Learn to thrive: A founder’s role in employee learning and development
Creating ongoing learning opportunities is the right thing to do for your team and your bottom line.
Successful leaders know that learning never stops. While it would be nice if there was a single manual for finding success as a founder, if you’re doing things right, you’re actually reading all the manuals (and books and interviews and case studies) and learning all the time. You’re asking questions and listening to podcasts and talking to other company builders. You might be taking a course or working with a coach. You’re likely doing all you can to develop your product, build industry knowledge, and grow your leadership skills.
And if you want your business to keep growing and improving, this mindset must extend beyond you. It’s equally essential to provide your team with opportunities to learn and grow.
Learning and development (L&D) programs, which can include everything from a relatively small, flexible stipend to a structured training program with courses and certifications, have become a key benefit in recent years. Job seekers are prioritizing companies that offer meaningful L&D opportunities, and the same opportunities are driving engagement and retention.
If you’re a values-driven founder putting your people first and growing your business, this is a trend you don’t want to ignore. L&D should be a priority as you shape and grow your company’s total compensation and culture.
While it might be daunting to devote resources to this effort if you’re just starting out — and equally so if you’re deep in the messy middle — know that there’s an impactful approach out there for businesses of every stage and size.
To help you craft or improve an L&D program that’s the right fit for your business, we’ve dug into research and tapped the expertise of people leaders who are doing this important work every day. Keep reading to learn more about why this work matters, how you can champion L&D as a founder (and why it’s absolutely your job to do so), and tactical steps to start or improve a program.
Why this work matters: People feel valued and your business grows
Giving your team the time, resources, and opportunities to grow as individuals is, simply, the right thing to do. Turns out, it’s the right thing for business growth, too.
Data compiled by Culture Amp backs this up: “Companies that have created a culture of development grew on average 24.3% points more than those who hadn’t,” and “companies that focus on employee development received 41.6% more funding than those who did not. On average, they received $77k more per employee.”
Lauryn Pregoni, founder of People First HR Consulting, works with founders to develop L&D programs and has seen the impact of prioritizing this work firsthand. Among other benefits, the positive impact of L&D can be seen in recruitment success, higher job satisfaction, and lower turnover. “There’s no question that L&D programming has become an expected benefit,” Lauryn said. “Employees today are looking for a place to work that values them holistically, and you’re just not going to be competitive if you don’t offer your people the opportunity to grow and learn.”
When we work with founders, we're always asking how we can help them keep employees happy and satisfied because we know they value growth. The program we create is not just a pretty blurb on their website.
On the flip side, when L&D is not offered, it’s a significant factor in employees’ decision to leave. According to Culture Amp, employees who don’t feel they have access to L&D are two times more likely to leave a job within 12 months; it’s also the most often-cited reason employees give for leaving a job.
But L&D is not just about staying competitive in recruitment and retention. You can’t ignore L&D and hope to keep pace with the innovation and ongoing transformation across every industry. “The world moves so fast, and things change really quickly these days. If you don't keep your skills fresh and continually seek out new insights, you're at a disadvantage and the company's at a disadvantage,” Lauryn said.
And it’s not just about keeping up but about looking ahead. “The rate of change we’re seeing today in the kinds of roles we have and what we can expect in the future is astounding,” said L&D consultant and author Julie Winkle Giulioni. “85% of the jobs we’ll be doing in the year 2030 haven’t even been invented yet.”
Founders first: Model learning for your team
Founders can have a big impact from day one and at later stages of growth — and this powerful, culture-shaping work doesn’t take financial resources or a significant allocation of time. Read a good book lately? Share the title and a quick takeaway with the team. Had a conversation with another founder that changed your thinking? Share that too. If you take a course or give a talk or go to a conference, write up a quick summary of the key learnings and post it for the team to read.
