How best to motivate employees and organizations to work together on career development and skills training.

By Lorri Freifeld

Most employees today wouldn’t turn down a promotion. But many of them are so busy with their ever-increasing workloads that they can’t find the time to take the training necessary to elevate their skills to the next level.

Likewise, most organizations today would love to fill their job vacancies by promoting current employees rather than starting from scratch with new hires. But many of them can’t figure out how to “train up” employees to the skill levels they claim to need.

Complicating matters is the perception—real or imagined—that some Millennials feel they are entitled to promotions rather than earning them, while other generations believe Millennials need to “pay their dues” before moving up the corporate ladder.

This third part of our Skills Gap series is all about motivation: how to motivate employees to take charge of their career development and how to motivate organizations and their leaders to provide a culture that fosters career development and empowerment.

Organizations need to “walk the talk” when it comes to training and development, says Bill Gentry, a senior research associate at the Center for Creative Leadership. “If the organization has a culture of supporting training and development, employees will believe it is important for their own success. So, organizations need to make an array of compelling training and development opportunities available, and executives and managers need to model their importance by taking advantage of these opportunities themselves.”

Development is a two-way street, agrees Marty Nowlin, vice president, Human Resources ManpowerGroup, North America. “The organization and the employee must make development a priority. The organization must be willing to fund it and support a week of the employee’s worklife away from day-to-day responsibilities, for instance. And the employee must be willing to dedicate that week to learning—and disconnecting from the day-to-day tasks to the extent possible.”

Since employees who are committed both to their own growth and development and to increasing their contribution to their team and organization are very critical regarding how they spend their time away from their day-to-day responsibilities, every opportunity for development must be relevant to them personally and to the value they bring to their team and the organization, emphasizes Wayne Davis, director, Corporate Training & Development at Training Top 125er CHG Healthcare Services. “Showing relevance will keep this value proposition front of mind and encourage employees to go through development opportunities. Simply stated, every learning and development opportunity must be outcome (results) driven for both the participant and the organization.”

When people get tired, performance drops, quality issues increase, and employees lose the willingness to chase personal and organizational wins, notes Tim Toterhi, an organizational coach and organizational development and change management specialist. “It’s a real problem, with a two-part solution: First, we all need to increase our mental stamina and agility. Skill training provides knowledge and tools to help us outpace the competition—to keep running when the other guy is sucking wind.”

Second, Toterhi explains, “we need a reason to run. Leaders have to link the training activity to a longer-term objective or a broader vision. Designing a career path that illustrates requirements for different roles can spark employees to prepare themselves before stepping into the next job. Also, it’s vital to have leaders in the classroom. They can lend credibility to the lessons and share stories that aid in knowledge retention.”

Likewise, Nowlin says, the conversations and interactions between the manager and the employee are key as that is when goals and motivations are truly uncovered. “When equipped with that knowledge and insight, leaders and employees can connect skills training or any other development activity to individual goals and motivations.”

Anna Franson, manager, Assessments & Feedback, CHG Healthcare Services, says a Professional Development Plan (PDP), especially when initiated and driven by the employee, serves as the catalyst for the growth and development discussions between an employee and his or her leader. “This provides the action plan or roadmap for the employee’s ongoing progression. It should show the link between the employee’s own development goals and opportunities and the organization’s business goals and mission and vision. When it is utilized as a living document in conjunction with ongoing growth and development discussions between the employee and his or her leader, the PDP maintains the relevance in the cycle of continuous improvement, growth, and development of the employee and the organization.”

Training Top 125er Wells Fargo encourages team members to think through their career aspirations and plan their development using a 70/20/10 model that blends experiences (70 percent), including stretch assignments, special projects, and community involvement; relationships and feedback (20 percent), and programs and courses (10 percent). Training is delivered through a variety of approaches to make it easy and to motivate team members to complete training and reinforce skills, according to the Wells Fargo Learning & Development team. A few examples:

  • Interactive quizzes in which team members have an opportunity to complete scenarios that require them to demonstrate skill or knowledge to earn activity points that can be exchanged for merchandise.
  • Many courses have a “Learning 2.0” site that includes just-in-time performance support tools, videos, and interactive online learning activities to reinforce skills and application. These sites also provide ongoing collaboration opportunities for learners to interact with one another.
  • Meeting guides that help managers lead team discussions to reinforce training.
  • Follow-up action planning and check-lists to help managers assess how skills are being applied on the job.
  • Reinforcing the 70/20/10 model and integrating it with performance and development planning to maximize learning on the job and through others so it becomes part of team members’ day-to-day work activities.

