Five Ways to Take Advantage of the “Development Investment Paradox”

By Bruce Tulgan

When it comes to being an employer with a strong reputation for training and development, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you can successfully build a culture of learning on your team or in your organization. The bad news is that if you do manage to get employees engaged in building up their performance, then the next question they are likely going to ask is, “Exactly what do I get for improving?”

The truth is that if you don’t provide them with something, someone else will.

One health care executive captured the essence of this conundrum in simple terms:

“We invest so much in education and training for our new young professionals, that we have gotten a reputation among our competitors as a great place from which to poach talent. We invest in them through internal programs and also tuition reimbursement for everything from a one day seminar to pursuing an advanced degree. It is a great tool for recruiting and morale. But it also paints a target on our back. The other hospitals in the region actively recruit our two-year-employees. Of course, they are thinking, ‘You’ve been working there for two years? Perfect. Come work for us and we’ll get the return on their education and training investment.’ It’s very frustrating!”

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The Development Investment Paradox

We call this phenomenon the “development investment paradox.” You invest in developing your talent only to make them more valuable in the free market, where they are in danger of selling your development investment to the highest bidder. And increasingly there is a paradox within the paradox: the best employees today value training and development opportunities as a benefit of employment, so if you aren’t offering it, they’re more likely to jump ship for your competition. But it is also still the case that if you do offer training and development, they’re more likely to jump ship for your competition!

How are employers possibly supposed to win in this situation? Is there actually a way to turn the development investment paradox into an advantage?

Turns out, there is! But it requires the hard work and dedication necessary to take these 5 steps.


1. Use the paradox to improve your own hiring.

If everyone else is, why not you? When sourcing new talent, think about targeting employers with great reputations for training and developing their employees. Think about where those employers spend the majority of their development investment and how that meets your own hiring needs. Do they do an excellent job of building up new young talent? Are they known for their stellar managers or supervisors?


2. Be prepared.

If you become one of those employers known for developing superstar employees, you are going to become a target for talent poaching yourself. That’s a problem you DO want to have! However, it puts a high premium on retaining the talent you develop. So, be prepared to put some effort into planning for that eventuality. If your best employee tells you that they’re planning to leave, do you have a specific, individualized incentive to offer that could get them to stay? Think about the entire range of options within your discretion and how to use them as retention tools: schedule, pay, work assignments, access to decision-makers, opportunities for advancement and career development within the organization.


3. Calibrate your development investment every step of the way.

Of course it is important to prioritize when and where to invest valuable time, money, and energy into employee development. But don’t fool yourself: High priority skills and behaviors ARE absolutely mission-critical. That’s why it’s important to know precisely which behaviors are high priorities for you and your team and focus on them like a laser beam.


4. Turn everyone on your team into a knowledge worker.

Knowledge work is not about what one does. Knowledge work is about how someone does something. If an employee leverages information, technique, and ideas in their job, then they are a knowledge worker. Managers have to be equipped to help employees channel their learning directly into their jobs. No matter what their job, the first step is to get employees thinking about how they can do that job better. Then, provide opportunities for them to test new strategies or leverage new skills in a low-stakes environment.


5. Support self-driven learning by providing as many resources as possible.

One effective way of determining both what resources you already have and which you should think about providing is to have employees make an individualized learning plan. Have employees break down their jobs into key areas of responsibility. Then, for each area of responsibility, have employees generate a list of learning resources that can help them improve on, or learn more about, that aspect of their job. Those resources can be anything, from books to websites to training courses, even to other people in the organization. The step for managers is to determine which of these resources the company can and should provide, and how to do so.

The bottom line is this: Whatever development investments you make, the key to protecting that investment is engaging your employees as full partners – co-investors – in the learning process. As long as they are actively learning skills that add value to their job and career, with the support of leaders and managers, they are much less likely to think about taking that investment somewhere else.

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