Making the right investment in employees, especially when it comes to learning and development programs, continues to be a challenge for many executives and growing startups.

Despite spending over $160 billion dollars on such programs, many executives continue to struggle with how to effectively deploy and implement them. As research shows, the need to improve these programs remains a growing concern for HR executives.

Developing employees takes significant time and effort, but it's worth it. Successful employee development programs demonstrate trust and value, and create an eagerness that drives employee growth and retention.

But if that development program isn't sustained properly or is developed from the wrong perspective, it may end up becoming more a liability than an opportunity--for both the company and the employee.

With that in mind, here's how to develop a career development program that delivers.

1. Rekindle the fires of passion for training in your leadership team

Where managers used to pass on knowledge, skills, and insight through direct training and mentoring, more complex and competitive global industries have eroded the traditional manager role.

In many organizations, managers have been burdened with workloads and responsibilities that allow little time for coaching and mentoring. If you want to develop better employees, then you need to support your managers first. Give them a reason to be passionate about becoming a mentor again.

2. Define the objectives

Everything you do should have indicators for success and failure. Good objectives are specific, measurable, attainable, and relevant. When you build your program around short-term objectives, you create direction for the participants. Whether you're talking about marketing campaigns or program development, objectives are imperative to success.

If the overarching goal is to improve the retention of talent, then plan to measure the attrition rate. Use satisfaction surveys regularly, and compare your data to refine the program and improve its effectiveness. Review goals and objectives quarterly to stay on top of industry trends so employees get the most out of their development.

Goals are imperative at every level and are a part of the culture of a company.

"Goals are not separate from the culture of the organization," says professional business consultant Bill Baren. "It's not an accident that Zappos.com has done over $2 billion in business. They've created a culture of caring--when they ask their employees to do something, they go and do it."

3. Become a matchmaker

For any program to work, you need to match employees with appropriate mentors in your organization. The strength and mutual respect of those relationships will go a long way in terms of retention of what is being taught.

Software is available for mentor-matching within organizations, but hopefully you know your employees better than anyone. You know how to make intelligent matches based on skills, life and work experiences, interests, and ambitions. If this is a struggle, you can also take the route of letting employees choose their own coaches or mentors. This can help them hit the ground running once they team up.

"Company leadership should embrace, promote, and value mentoring programs to realize a return on investment," says Harvard Business Review writer Anthony K. TJan.

4. Grow in short sprints

Knowledge has a much shorter shelf life than it used to. Information that was once valid for several years can now be dated and obsolete in a year--or in months. A good career development program is able to pivot quickly, helping employees learn rapidly in bursts.

It's important to avoid information overload--you'll need to find a good balance between giving information that's on point versus providing too much information all at once.

5. Cater to your virtual teams

Virtual teams, remote workers, and employees spread out across multiple offices face the most difficult challenge with career development. Technology makes it easy for a company in California to employ people from all over the globe, so executives need to give more thought and creativity to how these employees stay actively engaged.

"When working in an office, you learn about your employees and colleagues through daily interactions, from working together on projects to casual conversations about weekend plans," says Dustin Grosse, CEO of ClearSlide. "It takes greater effort to engage in the same way with remote employees, but it's critical."

Focus on improving communication, and use tools like Lynda.com to create custom training playlists for specific members of your team.

6. Empower employees to own their development

You can't pigeonhole your teams into a scheduled-class structure and expect results. Your team needs to own, self-direct, and control their development. You don't necessarily want them to do it alone--and that's where the mentoring and coaching comes into play. However, when you give them directional control of their learning, they'll be able to lock onto the areas where they want to grow and can set goals to help with personal development.

7. Be flexible with how your employees learn and develop

If your team is already weighted down with tasks and deadlines, it will only serve to crush their drive more if you force them to add learning activities to their workload. They'll likely be left feeling overwhelmed. This is a common mistake that's easy to avoid.

Find ways to create an on-demand experience that makes learning happen on their time, when it's most convenient for them. Allow employees the ability to schedule blocks during their work day where they can focus on learning.

It's not easy for employees to open up about areas in which they're struggling, especially in an environment where trust is an issue. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, one in four workers say they don't trust their employer. If you want employees to engage in learning and development, then you need to show them that you and your leadership team are there to actively help them pursue growth on their journey.

What steps have you taken to improve or implement a better employee development program at your organization? Share in the comments below:

Published on: Apr 7, 2016