Money as a Motivator

One of the $64,000 questions about motivation always centers on money. So can money motivate employees when it comes to not only taking skills training but retaining what they learn?

Viewpoints run the gamut, but most agree money will not play a big part here. “I have yet to see real evidence that money motivates or changes performance or learning. Period,” stresses Peter Block, founder, Designed Learning: A Peter Block Company. “Money is a medium of exchange to facilitate buying and selling. Employees are not commodities. They must be paid but cannot be purchased. It is most important that a pay system is transparent and roughly equitable.”

Getting a raise, versus a small bonus, can be motivating to some, but there are limits to the capability of most managers/organizations with this system, says Ellen Van Velsor, a senior fellow in Research & Innovation at the Center for Creative Leadership. “And there is potential for employees to play that kind of system, for example, by taking many classes (that may or may not have much to do with their jobs or long-term career goals) to qualify for raises that may not be justified by their job performance.”

Adds Toterhi, “the trouble with linking behavior change solely to monetary rewards is that you have to consistently feed the meter. It’s better to tap into people’s intrinsic motivators—the emotional drivers that make them want to succeed. When you frame skill training as a vehicle for helping people do important work, be the best at a given task, or make a contribution to a larger goal, you’ll get their attention for a longer stretch. Just be cautious about public recognition and individual competition when working internationally as different cultures hold varying views of those motivators.”

Training Top 125er Wequassett Resort and Golf Club recently polled 100 employees on what motivated them. Employee recognition won by a landslide, according to Kara Lachance, director of Learning. “When our employees partake in additional training courses, we celebrate their efforts by affording them some of our guests’ amenities and recognize them at employee events with an ‘Academy Award.’ For example, we took a team of employees on a boat cruise with a special lunch packed for each of them. We have surprised them with a sundae bar in the classroom and conducted full-fledged beach parties and tennis tournaments for the employees. We have themed events once a month to recognize the employees who go above and beyond with their training and customer service…recently, we had a Great Gatsby party withgift baskets that included tickets to the movie.”

Sense of Entitlement?

Much has been written about the fact that Generation Yers have a reputation of having grown up being praised and rewarded and believe they deserve a promotion to the next level even though they may not have the skills to move into that position. Truth or fiction? And if truth, what’s the solution?

According to CCL research (,the top concern managers expressed about their next-generation employees is that they seem to have a sense of entitlement that is out of line with their roles and (lack of) seniority. As one manager said, “They have not yet paid their dues.” While much attention is paid to the sense of entitlement Gen Y employees seem to have, perhaps equal attention needs to be paid to whether the “pay your dues” attitude is the most productive one for more senior people to express, Van Velsor posits. “It hints of an organizational climate in which tenure counts more than the quality of one’s ideas and in which self-confidence is neither expected nor desired when a young person starts out in their professional career.”

Van Velsor adds that “we know younger people want mentoringand development, which does not go along with the idea that all they want is rapid promotion. And cross-generational mentoring can have many benefits both for Gen Yers and their older counterparts. Gen Y employees have skills that people not raised with technology, for example, can readily benefit from.”

Wells Fargo provides coaching and mentoring support through formal and informal programs. “Our commitment to development starts at the top and is reinforced at all levels throughout the company,” the L&D team says. “Our top 100 executives each commit to an 18-month mentoring relationship. Similar formalized programs are offered throughout the company, and tools are available online to allow team members to pursue informal mentoring relationships.”

ManpowerGroup’s Nowlin notes that it is interesting that while many Generation Yers may start with unrealistic expectations, those expectations are quickly level-set when they start looking for an opportunity or begin working in an organization. “They soon see and understand the challenges and uncertainty in the environment and job market. However, they still want to feel they are progressing and growing in their careers. It is important they understand how developing capabilities will help them to meet their goals—whatever they might be. They need to know that they own the development needed to make up the difference. There is sometimes a gap in what they believe is required and what they can do and what is actually required and how they are perceived.”

