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5 Ways to Make the Most of Professional-Development Workshops

Employees' needs, challenges and performance vary over time, so ongoing training is vital, but how can you be certain that workshops you select will pay off…for you and for them?

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If you’re a corporate manager, you know that talent needs constant updating of their skillsets — perhaps most importantly people skills, including leadership, communication and teamwork. In the days of yore, this involved large, dusty auditoriums, sheets, booklets and death-by-PowerPoint. In time, enlightened employers realized that it’s more fruitful to have smaller, more intimate settings for discussion of ideas, and this worked well for a while. Since the pandemic, however, everything has retreated to video conference platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. The content didn’t change, but how we received it seemed forever altered.

The enduring questions now are: Does talent actually benefit from these workshops (whether virtual or in-person), do they produce a noticeable change in performance or attitude and how does one even measure that?

Over time, I’ve discovered ways managers can better select workshops for maximum learning potential, higher engagement and better outcomes.

1. Needs assessments

This should be a no-brainer, but figuring out the actual training need is essential before diving in. Frequently, I’ll come across potential clients who know that their team could use a learning boost, yet they struggle to articulate needs in concrete terms, and have difficulty defining it in degrees (some improvement needed, significant improvement needed, etc.), and most importantly the level of urgency. So, I suggest they ask the following questions: What problems are not being solved, or not being solved well enough?

Is the situation about knowledge deficit, attitude or both?

What is the status of the employee(s) in question? One great way to assess this is to connect learning needs to the performance evaluation method the company employs.

Related: If You Cringe at the Thought of Talking to Your Co-Workers, Follow These 5 Steps for Better Conversations

2. Develop a learning plan and connect it to actual performance evaluation

The most beneficial way to proceed with selecting workshop(s) — now that the overall need situation is roughly mapped out — is to form a learning plan and connect it to a higher purpose. You might begin with a simple goal, such as, “I’d like the team to be better at making presentations at meetings,” but there could also be an opportunity to ramp up a team’s capacity overall. Look at how your company measures performance: Do you want employees to play well with others? If so, add a session on teamwork. Do you want certain team members to be groomed for more responsibility? Then add those people to a special session on leadership. A learning plan of three to five modules can cover a variety of measurable outcomes that move an employee toward advancement in the organization.

3. Create cohorts

For larger groups of teams, it can be beneficial to divide each group into subgroups; each one undergoes training but at different times, allowing for a more intimate setting so each person can actively participate and ask questions. This may also be an opportunity to give different talent groups choices — whether they want to embrace the leadership track, the individual contributor track, the special projects track and others. Each track could complete a baseline of content to shore up fundamentals, then address any specialized needs.

Related: The 5 Crucial Phases of Building a Team

4. Build relationships with instructors

A common error made by employers is to select a training instructor, but then have little to no dialogue with this person outside of the bureaucracy (hiring) phase. This is a major missed opportunity, because a good instructor is motivated to help a team succeed and build skills that improve their work output, and your concerns about that team’s deficits should be communicated thoroughly and ongoingly — essentially the instructor and you should become your own team in the process.

5. Emphasize conversations as much as content

Given the number of self-help books out there today, plus TED talks and other online media, there’s little value left in one-way passive content delivery. The only kind of professional development you should sign your team up for is a highly interactive, customized and outcomes-driven type, one that stimulates the team to ponder questions, solve problems and learn by doing.

It’s all about outcomes

All the training in the world is a loss if it doesn’t move the needle on employee performance, but how does one measure that? Yes, you could do pre- and post-surveys and/or statistical analysis… possibly even a 360 for select managers. What tells a batter story, though, is testing skills in the wild. If the employee took a seminar on presentation skills, then put them in charge of giving the next team update to the VP. If the seminar on conflict management, have them do a supervised problem-solving session with a counterpart, take notes and solicit feedback. The best way to know if training worked is to see results for yourself, including (hopefully) the joy, confidence and sense of achievement when they knock it out of the park.

Related: Sign Up for Entrepreneur’s Latest Workshops

Talent and training are cyclical: employees’ needs, challenges and outcomes vary over time, so training needs to change over time, too. The best way to know if you’re on the right track is to ask yourself whether you are making the same mistakes as last quarter. Are you faster? Are we all on the same page? Do I (as the leader) have to manage more or less? The more positive answers you get, the more you’re in the right direction. Just keep moving forward: that’s how it’s done.

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