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In today’s excessively tumultuous economic climate, sending employees for further development has become a rising trend among corporations worldwide. But as firms struggle with rising costs, and as leaders struggle between spending time on such courses and managing heavy workloads, it remains yet to be seen if investing in such programmes is worthwhile. Akankasha Dewan examines the true value of professional development in the current corporate landscape.

The HR leader looking for providing his executives with further education programmes for their professional development today faces something of a dilemma.

On the one hand, pushing leaders to enhance their professional skills is key because managing can be particularly difficult in an uncertain recovery, especially as global businesses prove more vulnerable to all sorts of political and economic setbacks.

“Our new-age leaders, senior managers and high potentials face many new challenges and ever-changing scenarios in this interconnected and fast-paced world,” says Hari Menon, vice-president of HR for Asia Pacific at Alstom Transport.

Apart from aligning oneself with the values of the company and being ethical in business dealings, which has always been important, he explains a new key skill to have today is the “ability/skill to adapt to change”.

“In this competitive world, we also need leaders with innovative ideas, we need leaders who are willing to take risks, and at the same time, inspire, motivate and drive action.

“New-age leaders have to build new strategic partnerships to address global challenges and grow organically and inorganically. Therefore, in my opinion, new-age leaders need to incorporate skills in business that are more in the realm of psychology and cognitive science.”

On the other hand, many companies are still in a budget-cutting mood, and every extra dollar spent for such training has to be justified.

With budgets being slashed from one quarter to the next, executives must consider more strongly than ever the potential value of not only further education courses, but also professional development sessions.

Will such opportunities for technical and/or behavioural development make employees better leaders? Better managers? Better thinkers?

Dealing with the tides of change

The answer, perhaps, is less complex than it appears, according to senior practitioners of the learning industry – such as Cindy Dermawan, head of talent and learning management, diversity and inclusion, at Citi Singapore.

“Professional development courses will always be important, as they are quite relevant for us and will always be for any professional in the corporate environment.”

Her views seem to resonate with professionals in Singapore, who have repeatedly shown they are willing to enhance their professional skills.

In fact, there has been a healthy year-on-year increase in the number of local employees who have indicated they are interested in furthering their education.

According to a 2013 report by JobsCentral, 82.7% of 8,367 respondents said they were keen on pursuing further education – up from 71.5% in 2012. This is also the highest percentage since the survey began in 2009.

A majority (86.5%) of those who intend to return to school said they wanted to do it to advance their careers.

“Our professionals recognise that while having the right qualifications can open doors to a promotion or a raise, they also know that continuous upgrading increases their value beyond just a formal education,” said Lim Der Shing, CEO of JobsCentral Group.

Menon agrees with the continued relevance and importance of further education courses, but adds the issue is not simply a question of being handed a new toolkit or method for making decisions.

Instead, the firm aiming to pour money into a new course must also consider the long-term effect of its employees’ capabilities to lead the company in the right direction.

This is where further education, and more importantly, professional development courses create the biggest impact.

“Professional development is a life-long process. Professional development courses are definitely a way to develop employees as long as they offer a blended learning and are not limited to classroom/theoretical inputs,” Menon says

“The best courses incorporate mentoring, coaching, case studies, on-the-job projects, lesson studies, reflective supervision, special assignments and management sponsorship.

“It is indeed worthwhile for organisations to send/sponsor employees for such a course based on the return on investment expected and considering the performance and potential of the employee. I would recommend to send any employee whom you would bet on for your future business needs, and who seeks professional development, to be sent for such a course.”

For Cynthia Lee Mai, head of APJ talent management at HP Inc, enhancing professional skills – be they academic or behavioural – are important because they help in dealing with the only constant element in the corporate landscape today – change.

“I think we all agree the economy is today moving really fast, and that things are changing really fast.

“In a volatile, complex and uncertain world, we find that leaders need to do much more than what they had to do. So the learning agility to meet the pace of change needs to be there; they have to be able to adapt to learn new skills and new knowledge and be able to apply that to their work.”

This is especially true for leaders – because if leaders are uncertain about dealing with change in the workplace, their employees will be affected too.

In fact, according to a 2016 survey by ComPsych Corporation, supervisors’ unclear expectations (31%) is the biggest stress-causing factor for employees.

This was followed by issues around working with others and change.

A fifth (20%) of respondents felt that “confusion/conflict between co-workers/departments” causes them stress.

Dr Richard A. Chaifetz, founder, chairman and CEO of ComPsych, noted: “Employees are telling us that much of the disequilibrium around change is coming from managers. These challenges have resulted in our training topics of ‘resiliency’ and ‘coping with change’ being by far the most popular.”

Providing an external perspective

In such a situation, professional development courses become key in helping leaders, and by extension, their employees, deal with the tsunami caused by the tides of change.

But Laszlo Reisch, head of people and leadership at Siemens Healthcare, warns, however, that such courses are “worth it” only “if there is a chance to apply the learning in a particular business and industry context”.

“The benefit of external professional courses is that they bring in the outside perspective and allow our employees to form networks outside of our own organisation.”

Dermawan reiterates the value of external professional development courses providing different viewpoints, especially for leaders.

“We believe that our senior managers are already quite technically proficient in their jobs. We don’t normally send them for technical skills development, but more for honing their leadership skills,” she says.

“Sending these leaders on external courses helps in expanding their perspectives because they will be sitting in an interactive learning environment with CEOs of other industries. We believe this will give them more opportunities for cultivating their leadership styles and connecting with other senior thought leaders. It is good for them to gain insights into what the other industries are doing”

Dermawan adds the company provides internal programmes for leadership skills for everyone – ranging from an individual contributor to someone of a CEO level.

