What do you want to be when you grow up? Why employees should answer and employers should listen / by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson

dreamjob “Sure you can use your professional development funds to get your yoga teaching certification!” It was a little surreal hearing myself say these words. At the time, I wasn’t exactly a believer in yoga and, as the Executive Director of a non-profit training young people in IT, I certainly didn’t see Downward Facing Dogs as part of our curriculum. But I had come a long way from my experiences at GE.  There, personal goals were not only separate from professional goals; they weren’t even discussed.  My understanding was that the company was only responsible for the professional side of the equation.

But the Founder and CEO of the organization not only approved my team member’s request, he wholeheartedly supported all team members fulfilling goals outside the bounds of the their roles in the organization.  In fact, he wanted to take part in the corporate classes my team member would soon be leading for students and staff.

While I was starting to reshape the way I thought about professional development, it was my desire to address the challenges surfaced by my team that finally sold me. I quickly figured out that, if my team member taught yoga to interested students and staff I could help one employee meet a personal goal while helping the rest of my team.

People like Reese gave so much of themselves to our work, it seemed silly not to meet them halfway and help them self-replenish. And as we invested so much in those we served, how could we not invest in those who provided that service? Over time I saw that this blending of personal and professional wasn’t just a way to live out our vision and values as a mission-driven non-profit.  It made good business sense.  Generous professional development funds, ample leave time and a health care plan that was better than that of most Fortune 500 Companies were not just feel-good perks, they were part of an infrastructure designed to keep people at, and doing, their best.  Great for the employees?  Definitely.  Great for the company?  You betcha.

So I was seeing that not only did people have to Live and Learn and Grow but that all three actions had to be speaking to each other.  When Learning and Growing could happen in service of the Living—such as using professional development in service of personal goals-- the results were powerful.

Helping people learn and grow was what we did.  It’s why young people came into our program—to learn, grow, and advance professionally.  The most transformational experiences, though, were those that transcended the professional realm.  When someone used the feedback that they were given to be a better listener to their children or to be more accountable to their parents, when someone landed a job that led to earning their degree or buying their first home, this is when I saw the true power of Learn and Grow.

At the time feedback was a core tenet of our organization, exemplified and practiced regularly by everyone from our founder to the students we served.  It was difficult, but it ensured that everyone was constantly learning and growing.  Feedback formed the foundation for our review process and the review served as a foundation for, and entrée into, the professional development discussion.

Since open and proactive dialogue was a pillar of our culture, I wanted to understand the professional AND personal goals of my direct reports before their first 6-month review. I wanted to hear their dreams and encourage and understand their progress towards those aspirations. So I incorporated them into our check-ins and, soon, I was incorporating aspects of their personal goals into their roles.  It didn’t matter how relevant the goal seemed to our work; team members’ ambitions ranged from “ I want to be the executive director of a nonprofit” to “I want to own my own Latin restaurant,” to “I want to make music.”  I worked to isolate components and competencies of these aspirations and include them in what they were accountable for.  It became such a part of what I did that I began communicating it to prospective employees during their interviews and new employees at orientation.  I didn’t give many speeches, but this is one I regularly revisited.

“So many of the people we serve come from backgrounds where they don’t feel they have a choice on where they work or what they do.  We are blessed to have that choice and I consider it my responsibility as your leader to ensure this is a place you look forward to coming to each morning.  If, at some point, you no longer feel you are growing, I want to work with you to find new challenges that bring out the best in you.  And if, over time, it feels like this is not the right fit, I will support you in your next endeavor and hopefully provide experiences along the way to prepare you for whatever that is.”

I genuinely cared about each member of my team and I wanted prospective team members to know that.  I wanted people to know that my organization would support their professional and personal endeavors.  And I wanted people to get that, in the cases where it wasn’t the right fit, we would help position people for their next steps.  Our bus was moving quickly, and with great determination, but never too fast to make stops and let people off if our final destinations weren’t one in the same.

To many cynics, this sounds like a nice way of saying, “Lose your passion for this work and you’re fired.” But it was the early evolution of what learn and grow looked like in a values-driven enterprise.  When hiring and developing employees, a company is inevitably going to 1) hire the wrong people (a mismatch in skills, culture or both), 2) have employees want to move beyond their role and 3) have employees want to move beyond the company.  In all of these situations, change is in order.  If employee and company continue plodding along, without regard to the need for change, the result is likely the same:  the employee—whether or not of his own volition—will no longer work there.

Leaders are so accustomed to asking “What do you want to be when you grow up within our organization?” and are less inclined --perhaps being at a loss of what to do with the response—to ask,  “What and who do you want to be?”  In the former, one is given “stretch assignments” that more immediately benefit the organization than the individual.  And since promotions are often subjective decisions wrapped in the trappings of objectivity, there is no guarantee that following the defined path results in career advancement.  When things work out, loyalty, confidence, and continued outcomes result.  When it doesn’t, turnover, resentment, and cynicism can often begin to poison not only the individual, but the team he is most closely working with.

But what happens when you ask the latter and offer opportunities to learn and grow not on the short- term needs of the organization but the long-term goals of the individual?  The exact opposite of what most would expect.  When I asked the question and, more importantly, listened to the answers, I saw increased productivity and innovation, improved performance and higher retention.  The employer/employee relationship is often fraught with distrust and antagonism with both sides striving to maximize their outcomes on typically contentious areas like performance reviews, salary negotiations, and promotions.  But investing in professional development opportunities that have little to no short term benefit directly to the organizations yields countless dividends that often position the leader for better outcomes in the long run.

One of my current team members at Reliance Methods has been learning and growing since the minute she joined us.  Asia is early in her career and has been leading everything from how we onboard new employees to managing her own team.  We have presented her with opportunities that might be outside her comfort zone and experience, but each time she has risen to the challenge, despite being sometimes incredulous of our trust and faith in her.

Asia is incredibly gifted and I am fortunate to have her not just as part of my team, but as a passionate advocate for Reliance Methods.  Eventually, Asia wants to follow another passion of hers—health and wellness—to medical school and perhaps practice in the international wellness community.  With this in mind, I recently asked Asia to develop a plan for a health and wellness business model that we could potentially invest in as a company. My hope is that, by providing her the opportunity to pursue her personal interests as part of her role here, she feels not just connected to the company, but to what it is to be part of a values-driven enterprise. My company’s long-term strategy is to groom and develop values-driven entrepreneurs that build companies in communities that need them most.  With Asia’s potential to one day be one of those leaders, it is only right that she has the space and opportunity to exercise those muscles now.

The difference between “learn and grow” on behalf of the values driven enterprise vs. the typical organization is that those opportunities are first and foremost in service of the individual as opposed to the employer.  In the example above, Asia’s passion for the health and wellness was the primary driver of initiating the project.  Thus, the manager must operate from an authentic commitment to his employee’s growth and development to reap the benefits.  Even despite this caveat, the end results are worth it.  Sales Source author Geoffrey James puts it best.

"As a company grows, it must change, and those changes are only possible when employees take on new challenges, expand their capabilities, cultivate new behaviors and entertain new ideas.  In other words, companies grow when the people inside them grow first."

Now that we’ve outlined the business reasons why a Live.Learn.Grow.TM culture will most benefit a values- driven enterprise, in my upcoming posts I share the values on which I built my current company to nurture this environment.


James, Geoffrey.  Why Employee’s Personal Growth Matters http://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/why-employees-personal-growth-matters.html.