Manager’s Notebook: Helping Team Members with Professional Development

Photo credit: Mauro Cateb on flckr.comI read a blog post the other day with the headline “When is it okay NOT to develop? Hint: never.” I immediately thought, “Well, of course, we should always be learning.” Then I read further and realized I wasn’t always doing my job as a leader in helping my team members with their professional development. Read on to find out why, and how I plan to fix that.

What does Professional Development Mean?

Professional development means different things to different people and the organizations that employ them. To some, it means they’ve done a lot of work, so they deserve a promotion. To others, it means getting better at the tasks they already do. But to me, it means taking advantage of opportunities to learn things that can help you be more efficient at your job, add to your skill set, and help take your team and organization further.

Why is it Important?

Stagnant careers. Mediocre teams. Outdated technology. Less relevant content. Gloomy results when you lack professional development opportunities for your team members. Let’s talk about these in more detail.

Stagnant Careers

If you aren’t learning, you’re doing the same thing day in and day out with no appreciable return. If you aren’t improving, you’re hurting yourself and your team. The business world changes rapidly. If you aren’t changing to keep up, you become expendable and in the long run, less employable. Employers want to hire people who keep up with what’s happening in their discipline.

When I interview candidates, I look for professional organization memberships, ongoing education, and other indications that the candidate seeks out knowledge to increase their skills. I want to hire someone who can help take my team to the next level, not someone who requires handholding and does the bare minimum.

Mediocre Teams

It was in this area that the light bulb went off for me. Like any team, our team includes a couple of people who perform adequately, but seem to have no interest in improving or growing. My past stance was that okay, as long as they are doing what’s required of them at their job level, they don’t need to improve, because not everyone can be an A player.

But the blog I referenced above made a point that hit me square in the gut: “As a leader, letting your employees off the hook for development because ‘they don’t want to’ is a cop-out and weak leadership….you’re saying it’s OK to run your team at less than optimal performance.” Who here wants a less than optimal team? Not me. I owe it to myself, the other team members, and the company to manage my team for optimal performance, so we can recognize the benefits of having motivated, knowledgeable, and forward-thinking employees.

Outdated Technology

Technology and tools change constantly. Performance speed and features improve with each new release of those technologies. If you use the same tools to create, manage, and publish content that you did 12, 10, or even 5 years ago, chances are you aren’t getting optimum benefits. Can you and your team evaluate and adopt a newer, better content authoring tool? If not, can you take training to improve your usage of your current tools? Start looking at the technology that’s available now, and what might be coming soon. Otherwise, you might never know if a tool exists that could better fit your authors’ and customers’ needs.

Less Relevant Content

If your team members aren’t educating themselves, how can they learn more about your customers so they know what to write for them? Do they know the latest tools and techniques for audience analysis? How can they determine what formats your customers prefer, and where they want to access content?? If they’re not keeping up with the industry and trends, will they recognize that videos are increasingly popular and more customers are requesting them? If they haven’t started to explore various facets of customer experience and the buying lifecycle, how will they know that more prospects are reviewing technical content as part of a buying decision? Will they understand that the alignment of marketing content and technical content is more important than ever? And if they don’t uncover these linkages, how will they be able to create useful, relevant content? The answers to all of these questions lie in learning. They become able contributors to the bottom line when they seek out learning about the tools, processes, and technology that support today’s technical communication functions.

How do I Help my Team Members Develop?

Insist that your team members find an area or two to learn something new. As professional communicators with technical skills, we can choose to explore many career paths and supplementary skills.

One way you can guide your team toward professional development is through setting and managing yearly goals and objectives. Even if your company doesn’t have a formal goal-setting process, you can work with your team members to set 3-4 goals for the year. Ensure one of those goals is for professional development, and encourage your team members to explore an area related to technical communication that interests them. Ideas include user experience, tools specialization, content strategy, DITA, Google Analytics, and other areas that get regular coverage on TechWhirl.

Another consideration is to build out a documented job ladder. When you identify expectations in various areas for each job level, you give each team member something to strive for if they are seeking a promotion. Additionally, if they feel stuck, the job ladder exposes them to ideas for how to further develop current skills or add others they might not have thought of previously.

Finally, facilitate team member education through a professional development budget. Set aside budget for your team to improve their skills, even if it’s not very much, to send the message that professional development matters. You can register your team for webinars at low or no cost.  Offer them a “catalog” of online courses and training in communication skills, tools, and approaches to content. Send team members to conferences where they can learn about how others tackle various content challenges and get a huge boon to your entire team when those attendees bring back that knowledge and share it with the team.

The world is technical communicators’ oyster…help develop your team into the pearls they can be!

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