“All our training programmes are aligned to Citi’s leadership standards and for C-level executives, we have our internal global leadership programmes which are available across the globe.”

She explains that in terms of professional development, her firm sends “employees for courses on skills such as project management, communication skills. Those are available for everyone at Citi, based on individual employee’s development needs”.

Additionally, the company partners with universities such as NUS, SMU, where it sends senior leaders for leadership courses that are fully sponsored by Citi.

“On top of this, we also ask employees to own their career and take charge of their professional aspirations, to know their personal strengths and identify their learning gaps, and have a conversation with their managers. During the conversation, managers and employees will have to align the
development needs of the employees with the agreed succession plan as well as the company’s
business goals.

Similarly, Mai explains how HP also has a mix of internal and external programmes to offer employees.

“Internally, we have always had a degree assistance programme – which is actually more of a benefit than a L&D initiative. We encourage staff to further studies in topics of areas that will help them in their job scope. The company will support and sponsor them as they get an external degree,” she says.

“At the same time we also have a developmental programme where we partner with universities to execute programmes.

“There is a well-acclaimed programme by HP called building innovative leaders. This is a talent development programme, which we conduct in partnership with Stanford University. The curriculum for this programme is around helping leaders to build innovative cultures within their teams. This obviously is a very prestigious programme within our company.”

She explains the firm selects high-potential leaders to be part of this global programme, adding neither of the courses are mandatory, “as at the end of the day, you want to train someone who actually wants to be developed”.

Providing employees with the ability to manage their own careers

Mai’s point emphasises on the important basis on which the entire concept of professional development rests – which is the innate desire to develop and learn further.

In fact, attending courses for further development – be it technical or behavioural – allows employees to reflect on their own weaknesses and strengths, and encourages them to take more ownership of their own careers.

This helps them significantly in making a stronger impact on the business, according to Mai.

“Leaders need to manage their own careers and in order to manage their own careers they need to know what they want from their career, and how they are going to get it. They need to understand what are their strengths and weaknesses and what kinds of experiences they need in order to get from where they are to where they want to be.

“Self-awareness helps leaders to not only go where they want to go in terms of their career, but also to help them in their day-day interactions to influence their key stakeholders. I find that more successful leaders are the ones who have the self-awareness of what they can do better.”

And this self-awareness and drive to take charge of one’s own career through active professional development is also brought into light when leaders have to manage their learning schedules along with their daily corporate tasks and responsibilities.

When asked what tips bosses should give staff who are studying/learning and working simultaneously, Menon says “the magic wand of career growth is first in their own hands”.

“In this age of casual working, flexible working hours, five-day work weeks and ample personal leave, there are many ways to balance your work schedule and professional development.

“People managers should sit with their employees periodically (at least twice a year I would suggest) and discuss professional growth and development in a personal and business context.”

Once leaders have the employee buy-in, the targeted results locked and the business needs established, he explains the people manager should then let the employee come up with their own proposal on how to best manage the work schedule during this period.

“The people manager should review the proposal with the employee, agree on the solution and then discuss and align with the key stakeholders. A periodic check on how the employee is progressing on his executive education and feedback on how the team/stakeholders are coping with work could be worthwhile,” he says.

While concurring with Menon, Dermawan states that for employees who are fulfilling corporate responsibilities and spending time on learning programmes – managing internal communication efficiently becomes key.

“Even without training, at Citi, our employees are already juggling many portfolios. So whenever our leaders are attending external development programmes – and they have to travel or be out for 2 days in one country and 2 days in another – we focus on good employee-manager communication and support systems.

“Typically, these leaders are quite senior and are already at the top of their game so they would be able to manage their work and training commitments well. But what we do is to ensure that we have a conversation with all the key stakeholders involved in the process as well as the employees who will actually be attending the course. We talk about the expectations of the training sessions and how they are going to juggle all their portfolios while they are away.

“Along the way, we have continuous conversations between the employees who are away and their team members. We check in with them to ensure that they are coping well.”

Providing a collaborative environment

Menon’s and Dermawan’s views essentially point to perhaps one of the biggest and far-reaching consequences of further development today – which is the impact it has on not only the employee who attends professional development courses, but also their team.

Reisch explains, firstly, that in the process of further development, bosses of employees who are undergoing such courses can also cash in on the benefits.

“Let the employee participate in the education course fully. See this as an opportunity to learn about trends and activities outside your own organisation,” he says.

These benefits can also be seen via how HR leaders track the effectiveness of their professional development programmes.

“For all the courses we have, we have several levels of assessments which track not only how
well it has impacted the individual, but also how the learnings have benefited the rest of the
team,” Dermawan explains.

“Some examples of how we measure ROI for our training courses include employee engagement, retention, and the performance of the attendee and the team.”

Enabling such collaboration is something which Menon feels is useful because facilitating collaboration is, ultimately, a key characteristic of the entire learning and development function today.

“A key challenge with proving the ROI of a professional development course is the lack of interaction between learning and development staff, the HR business partners and business leaders, which should be remedied on all sides.

“Progressive organisations engage in a people to business conversation between the L&D managers and the business leaders during the need identification, selection of curriculum, enrolment of employees, and after attendance to such a course, with a follow up discussion later.

“The measures should be agreed with the business well before the programme starts and can involve HR, L&D, line managers and business leaders.”

With their ability to have teams collaborate together, provide employees with self-awareness of their own career growth, and leverage their potential in the current climate of change, it can be concluded the value of professional development courses has only, essentially, increased over time.

Image: Shutterstock


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