, no one can prove it happened. If you discipline an employee or work out an agreement for them to pay back vacation time you gifted them earlier, but never put anything in writing, what is stopping them from saying the conversation never happened. Leaders can’t assume they will be trusted as the ones telling the truth because history tells us they are the ones who lie the most.

Enron, Arthur Anderson, the companies on this list and this one. Leaders lie. No one will believe you. Now write it down….

Legal:
Told you we would get there. Courts love documentation. They want that proof. Some documentation is even mandated by law. I kind of wish all of it was because then I could just say “because the courts say so”, but I can’t so I have to come up with real reasons…and a three point list.

Courts want to know, especially in disciplinary situations, that employees were told about improper behaviors and, when possible, given the opportunity to correct them. If you are holding an employee accountable to something in the handbook, they want to know that the employee read the handbook. And how do they know? By those handy little acknowledgement forms that come with every employer handbook ever written.

No you can’t make them read it, but you can make them sign saying they have and judges LOVE signatures. Now write it down….

Here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure all leaders know this stuff. I haven’t revealed any mind blowing rocket science here. This is pretty straight forward stuff and yet leaders like to complain about it. I get it. It isn’t fun. It’s time consuming and sometimes feels asinine. But most of the time, in the moments it took you to complain, you could have had it written, so stop pushing back and just write it down.

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Webinar – How to Conduct a Culture Audit

How to Conduct a Culture AuditI’ve been out of the webinar game for a few months simply due to lack of time. Over the last few weeks though I have had several conversations with practitioners that have made me think, “I should really do a webinar on that.”

And so I am.

First up is a webinar on culture. That word we all love to say. On my way back from SHRM, a practitioner happened upon me in the Baltimore airport. She saw my badge sticking out of my bag and approached me. After telling her what I did, she asked if I did any work around culture. She stated that her company of 142 employees was just beginning to think about how it could build a culture. Here’s how the rest of that conversation went (paraphrased based on my aging memory).

Me: How long has the business been around?
Her: Sixteen years.
Me: And you have 142 employees?
Her: Yes and adding about 25 more this year.
Me: So you want to change your culture?
Her: No, build it. We haven’t really thought about it before but now realize it’s important.
Me: Um….you know you already have a culture right?
Her: ……..
Me: If you’ve been around that long and have that many employees a culture has established itself whether anyone intended it that way or not.
Her: Oh. So……how do I figure out what that is?

And just like that a webinar idea is formed.

Most businesses, especially those who have remained small, think they do not have a culture until they build it. The reality is that isn’t true. The culture evolves out of behaviors and actions that are accepted or disciplined. It evolves out of action, not words, that are repeated. It is not the claims of your vision statement on your website, but the alignment (or mis-alignment) of word and behavior.

Culture is important. Sure it’s a buzzword, but it’s an important buzzword and I’m glad we are finally starting to focus on it at the small biz level. I have a culture audit that I go through with my clients and I want to share it with you.

Join me on July 28th at 11am PT for this complimentary webinar designed to help you conduct your very own culture audit.

If you have never attended one of my webinars before or it’s been a while, let me give you one good reason to join us – I share everything. When I say I’m sharing my culture audit with you, I mean, I’m sharing the entire thing. The entire process. I don’t hold back in hopes you will hire me to finish the rest. I give you everything you need to do it on your own as soon as the webinar is over. That’s important to me and I think my attendees find value in that. It’s the reason they attend over and over….or at least the reason they give me.

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The Six Best Things About Employee Empowerment

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After my time at the SHRM annual conference last week, I have a ton of catching up to do. Among other things, I need to spend some time writing and researching new content. I’m going to spend the next bit of time doing that while sharing older posts that readers seemed to enjoy. This post originally ran in May of 2014, but still rings true today. Both the leaders unwillingness to let go and the benefits of empowering employees.

Trust is a big issue in business. If employees do not trust leadership, problems ensue. If leaders don’t trust employees, micromanagement runs rampant. Priorities are shifted from what is really important to drive the business to what must be done to keep an eye on employees.

Trust is a powerful thing.

What I’ve found with trust between employer and employee is this. When an employee does not trust one (or all) of the leadership team it is because something happened to make them lose trust. Trust in the reverse, from leader to employee, doesn’t always follow this pattern. Often times the lack of trust from employer to employee is not due to losing trust after an event or series of events, but due to leadership style.

For whatever reason leaders in these environments feel they can not trust employees to make decisions or learn from mistakes. They tie new initiatives up in so much red tape that employees give up on trying anything innovative. Emails have to be copied to so many people just to make sure every single person is aware and has a say.

This is highly prevalent in small businesses experiencing growth mode. Those first few leaders feel as though the business is their baby and to let go and trust employees to do the work is tough. Empowering employees to be creative, innovative and take risks could create huge benefits for the company, but leaders can’t see through their own control issues to realize those benefits.

