During the last recession, companies that were best at engaging their employees, in part by providing the training they needed to move forward in their careers, enjoyed profit gains of 26 percent, compared to losses of 14 percent at companies that were worst at engagement. That outperformance continued as the economy recovered.
So how can small companies create a culture of learning to cultivate the kind of engagement that will carry them through whatever economic cycles await us? Try these four strategies.
1.) Screen for learners when hiring.
While it’s true that a lot of any workplace culture depends on the views and attitudes of the people at the top (i.e., you), creating a culture of learning in your company will be much easier if you hire people who are eager, lifelong learners. Plus, those who enjoy learning are likely to be happy in an environment that encourages learning. And happiness increases productivity.
There are many ways to screen for learners during the interview process.
Ask about passion projects. Lifelong learners are typically pursuing something besides their nine-to-five, whether that’s training for a marathon or playing with a band. During the interview process, ask specifically about projects they’re pursuing outside of work. An answer of “nothing” is a sign that a person isn’t naturally inclined toward learning.
Focus on curiosity as much as hard skills. Most job descriptions evolve over time, which means the perfect candidate isn’t one who has all the hard skills required to do the job today, but someone who has many of those skills plus a willingness and ability to learn whatever else is necessary to do the job in the future. Bring up problems currently facing the team and see how the candidate responds. The most curious people often ask questions and attempt to problem-solve right away.
Ask which aspects of their job or industry they don’t understand or would like to understand better. One of the most important things to a learning mindset is the ability to admit you don’t know something. If a candidate has the humility to say to talk about what they don’t know in an interview setting, you may have a winner on your hands.
During a downturn, a naturally curious staff will be adept at adjusting practices and finding new ways to do things. They may, in fact, enjoy the challenge. This is what allows a business to survive lean times and thereafter to thrive (often with new, necessity-driven efficiencies in place) when boom times return.
2.) Make learning a company policy.
Policy is integral to corporate culture. If you make lifelong learning part of your company’s policy, it becomes part of the DNA of how your company operates. Such a policy has the power to impact decisions at every level.
This means explicitly defining ongoing learning (or “always be learning,” as we say) as a core company value. That implies you have already thought through your company’s core values: If you haven’t, now would be a good time!
From a planning perspective, it’s also important to include employee learning goals with other growth goals and business priorities. You’ve probably heard the expression “what you measure grows,” well, that applies to employee learning. Track it. Prioritize it. Watch it grow and transform your business.
Budget employee learning.
If you’re measuring learning, of course, you have to empower employees to learn. That means getting managers involved in the process by providing them with the tools and resources to help members of their teams set growth goals. (Note: employees whose managers are involved in goal setting are 3.6 times more likely to be engaged.)
Empowering employees can also mean providing the time or money to enable learning — in other words, offering learning opportunities as a job benefit like health insurance. As the labor market tightens, this will become an important differentiator: 87 percent of millennials consider career growth and development opportunities an important workplace benefit.
At Wyzant, we offer employees $2,000 per year to pursue professional development. We also give them unlimited access to work-related tutoring on our platform and a 50 percent discount for non-work-related tutoring.
During down ecomonic cycles, having learning goals can provide a morale boost. Even if you’re not hitting growth numbers, you can still hit your learning numbers. It sets you up to increase core competencies without bringing on contractors or new hires. A few lessons in email marketing, for example, are cheaper than outsourcing to a vendor and will let you see ROI faster.
Both of these will help your company maintain momentum for the inevitable economic recovery, which means you will be poised to seize new opportunities.
3.) Learn from mistakes.
These days, it’s standard for business owners to embrace the “fail fast” ethos of Silicon Valley – but are we applying the same rule to our employees? To ensure a culture of learning, it’s important to make sure we’re not punishing mistakes. Mistakes happen when people try something new, which is the kind of behavior that leads to breakthroughs and innovations.
It may feel counterintuitive to reward failures, but finding a way to do so (while filtering for failures from gross negligence) can help nurture a culture of learning.
Try getting your feet wet by encouraging employees to participate in low-stress brainstorming sessions. Remember: in brainstorming, you consider every idea without judgment. Establishing a judgment-free zone for ideas will encourage employees to share things that may seem “out there.” Some of those ideas won’t work – but some are bound to be brilliant.
This attitude can be particularly valuable during a downturn, when innovative approaches to problem solving may make the difference between surviving and shuttering your small business. If you’ve conditioned your team to be okay with failing, they’re more likely to suggest, and try, out-of-the-box ideas. If failure is a dirty word, though, people will be afraid to try new approaches, even when the old ones aren’t working.
4.) Learn from customers.
It’s easy to laser-focus on perfecting whatever product or service we’re building to solve whatever problem inspired us to start our business; and that’s not a bad thing. But too often, our definitions of “perfection” come only from within — that is, whatever a company’s leaders have defined as desirable.
In reality, customers can be a valuable source of learning. Customer feedback may highlight areas you never considered problematic, or they suggest features you would never have thought of. To maintain a culture of learning, be sure your employees know how to listen to customer feedback and are empowered to respond to it in creative ways.
When lean times hit, a customer base that believes you care about it can offer significant rewards. Customers who have an affinity to your brand are less likely to abandon you when money’s tight.
The rewards of curiosity.
It’s telling that the biggest startup trend of the last few decades has been the “disruptors,” companies that shook up entire industries by finding new ways to do things. It can be uncomfortable when someone questions your way of operating, but that questioning is essential to keeping your company vital and effective.
By creating a culture of learning in your company, you ensure that the disruptive force is happening within your business, keeping your products and services as relevant and useful as they can be, out in the marketplace.