Professional Development That Actually Leads to Career Growth

These tech companies offer ideas for ways to help your employees grow their careers.
Alexandria Jacobson
Staff Reporter
November 11, 2021
Updated: November 17, 2021
Alexandria Jacobson
Staff Reporter
November 11, 2021
Updated: November 17, 2021

It’s a hot market for job seekers, and as a result, many employers are evaluating their benefits to compete for and retain sought-after talent. Monster’s fall 2021 hiring outlook report said 45 percent of surveyed employees would be more likely to stay at their current jobs if they were offered more training.

It’s important to increase professional development opportunities to attract and also retain employees. Built In spoke with five tech companies about how they approach professional development to help teams grow.

Types of Professional Development

  • Mentorship
  • Group training
  • Online/self-directed learning
  • Workshops
  • Learning stipends

 

Mentorship

Mentorship is a form of professional development that companies can offer in a casual or more structured way.

Pantheon, a San Francisco-based SaaS platform that empowers WebOps teams to create secure websites, invested in a mentoring program for rising women in the company. Through Ceresa, a leadership acceleration platform focused on supporting diverse talent, the participants received coaching and advice from an experienced executive in a relevant field whom they were paired with from a national network of mentors.

“We needed a way to develop the talent that’s already here and give people a career ladder,” said Josh Koenig, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Pantheon. “If you don’t give people some perspective on where they could be going, then it’s very hard to keep them.”

One participant credits the program with getting her not one, but two, promotions at Pantheon, and another participant has grown her career from being an intern to a director with support from her mentor, Koenig said.

“If you don’t give people some perspective on where they could be going, then it’s very hard to keep them.”

As a global company with about 3,600 employees across the globe, Xero, an online accounting software company, uses a platform called Mentorloop to pair employees with mentors throughout the company.

“You might be based in one country but be really interested in moving or developing into a department that is headed out of another country,” said Christina Rowe, head of learning and capability at Xero. “You have access to connecting with that head and asking them about skills development and pairing with them for a while, so that you can really work on building that up.”

Xero encourages its employees to use the platform to pursue job shadowing if a colleague is in a type of role that they might be interested in pursuing down the road, Rowe said. That way they can learn if that type of position is right for them and identify skills to develop to prepare for such a role. 

Mentorship looks more informal at Simplex, a Chicago-based technology-driven proprietary trading firm. The company focuses on having an open environment where newer employees can feel comfortable approaching experienced team members to learn new skills or receive career advice.

“The best thing to do as you’re bringing on new staff is to get them paired up with really experienced staff and get them working on something that is real and going to be in the production environment and important to the firm, literally on day one,” said Dave Haufe, director of technology at Simplex. “They’re going to work with someone who’s really been here for a while to be that mentor, feed them those projects, help answer their questions – really get them bootstrapped into our environment.”

Haufe said the company is not too concerned with hierarchy and titles, focusing on creating a meritocracy and supporting growth organically. Since joining Simplex in 2008, Haufe has grown from a developer role to being the director of technology when the time felt right for him to take over running the engineering teams.

 

Group Training

ChannelAdvisor, a cloud-based e-commerce company, identified leadership development and career advancement as two corporate actions to focus on in 2020. With a workforce that is more than 75 percent millennial, the company strives to create professional development opportunities that are relevant and useful.

“We know from our research that being part of an organization where they can be their authentic selves, being part of an organization where there’s shared values, being part of an organization that invests in their growth and development is something that’s very important to millennials and very important to our workforce, so really we could not let the pandemic impact our focus on career growth and mobility,” said Thom Solomon, director of human resources and talent management at ChannelAdvisor.

ChannelAdvisor offers a five-part, cohort-based leadership series that is required for all people leaders at the director level and below. The series was adapted in the midst of the pandemic, which included switching to a model focused on micro lectures, small group exercises and discussions revolving around actual scenarios from the company. The leadership development series expanded to include team leads, too.

Xero also offers cohort-based leadership training for employees at all stages of their careers — from aspiring leaders to people leaders to senior leaders — along with trainings on conflict and well being. The cohort model allows people to have a supportive journey with colleagues whom they can rely on as sounding boards as they navigate similar challenges, Rowe said. 

“We find that starting in that cohort to build a safe space and then adding to the greater community helps people to really get comfortable with their own knowledge base, and then go into a community of contributing to the actual real-life applications,” Rowe said.