Carrie Tassin, VP of total rewards and people operations at Help Scout, said that when founders consistently share their own learning, it can help embed development in the DNA of the company. “When your team sees that you’re curious and focused on developing yourself, that can really drive a culture of continuous learning company-wide,” she said. Help Scout co-founder and CEO Nick Francis often shares articles or books he’s reading via Slack and other key learnings in regular Friday emails to the company.
Julie has drawn similar conclusions from the founders she’s advised on L&D. “As the leader of the organization, the founder really sets the tone at the top around all things development,” she said. “When I work with a leader who loves learning, who’s really dedicated to their own development and who models that, it creates an environment where managers and all employees feel equally invested in growth.”
Another approach that can help foster ongoing learning: Show your team that you’re interested in their development and how the collective learning of the team can drive growth.
“When founders are asking great, thought-provoking questions and engaging team members in ongoing dialogue around what they are learning and how the company can evolve — that inspires people to think harder, plan differently, and be more inspired in service of their development,” Julie said.
While these strategies for shaping culture and supporting development aren’t especially labor or resource intensive, they do require one thing: intentionality. “A founder needs to be really clear about their relationship with development from the beginning because, especially for new founders or those leading small and scrappy businesses, it’s easy for development to become deprioritized. There’s just so much else to do,” Julie said.
But founders need to keep this work at the top of the to-do list. Founder modeling can be especially powerful in smaller companies and early-stage startups, where founders are generally more directly engaged with team members on a regular basis. As your company grows, be sure that your commitment to learning is transferred to and reflected in the behavior of other company leaders and managers.
As a business grows, the distance between the founder and the team increases. It becomes incumbent upon the founder to ensure that other leaders within the company share the mindset and skill set to support development.
As you recruit and hire for leadership roles, make sure that a growth mindset and a development focus is front and center in your hiring profile, because those characteristics can be harder to train for than specific skills.
You have options: Choose an L&D program that meets your needs
If you’re looking to create an L&D program or revise your current benefits, there is a wide range of approaches and models to choose from.
A great place to start digging into L&D is the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which has created a helpful “Developing Employees” toolkit, with comprehensive background information related to L&D as well as tools and templates to dig into while creating a program.
One approach that has become popular, specifically among startups and small- to mid-size businesses, is the learning stipend. At Help Scout, all employees are offered an annual Learn Something stipend after they’ve been with the company for six months, which provides $1,800 a year to be used for any career-related learning and development opportunity. And, importantly, the company also offers time off from work to engage in learning.
“I think the articulation of the time benefit is a differentiator in the way we designed the stipend,” Carrie noted. “Often, with learning stipends, you may have the benefit, but not the time, so you don’t end up using it. In our model, you can use the stipend and time together, or just time if you have a learning opportunity you want to dig into.”
A stipend program is a flexible, accessible entry point to L&D for startups and small businesses without massive teams or resources. At Help Scout, employees drive the process through conversations with their coaches about their goals and proposed use of the funds, and there’s no complex application or approval process and no significant administrative lift. The team uses the benefit for a broad range of learning and development opportunities, including courses, conferences, leadership training, and specific certifications.
“The stipend model works really well for us because we understand that people have a lot of different needs, interests, and learning styles,” Carrie said. “As a small organization, it would be really tough to meet those needs for every individual internally, and, frankly, it would be kind of silly to do that because there are so many great resources externally and in the market.”
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Six strategies to set your L&D work up for success
No matter which approach or model you ultimately choose for L&D, there are foundational steps that will help ensure the effort you put into this benefit creates meaningful, lasting impact for your business and your team. Experts Julie, Lauryn, and Carrie shared these tips to growing a program from the ground up.
1. Clarify your purpose
If you’re starting from scratch, the first step should be to identify your motivation and desired outcome for investing in L&D: Why are you creating this program, and how will it reflect your company’s purpose?
As an HR consultant, when she speaks with founders who are interested in creating L&D programs, Lauryn said, “I approach early conversations from a values perspective and ask: ‘How will this program align with values to enhance the experience of team members and lead to growth?’ When values guide the conversation, there’s a higher likelihood that you’ll develop a program that will serve both your employees and the needs of your business.”
