Targeted training

The right professional development will strengthen your skills – and your business. The wrong courses will waste precious time and money. Here’s what you need to know.

When you’re considering professional development, experts agree there’s one word to keep in mind above all others: relevance.

As Nova Scotia-based team-building expert Tyler Hayden (above) puts it: “There might be a facilitator that providers flight simulations as an activity… which can be cool, but does that really help you? “Any training has to be directly related to your business and goals.”

It’s true. A quick search for professional development will show plenty of options, from outdoor adventures to outrageous games, group workshops to classroom time.

No matter what you choose, engaging in any formal training can take you (and maybe your employees) away from your desks and impact your budget. Particularly for a small business – when there might not be someone to step up while you take a course, let alone shuttering the place for a group session – you want to be sure the return on investment is going to be there.

What it’s all about

Whether you want to learn a specific skill, resolve an issue, develop a longterm plan, or foster a better working environment, professional development can play many roles.

Hayden offers a broad range of workshops and activities for professionals. He says he’s often called to deal with generational differences. Fostering a “connection between traditionalists and the millennials” – sharing traditional knowledge and methods with the next generation – is a key part of succession planning for any business.

Educational opportunities are “also about engagement and retention,” he emphasizes: motivated, inspired employees who feel part of the company are, after all, more interested in sticking around.

Those looking for a more formal setting may be among the 1,700 to 2,000 students who take seminars or certificate courses from the school of Executive and Professional Development at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. Courses range from the very specific and immediately practical to big, broad topics (communication, management, and supervision, for example).

“Sometimes, you may have to take on a new task at work, and you need specific skills to do a financial plan,” says the program’s director, Gerry Martin. The right professional development will teach “how to attack the task correctly; so you’re not wasting time and you are reducing the risk of making mistakes … it allows you to quickly pick up those skills.”

Other times, seminars or courses can fill gaps in knowledge and experience. Martin gives the example of someone who works in IT. That individual may have come into the job with a computer science degree – but now he or she has started to take on supervisory tasks. One option is the trial by fire or learning through experience route – and another is attending a class, led by an expert, to help clear the way.

“Because we live and work in a fairly dynamic environment, we’re always learning,” says Martin. “Professional development is an enriched version of the learning we do every day, targeted and condensed for ease of deliverability.”

Why are you doing this?

Before you can start hunting down the right professional development course or workshop for you, you must understand what the goal is. Sometimes, such as in the cases above, it’s obvious.

If you have the vague feeling you want to improve your business skills, but aren’t sure where to start, Martin suggests taking a good, critical look at a week in your work life. Evaluate the amount of time, effort, or stress your tasks consume. In which areas do you invest the most time – and why? Is it because of a lack of skill or understanding?

For example, “maybe I didn’t realize that every time I sit down to write something, it’s taking me forever,” says Martin. “So I could take some training in business communication.”

Hayden places professional development goals into three general categories: “fun, fast-forward, and fix.” While “fun” can be a goal in and of itself, it’s probably not the main reason you’re seeking to invest in professional development. If it’s important to you, there are practitioners who specialize in icebreakers, group adventures, and games.

“Fast-forward” would be a specific business objective, to help improve operations – it could be a team-building exercise to improve a policy, or new skill leaning and implementation.

Unfortunately, sometimes you need to “fix” a problem. “Maybe it’s discontent between departments or maybe there are imminent budget cuts or layoffs,” says Hayden. Conflict resolution and information management, he points out, are skills that can be learned.

In any case, you cannot proceed until you understand exactly what you want from professional development and what your goals are.

The who and the how

There’s another decision to make: do you want to learn in a classroom or other environment or in your office? Is this a journey for you and your team, or a solo voyage?

In some cases, says Martin, a formal classroom or seminar setting is best, taking you out of your business environment and offering the chance to interact with an expert instructor and other students with varied backgrounds but similar goals.

Other times, it’s more efficient and appropriate for the trainer to come to you. St. Mary’s does offer customized “inhouse training.” Again, it all comes down to relevance.

“It’s a good way to really pick and choose the most applicable topics; in-house training is focused and applied within the context of the organization,” Martin says. It also allows participants to speak freely of information that might be proprietary or confidential or otherwise not appropriate to discuss in a general classroom.

When choosing a mentor, facilitator, or instructor, Hayden suggests you “be sure it’s someone who understands business … content must be first. Look for academic experience, and watch for stringent intake planning.”

Meaning: look for someone who will take the time to understand your organization and what you need before launching into a program.

Identifying the R.O.I.

For all the benefits, Martin is all too aware that it can be tough to add professional development into an already packed work schedule.

“Organizations do understand there is value in learning, but there will always be the challenges of competing priorities,” she says. The courses offered through St. Mary’s Executive and Professional Development are designed with this in mind.

“Clients want the training to be extremely relevant. After a day or two-day seminar, they want to leave with a load of tools; with industry knowledge and professional knowledge that fits within their terms.”

Too often, says Hayden, the return on investment for a small business is not obvious – but, done right, it is definitely there.

“It’s all about doing,” he says. Take some time to plan, and then commit to the program and the required followthrough. “Think: I’m really going to try this. It’s taking the bull by the horns and making improvements.”

Stephanie Porter
About Stephanie Porter

Stephanie Porter is a freelance writer and editor living in St. John’s. In 2003, she helped launch The Independent, a spirited weekly newspaper distributed across Newfoundland and Labrador, known for its investigative news and features. Stephanie was managing editor of the paper until its untimely demise in 2008. She has also worked as a reporter and writer for Downhome magazine, the Express (also now defunct), The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, picking up Atlantic Journalism Awards for her feature and news writing. Stephanie is delighted to be a regular contributor to Atlantic Business Magazine. Photo Credit: Paul Daly.

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