Pantheon has invested in training that addresses potential gaps in employees’ experiences. For example, the company realized some of its newer managers might be leading job interviews for the first time, so Pantheon hosted a set of trainings on how to conduct interviews that covered topics like how to ask a variety of interview questions, how to create a meaningful interview panel and how to be mindful of unconscious bias in the interview process. 

More on Career PlanningLong-Term Career Goals: How to Set a Successful Development Plan

 

Online Self-Directed Learning

For more than 20 years, Skillsoft has provided online learning solutions for global enterprises. In that time, the company has evolved from primarily replicating the classroom setting via video in the early 2000s to now focusing on offering micro learning with both digital and live formats.

The Covid-19 pandemic contributed to how Skillsoft modified its e-learning approach. The company saw its learning hours go up 258 percent in the first few months of 2020 as people focused on acquiring and refreshing skills while working remotely. Skillsoft realized that people were learning best in small snippets of three to seven minute videos, and they decided to rethink the classroom as a digital environment with interaction. 

“Being on the cutting edge is a matter of survival. It is not an option. I think the moment you stop being on the cutting edge, the next moment you start to become dull as a product company or as a services company,” said Apratim Purakayastha, chief technology officer at Skillsoft.

Purakayastha said his cloud operations department used Skillsoft themselves to prepare for the company’s transition to using Amazon Web Services. About 90 percent of the team is now AWS-certified, which is not only valuable for their current roles, but it is also a certification applicable to future jobs. Programmers at Skillsoft also underwent reskilling with the platform to learn Node.js. In three to four weeks, 60 to 70 percent of Skillsoft’s engineers were conversant with the new language, he said. 

“Being on the cutting edge is a matter of survival. It is not an option. I think the moment you stop being on the cutting edge, the next moment you start to become dull as a product company or as a services company,”

“Technology is changing very fast, and things that are current today will actually become either obsolete or irrelevant in five years,” Purakayastha said. “Be on the cutting edge. Always learn. That also motivates growth for employees. We are finding having a product stack based on new technologies is also a recruiting tool because people want to join a company where they want to learn new things.”

Xero is offering its employees opportunities for self-directed learning through toolkits created based on the content of the company’s existing trainings. That way, if a team or individual is encountering a challenge, they can access the toolkits right away to work through examples and exercises.

“We’re trying to put the content, the learning, the access, all at every Xero’s fingertips so that they can develop what they need in real time, and they’re not going to be delayed based on somebody’s schedule,” Rowe said.

More on Career DevelopmentCareer Growth and Career Development: What’s the Difference?

 

Workshops

Pantheon has offered workshops for managers on topics like crucial conversations and career paths/laddering that were run in a book club style. Koenig advises that other tech companies think about investing in professional development as early on as possible in the startup phase.

“If we had started on a lot of these projects a year earlier, we’d be a better company today. We’d be even more successful,” Koenig said. “You need to put this on your radar earlier because … what you’re actually building is a company, and that company is made out of people, much more so than it is out of software.” 

ChannelAdvisor launched a series of workshops through its leadership academy — one for people leaders, one for individual contributors — along with a workshop for managers and team members about how to create actionable and effective growth plans.

“I’ve had at least five or six women reach out and say I actually used those exercises that we talked about, and I practiced it, and I just got this new role internally,” Rowe said.

Xero has developed coffee chats based on its core trainings, which serve as open forums for people to have a safe place for conversations on topics like inclusive leadership. The company’s employee resource groups have hosted workshops as well. For example, a women’s ERG hosted a short professional development series on getting more comfortable talking about your career that was well received.

“I’ve had at least five or six women reach out and say I actually used those exercises that we talked about, and I practiced it, and I just got this new role internally,” Rowe said. “I was able to take that next big step because I went through that, and I went into those interviews and advocated for myself in a way that I hadn’t felt capable of doing before. It was a direct result of being able to have that space to actually practice it and get feedback.”

 

Professional Development Stipend

ChannelAdvisor started offering a stipend in 2020 to help employees with their professional development goals. Typical stipend uses include covering the costs of seminars, courses, memberships and subscriptions related to employees’ roles and development.

“​​What we find is important is for us to have a benefit and a practice that allows managers to be flexible and allows employees to use the stipend for what helps best meet the needs of their growth plan,” Solomon said. 

The company evaluates its professional development offerings on an annual basis but strives to have each of its employees partake in some form of professional development or growth assignment during the year, Solomon said.

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