At Help Scout, the Learn Something stipend reflects the company’s core values: helpfulness, excellence, and ownership. “Ownership, specifically, shows up here in the way employees are very much in the driver’s seat in terms of choosing what and how they want to learn and use the stipend,” Carrie said. “We don’t require folks to jump through a lot of hoops, and we trust that they’ll use the benefit in the best way for their own growth.”
2. Evaluate company and employee needs
With values and goals for the program identified, it’s also key to be clear about the specific needs and desires for L&D among both employees and company leaders. Before you decide on a model and start planning, be sure to ask current employees and leadership what they want from this program and how they might use it.
For instance, are there specific skills or gaps in leadership training? Are there courses or certifications that would help build and maintain an internal pipeline? Is there a desire for more conference travel or online learning? What’s the average cost of some of the most requested offerings? The answers to these questions can help you shape the size and scope of a program that will actually meet your needs and help ensure employee engagement.
3. Eliminate barriers to access
For any model of L&D to be successful, folks on your team need to actually take advantage of it. The key to engagement: Keep the process simple and streamlined. If you want to make it even more appealing, consider carving out regular time for learning — weekly, monthly, or quarterly — to remove the barrier of competing commitments with work or family life.
Make the program actionable, intentional, and easy to use. If there is a complicated reimbursement process or time-intensive application, employees will be less inclined to tap into it.
4. Bake it in
L&D shouldn’t be limited to one-off courses or special training; ideally, it will become ongoing and embedded in a company’s culture. To that end, integrate opportunities to learn and grow into a variety of tasks and projects.
Can you include pre- and post-mortem meetings into project work so that there is ongoing reflection and learning? Is there an opportunity for team members to shadow one another to learn about different roles or expand product knowledge? When you start to approach development through that lens, your team will find organic opportunities to support learning and growth that require no extra steps or cost.
Development is a perpetual activity; it’s not one and done. This is ongoing work — for you and your team.
5. Prioritize relationships, not rungs on a ladder
To maintain a consistent commitment to a culture of learning, think about how you can integrate development conversations into every employee’s experience throughout the year. Consider adding L&D as a regular agenda item to weekly one-on-one meetings or to quarterly road mapping and performance evaluations. Coach managers to be active listeners and engage in dialogue with team members to better understand their goals and areas of interest.
When the dialogue around development is ongoing, there’s more opportunity for team members to think and share deeply about what they value and where they want to go — and it may not be straight up the ladder. As the world of work has evolved over the last few years, workers are defining job satisfaction in new ways, and a direct promotion may not always be the goal. Offering opportunities for a more holistic version of development, one that gives employees the chance to grow and stretch in the way that is most fulfilling to them, can deepen engagement and create a deeper sense of belonging.
Founders and leaders should be looking to shift the development conversation beyond what role someone wants next and, instead, on what they want to do, how they want to contribute, and what fills them up.
6. Get the word out
For any L&D approach to be successful, people need to know it exists and what it offers. Don’t assume that a bullet point on your careers page or a one-time mention during the interview process or onboarding is enough to ensure team members are in the loop. Information about L&D should be widely available — via documentation and through ongoing conversations with managers — and easy to access.
"You need to market your program externally and internally," Lauryn said. "Make sure your recruiters and managers understand the benefit and can provide interesting examples of how it has contributed to other employees’ experiences, so they can share a full picture with job seekers."
The ultimate goal: Learn to thrive
When a founder and a team embrace a culture of learning, the impact is far-reaching and felt both personally and professionally. People feel fulfilled. Products and services are improved. Company growth reflects increased skill level, employee engagement, and retention. Overall, the real marker of success for L&D work is often both intangible and powerful. “People thrive and organizations thrive,” Julie said. “When people are engaged and learning, they contribute, they stay, and they create an energy, a buzz, that others want to be part of.”