There are several benefits to employee empowerment. I want to share six with you today.

But first let’s get a good working definition of employee empowerment. Employee empowerment is allowing employees to have control over their work. In an environment where this is encouraged, employees have input into how things get done. They are not only allowed, but encouraged to offer suggestions and encouraged to make mistakes as long as they learn from them.

Over and over we keep hearing about how employees want to feel connected to their work. How they want to feel like their contributions matter and impact the business as a whole. Empowering them in their work is a great way to help them feel as though what they are doing matters.

Quality of Work
Leaders who stipulate how work should be done stifle the creativity of their employees. They, often falsely, assume that they know the best way to get things done. Allowing employees input on how work gets done often increases the quality of that work. Employees in the trenches every day figure out ways to do the work better thus increasing the quality of work.

Quantity of Work
Much like quality of work, employees in the trenches not only figure out how to do things better, but often faster or more efficient. This efficiency can create chain reactions that permeate the entire company, one process after another. If you are looking for ways to streamline process and move work faster, empower your employees to change the way it is currently being done.

Leadership Focus
When leaders are not focused on micromanaging, they have more time to focus on initiatives that drive business growth. They are able to drop some of the day to day stuff that they should never have been doing in the first place but are because they didn’t trust anyone else to do it. They are able to be leaders and let the employees do the work and push for change when necessary.

Better Customer Interaction
Employees who feel like the work that they perform makes a difference are more likely to provide higher customer service. Whether their customers be external or internal, they will focus on their needs much more when they know that their portion of the work makes a difference and their contributions are trusted and appreciated.

Increased Innovation
You can allow one or two people to come up with new ideas because you don’t trust anyone else to do it or you can encourage everyone to do so. Employees may have the answers the leadership team has been struggling to come up with. Employees may have the idea for the next big thing. To stay ahead, all businesses need innovation and empowering all employees to offer ideas will increase the likelihood of innovation actually happening.

Employee Satisfaction
For years now the benefits of employee satisfaction have been touted over and over. Satisfied employees stick around. Plain and simple. Employees who feel like they own their work and are more than cogs in a wheel are more loyal and tend to have longer tenure. Employees who stick around help lower turnover and recruiting costs and raise the intellectual capital of a business.

Employee empowerment is a leadership tactic designed to create more productive and more satisfied workplaces. It only works when leaders are willing to let go a little and let employees own their work. When employees truly feel empowered and embrace that, companies can see great lifts across the board.

Are your processes stifling employees ability to control their work? Do you wrap employees up in so much red tape that they are unable to make a true difference? Take an honest look at what you are doing and ask yourself whether your employees have proven that they can not be trusted or whether you may need to let go. Doing so may help your business thrive in ways you couldn’t imagine.

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Learning and Development – The Opportunity We Take for Granted

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I had the pleasure of hearing Sal Khan this morning as the closing keynote speaker for SHRM16. I’m not sure that I had any real expectations of what I was going to hear. I am ashamed now to admit that I actually knew very little about him or his non-profit which is changing the way students learn.

But now that I know, I want to tell the world about it.

I won’t go into all the details here because I have a very different reason for this post, but if you have never heard of it, please check it out. They are one of the companies doing truly meaningful and impactful work.

When I returned to the blogger’s lounge after the keynote several of us were talking about what we heard. One of my fellow bloggers was talking about the young girl in Afghanistan, Sultana, who was told she had to stop attending school or face an acid bath. She stopped, but used Khan Academy to learn on her own at home. While talking about her, he said:

“We take so much for granted in this country.”

So true. We know it. I think on some level we realize that everyday, but when you have stories that prove it, the point tends to be driven home even harder.

And that got me thinking about our workplaces. A common theme I hear from practitioners is that they would love to develop and have ongoing training and development opportunities for their staff. They know their employees crave it. They know it would help morale and employee engagement.

They know all of these things, but can not get support to do anything about it.

And that is really sad.

I wonder if company leaders realize what a privilege learning and development is? Do the realize that continually developing the minds of the people will continually develop the company they serve? Do they realize that something they can so freely give their employees is sought after by so many.

It’s more than a competitive advantage, it’s an opportunity to provide something that so many others would never have access to.

And that’s reason enough.

Training and development doesn’t have to be fancy, complicated or expensive. It can be as simple as sharing content that is relevant to the work at hand. It can be as simple as allowing time off for classes and encouraging continued learning.

I would encourage all leaders to think about adding even incidental learning opportunities for employees. Think about how you can take advantage of the privilege we have and encourage continued learning across the organization.

If done properly, it will improve morale. It will improve engagement. It will challenge employees to think differently about their work and they way they do it. It will set expectations for behavior and culture. It will improve performance and efficiency.

Why would any leader no support that?