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What you can learn from CEOs about professional development

By Fi Darby | 10 April 2017

The term ‘professional development’ can cover a wide range of activities but in essence it is the process of education and training used to improve the level of your professional skills. Employee skill level, ability to absorb change, mental health and capacity to innovate are all directly affected by professional development provision and quality. And as we know, access to training in recognised qualifications is also a factor in employee retention. The creation of robust professional development policies is obviously a key to success in this area for all business as well. We consider what you can learn from some top CEOs about why professional development is good for employer and employee alike. 

woman boss leading a team meeting

In June 2016 Bob Bechek the CEO of Bain & Co, a technical consulting firm, found himself heading recruitment company Glassdoor’s top rating CEOs list. As well as giving him a 99% approval rating, Bechek’s employees made it clear why they felt so positive about his leadership, citing professional development at all levels as a key factor. Under Bechek’s administration, Bain offer quality apprenticeships, weekly training and global training. The Bain professional development policy highlights this with the quote, “Our people are our biggest asset - and we invest heavily in their professional and personal development.” 

Bechek himself is no stranger to the importance of professional development to an individual’s career advancement. In 1985 he was working as a general manager for a robotics firm. Things were going well but when Bechek foresaw changes that might alter the picture, he took the decision to add to his qualifications and experience by signing up for an MBA at Harvard Business School. When interviewed by Poets and Quants he discussed personal development,

‘… The reality is that there is always another rise or dip right over the next place… whatever you think is the summit of the mountain, there is always a higher peak right behind it infinitum.
Bechek goes on to explain that early on in their careers, people do not appreciate how much learning they are going to have to do in order to bring about ‘significant change’. This has undoubtedly helped to form his successful approach to professional development within Bain & Co.

Joel Trammel, an IT related software entrepreneur who is currently CEO of Khorus, theorises that the global ratio of leaders to workforce is increasing. He suggests that this has been influenced by, amongst other things, higher numbers of people engaged in ‘cognitive work’, growing numbers of remote teams and the removal of start-up barriers through cloud computing. He points out that this increase has made it more difficult for people who are looking to enter leadership to gain, ‘real-life leadership experience’ and suggests that preparation through professional development in the form of a learning mindset, regular reading and training programs will allow anyone seeking advancement to succeed. ‘To do so (succeed), you must exploit every opportunity to learn.’

With Australia’s increasingly rapid rate of digital and economic change, it may well be soft or transferable skills and the capacity to handle change itself that are going to give employees the wherewithal to facilitate and manage the future.

Albert Einstein recognised this well before the digital age, ‘Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.’

leadership concept

Mark Zuckerberg CEO of Facebook clearly takes a ‘future-proofing’ approach to training and professional development. With his company sitting at the vanguard of technical development and undergoing extreme and rapid growth, Facebook’s training program had to ensure that employees were equipped to think ahead even before they knew what ‘ahead’ might bring. Facebook’s innovative training program includes personal coaches for all new managers, Zuckerberg’s regular ‘no secrets’ question and answer sessions with staff, recent ‘political bias’ training and his personal piece de la resistance, amazing an audience in Biejing by speaking in Mandarin.

When asked about his reasons for learning Mandarin, Zuckerberg’s response clearly emphasised the significance he places on learning, “Learning a language is also a good intellectual challenge and Mandarin is a particularly difficult language for English-speakers.” Facebook’s Bootcamp program, started in 2008, is a prime example of a professional development approach that facilitates an appreciation of change.

All software engineers, no matter how experienced, go through the same program and one of the first things they are told is that their code is going to be live within a few days. This along with the emphasis on the Facebook motto, ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ is a clear challenge to those who are risk adverse. Joel Seligstein who is head of the Bootcamp program, describes it as ‘more of a cultural program than a teaching program.’ It is clear that Zuckerberg sees training and professional development as key players in Facebook’s renowned employee culture.

Employee mental health is a growing issue across Australia. Heads Up, who are a leading Australian promoter of mentally healthy workplaces, suggests for example that in the Health and Social Care industries, 26% of all employees experience mental health conditions in a year. This can lead to absenteeism, presenteeism (working whilst sick) and compensation claims. Heads Up calculates the return on investment of actions that contribute to a mentally healthy workplace in this sector as 3.74%. 

male boss presenting to staff

Yvonne Howie, Chief Executive NSW of the CEO Institute, Australia’s leading executive organisation for CEOs, recognises the importance to company success of actively promoting mental health in employees, ‘At the end of the day, a healthy workforce will greatly influence the success of a company.’ 

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as, ‘The state of wellbeing in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community.’ 

Without adequate and ongoing professional development, ‘working productively and fruitfully’ and ‘making a contribution’ is difficult and often impossible.

A sustained professional development program can go a long way to ensuring that all employees feel able to adequately fulfill their roles thus removing one key aspect of workplace stress. There are many that say professional development should be ongoing and that career advancement should be life-long.

Opportunities for learning are becoming more flexible regarding timescales, topics and delivery methods. Online learning is particularly flexible and has the dual benefit of training in certain digital-user skills at the same time as delivering qualifications. For the benefit of employee and employer alike, professional development has to be given priority when it comes to funding and time allocation.

We will leave the last word to Arne Sorenson, President and CEO of Marriott International. “Marriott International offers our associates training because we believe in the well-being and growth of each and every one.”

If you're an employer, here's some tips for staff retention

And here's the results of the Annual Australian Careers Survey

View all Develop your career articles

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