Nowlin believes organizations and their leaders would be well served to make success factors and individual feedback clear and create an environment that encourages development by creating and supporting learning opportunities.

In today’s “Company Me” workplace culture, it’s easy to hyper-focus on Gen Y’s supposed desire for rapid advancement, Toterhi says. “The drive itself, however, is nothing new. My fellow Gen Xers are no strangers to corporate dogfighting, a skill we learned from our Boomer bosses.”

To engage and retain employees of all ages, Toterhi says, managers must help them remain realistic about corporate advancement. “This means providing honest performance feedback, clarifying what it takes to make the next move, and supporting an ‘earn before you spend’ culture. Once the rules are set, they can encourage employees to acquire skills, raise their level of contribution to the organization, and then and only then, build a business case for their advancement based on proven results.”

Development has a different meaning to each individual employee, regardless of generational perspective, CHG’s Franson adds. “The key is maintaining employee engagement based upon a strong sense of growth and development for the individual employee. While many Generation Yers have been praised and rewarded, their perception of what that means is as individual as they are. Typically, those who have been groomed to believe it means a promotion have been developed that way in cultures where engagement was low and growth and development was only available to the chosen few ‘high potentials.’ Leaders must start defining development at the early stages of an employee’s career. This will broaden their view and engage them in more opportunities, and their development actions will not be based solely on the promotion or monetary reward.”

Stay tuned for Part 4 of the Skills Gap series (September/October issue), which will look at the role technology can play in bridging the skills gap.

Quick Tips

Here are some tips for employees, managers, and organizations, provided by the experts interviewed for this article:

  • Don’t just assume an employee wants to move up to the next level. Find out from the employee what his or her goals are, both in the short term within the organization and over the longer term. And ask the employee what motivates him or her.
  • Ask the employee to create a plan for his or her development. Let him or her interview people and do some research on his or her own future.
  • The manager should discuss one-to-one with the employee current strengths and development needs and the implications of those for what his or her desired next steps are. These “development” conversations, either formally or informally, should be held every quarter (or more often) and not just at each person’s yearly performance appraisal review.
  • The manager should discuss with the employee the opportunities for present on-the-job development opportunities (e.g., assignments, mentoring) and other options for development, focusing on the skills needed for next steps (e.g., community service, classroom/skills training, leadership development coursework).
  • The employee and manager should create a plan that they and the organization can support and sign off on. This should include what the employee specifically needs to do to meet his or her goals related to professional and career development.
  • The organization should provide ongoing support and tools to the employee in the implementation of that plan (e.g., coaching/mentoring, follow-up by his or her manager).
  • The organization should provide easy access to job information so the employee can explore opportunities and identify the skills he or she need to develop his or her career.
  • The organization should map a variety of career pathways and clearly define the success factors associated with each opportunity. Once people know what success looks like and the training required to get there, they will be more apt to make the journey.
  • The organization should align training with the skills or competencies employees need to be successful in their current jobs or to prepare for a future job.
  • The organization should make learning opportunities easily accessible.
  • Leaders in the organization should broadly communicate the expectations and capabilities needed for success in all leadership roles. This enables employees in all functions and roles to align training and development activities to meet and acquire them.
  • The organization must leverage its leadership. Hearing from current position holders can light a fire under future leaders.

Steer Your Career

By George Klemp, Founding Partner, Cambria Consulting (

Many companies overlook an important issue that’s key to unlocking the mystery of how best to motivate employees for new training and skills development.

It’s this: People have a hunger to know what it takes to get ahead in their organizations, but too often they lack a clear roadmap for getting there. What’s more, most employees can turn to few people or resources for solid direction. In fact, it’s not uncommon for even their managers and supervisors to be in the dark about what’s needed for employees to advance up the ladder.

But companies that tie training more directly to career advancement quickly see employees taking the wheel and steering their own training. They also witness how consistently motivated employees are to learn.

Organizations have a lot at stake in making this shift. Despite all the time, effort, and investment involved in hiring the best and the brightest employees, many companies have shockingly high turnover rates. It’s often considered a success to have people still in their jobs a mere two to three years after they’re hired.

