Employee DevelopmentIf someone told you there was a virtually zero-cost method to not only develop employees but to retain them longer, you might think to yourself: “That person’s connection to reality is tenuous at best.”

However, there is such a system, maintained Chris Czarnik, founder of Career Research Group – a company that helps organizations find great talent and engage employees.

An international speaker and trainer on employee engagement, development, recruitment and job search, he recently authored the book Winning the War for Talent: Recruit, Retain and Develop the Talent Your Business Needs to Survive and Thrive.

The reason companies spend so much time recruiting new talent into their organizations, he explained, “is they have forgotten that, if you have a hole in the bottom of the bucket, and you keep filling the bucket with water, you are losing talented people on the other side.” That whole “is when employees stop learning, they start leaving.”

Czarnik discussed this situation and offered solutions in his presentation, Employee Development is as Easy as SME, to AEM’s recent virtual Workforce Solutions Summit. The three-day event discussed challenges and ideas for building a pipeline of qualified talent.

Want to learn more? Visit www.aem.org/workforce for more best practices, research, programs, and resources supporting workforce development for the industries AEM serves.

Consider Your Own Experience

Think about the last time you left an organization. It probably had nothing to do with your not being paid enough, or that initially you did not find the work interesting, said Czarnik. Most likely, it had to do with your being a driven, talented individual with a desire to keep learning.

At some point you were “just pulling the plow,” no longer learning or being challenged or growing. That is when you decided to seek work with another organization.

“The vast majority of people who leave an organization do so because they feel they are being taken advantage of or are not being noticed,” he pointed out. “People’s number one desire in all the world is to be significant to someone or something.”

Challenges to Overcome

Developing employees is challenging and complicated. It also requires a considerable investment in money and time from managers, supervisors and the HR department, Czarnik observed. That is a reason companies do not do employee development well.

“Employers don’t even know what they need or want their people to develop on. Employees are waiting for the organization to develop them. The organization is waiting for employees to come to them and say these are the kinds of things I would like to grow and develop on.

“Nobody talks to anybody and, at some point, the employee leaves – much to the surprise of management.

“Overwhelmingly, you will find that when people are constantly learning, they stay.”

The New Workforce

A major challenge facing industry today is that the largest generation entering the workforce are the Millennials, noted Czarnik.

“The average Millennial worker changes companies every 3.4 years. Not because they are unhappy, but because they are unchallenged. The number one reason given by Millennials for leaving is a lack of learning, challenge and growth.”

To deal with this, he said industry must understand that Millennials were the first generation who had an “electronic babysitter” – video games – and are the first generation that does not know a world without Google.

From an early age, Millennials gained the ability to access information, find the materials they need and solve problems, explained Czarnik. “They are in a constant state of learning. It is the way they grew up and we cannot expect them to change and stop doing this when they come to work.”

Why Year Three?

Why is it three years when people begin leaving a company? In year one, employees become comfortable with the job, said Czarnik. In year two, they become comfortable with the company and why their work matters. In year three, they start looking for growth or change.

To deal with year three, “put all your managers and supervisors in a room and explain to them that if we want employees to stay, grow and feel engaged, instead of telling them what to do, explain why they are doing what they do.

“Managers and supervisors need to be on the floor creating conversation and relationships with people. They need to become more than just bosses and be leaders, mentors and teachers. Have them explain every answer they give in terms of what and why. Employees grow by understanding.”



“Employers don’t even know what they need or want their people to develop on. Employees are waiting for the organization to develop them. The organization is waiting for employees to come to them and say these are the kinds of things I would like to grow and develop on. Nobody talks to anybody and, at some point, the employee leaves – much to the surprise of management. Overwhelmingly, you will find that when people are constantly learning, they stay.” -- Chris Czarnik, founder of Career Research Group.

Create an SME System

Czarnik recommended creating a subject matter expert (SME) system, wherein every employee is responsible for their own growth and can earn the right can become a SME.

All organizations have SMEs already, he observed. These are people that know more than anyone else about one topic. It is someone that people go to when they have a question on that specific topic. However, these SMEs are unofficial and have no specific recognition.

Create an army of SMEs from those employees in their third year with a company, advised Czarnik. “We know they are looking for growth and have earned the right to grow because they treat people well, come up with answers, are involved in programs and are constantly looking for way to make the organization better. Make the honor of being a SME an aspirational thing for employees.”

Have managers and supervisors identify likely candidates. Then, leadership should identify 15 topics that are critical to the industry or organization that would give it a competitive advantage if it had an SME on those topics.

Develop an Action Plan

Once an organization has determined those employees who qualify to be an SME, offer them the opportunity to become one. “If they accept, it is particularly important that they get to choose from the SME topics list,” said Czarnik. “A topic cannot be assigned. You cannot tell a person to be interested or excited about a particular topic.”

SME candidates should be given two hours a week on company time to study their topic using all the free material available on the Internet, he instructed. Because they love their topic, they will probably spend their own time researching it.

This should continue for six months. Then, it needs to be determined if the candidates have done the studying and have become an SME on their chosen topic.

An Educational Learning Community

The SME should “teach their topic at a very deep level to their direct manager or supervisor,” said Czarnik. “Imagine the possibilities. Over a period of time, your direct managers or supervisors will become SMEs on topics your leadership has identified as the most critical to your industry or organization.

“Envision the level of conversation and cooperation that will exist. Instead of a manager or supervisor talking to an employee about due dates, start-up curves, uptime and all those things, they are having regular conversations about topics that are important and are learning from each other. That is how you create an educational learning community.”

After an employee has become a SME, they must be rewarded for all their hard work, stressed Czarnik. Money can be a part of it – perhaps a pay raise or bonus. “But the most important thing is to give them the title and honor of being a SME on their topic, and that needs to be announced very publicly.”

Czarnik recommended that once SMEs are in place, over the next year or two, a series of “lunch and learns” be held wherein an SME teaches their topic to the whole organization at “some very high level of understanding. The value here is that everyone starts using common language, begins thinking the same way and develops common ways of solving problems so that misunderstandings and arguments go away.

“This raises the knowledge base of the entire organization on the 15 topics it has decided are most important.”

Individualized Employment Development Plans

By using an SME system, “an organization can go from how in the world can we develop people in the way we want that is not super expensive, doesn’t require all kinds of teaching and training and doesn’t take people off-line for training to a system with virtually zero cost, virtually zero work for managers, supervisors and HR and gets the benefit of learning in the organization,” Czarnik said.

An SME system creates an individualized development plan for every employee, he added. It also creates a “parking lot” for talent and identifies early on and vets future leaders.

“When you turn people into teachers and SMEs, when is that employee going to leave for more money?” asked Czarnik. When you turn someone into a valued member that people come to on a daily basis for advice, guidance and feedback, when is that employee leaving?”

Companies tend to focus on money because it “is the easiest knob to turn, but the fact is engaged, developing, active employees who are growing stay.”

For organizations that have implemented the SME system for the people they wanted to stay, the retention rate is around 96 percent, he noted. “Why wouldn’t it be? We pay them well. We utilize their skills well. We grow them. And the whole time, they bear responsibility for their growth.”

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