One of the biggest reasons people cite for going to work somewhere else? They couldn’t see a way forward at their last employer. Training can bridge that gap for employees and empower them to take a more active role in their own development. Here’s how to make the shift:

Balance performance and advancement. Much training today is aimed at closing gaps in how employees do their current jobs. But people are more motivated about getting to the next level in their career. Most employees want to be seen as good performers in their role today, and also highly competitive for opportunities that surface tomorrow. Training should honor both.

Identify the critical skills for success. Define what’s most important to getting results in the current job. The key: What are the four or five most important responsibilities in every job? And what are the experiences and skills required to be successful? Answering simple, clear questions such as these can help training professionals design essential training—and will motivate people to engage in it.

Make it all transparent. Now make all of this public and accessible. Giving employees and their managers this information about different roles up, down, and across the organization does away with the mystery of what it takes to get from here to there and motivates people to take the training that helps them get ahead.

Is the Millennial Generation Ready to Lead?

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D., Team Leader—Assessment and Selection Analytics, Development Dimensions International, Inc. (DDI)

Generation Y, or the Millennial generation, is growing up, and as the oldest of them enter their 30s, many are in line for (or already holding) supervisory and management positions. But is this group well equipped to assume leadership roles? Or are the images of helicopter parents and their entitled children true depictions—leaving organizations with an acute shortage of talent that is ready to be called “boss”? To examine that question, I turned to our leadership performance data collected over the last decade to compare leadership skills and competencies by generation.

Before I describe the results, I would like to briefly explain how we collect performance data at Development Dimensions International, Inc. (DDI). Over the last 20 years, we have worked with our clients to implement pre-employment assessments for more than 1,000 organizations of various sizes and industries that are used each day to fairly and accurately assess more than 10,000 candidates globally. During our validation of these pre-employment assessments (that is, to connect scores on the assessment to effectiveness on the job), we have accumulated robust, competency-based performance data from more than 4,000 current leaders.

These data about leadership effectiveness focus on eight common competencies performed on the job and reflect critical leadership abilities spanning organizations and industries: adaptability, work standards, decision-making, planning and organizing, customer focus, communication, gaining commitment, and developing others.

Download the graphic below to see how the job performance of those on the first step up on the management ladder—front-line leaders—for the two generations entering the workforce most recently: Millennials (born 1982-2000) and Generation X (born 1965-1981). A data point plotted closer to the center of the graph shows lower performance compared to all leaders, while one plotted toward the outside shows higher performance.

What can we conclude from this comparison?

Of our sample, both generation groups performed reasonably well for front-line leadership competencies (and similarly in overall leadership effectiveness) with a few noted differences.

  • The Millennial generation performs well compared to Generation X when it comes to adaptability and customer focus, indicating a strong service orientation blended with an ability to positively view and rapidly acclimate to workplace change.
  • However, the Millennials as a group show some relative weaknesses compared to Generation X when it comes to operational competencies such as decision-making and planning and organizing. Their motivation to set high performance standards for themselves is also lower, as shown by weaker work standards.

Notably, Millennials and Generation Xers are similar in many key interpersonal drivers of leadership effectiveness, including developing others, gaining commitment, and communication.

So what does this mean? Are Millennials ready to lead? Based on our research data, yes, individuals born in the Millennial generation are a viable talent pool for your open leadership positions. Of course, each individual within a population will have different strengths and weaknesses, but the general assumption that Millennials lack what it takes to develop and motivate others is not supported by our data. Furthermore, such assumptions do not recognize some of their key strengths relative to the prior generation, Generation X.

Because the strengths of Millennial and Generation X leaders often complement each other, it’s also beneficial for organizations to create opportunities for leaders of different ages to work together and learn from one another, such as on a project team or task force, targeted networking, or in a mentoring relationship.

In considering these generational data, it’s worth pointing out that an individual’s readiness to lead must be evaluated in the context of your specific role and specific business situation, with processes to define and assess for competencies, knowledge, experience, and personal attributes before entry into the role, and to focus development efforts on the individual’s growth areas once he or she is in the job. My conclusion, based on our performance data, is that individuals from the Millennial generation do possess some key and unique strengths alongside a few relative weaknesses. Most importantly, they achieve similar overall effectiveness levels and are nearly identical to their predecessors in the foundational interpersonal skills that are so essential to high-quality leaders today and in the future.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.