How Investing in Your People Will Push You Past a Growth Plateau

By Jason Richmond, CEO & Chief Culture Officer at Ideal Outcomes, Inc.

There’s a quote that I love attributed to Mary Kay Ash, founder of the Mary Kay Cosmetics empire: “A company is only as good as the people it keeps.” In some form, this statement has been made many times and in many different ways. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, Inc., has a perspective that also rings true. “A company is a group organized to create a product or service, and it is only as good as its people and how excited they are about creating.”

Fundamentally, any company is dependent on the team of individuals who comprise its workforce. You can have the best product in the world, the most buzz-worthy service, and a groundbreaking, earth-shattering service offering. But it will all be for naught if you don’t have the people who can implement, people who share your mission and values, people who take pride in what they do and enthusiastically come to work every day.

Having an investment in people is especially important if a company’s growth has slowed, revenues have fallen off, and profits are down—when a company that has been increasingly successful year after year hits a growth plateau.

Alan Tecktiel, Global Human Resources Director at Baker McKenzie, puts it like this: “People want to have a feeling of moving forward rather than being stagnant.” And the companies that understand that fact, he says, “will invest their time and energy on maximizing the potential of their employees, bringing everyone to the table, providing experiences and training that benefit not only the company, but the employees as well.”

Unfortunately, most organizations cut that training budget as soon as their business hits a plateau. The adage, “Training is the first to go,” is too often true once revenue growth slows.

That’s a big mistake, says Richard Branson, the flamboyant founder and CEO of the Virgin Group. He points out that many organizations resist investing in employee training and development because they fear that if they do so, people will leave, lured by competitors. He believes that this thinking is convoluted. “What they should fear is not training them and then they stay,” he says, “Train people well enough so they can leave; treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”
And training is a never-ending undertaking. Continuous management training is critical to employee development. Develop curriculum that enhances your managers’ employee development and leadership skills and you create a vibrant army. Gallup found that millennials place the opportunity to learn and grow way ahead of income. That is, advancement is even more important than salary for a large percentage of your workforce.

Glassdoor’s 2014 Employment Confidence Survey  of nearly 1,000 U.S. employees found that 63 percent of employees believe learning new skills or receiving special training is most important to advancing their career. Providing coaching and development activities throughout the year is an employer’s best bet to create a culture of growth within the workplace. To ensure continuous growth and improve productivity, equip employees with the tools they need to function at peak performance.

Developing your team does much more than keep people happy. It empowers organizations to turn around a struggling or plateauing business with the team that they have. Development can serve as the spark that unlocks the full energy and drive of the organization. One of my clients, an international paint and coatings company, was reeling in the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn. Sixty percent of their business had been new home construction, and that business had dried up almost overnight. Instead of going into austerity budget mode, they invested considerable time and money into training over 350 sales and account managers in thirty-two states. Six months later sales were increasing dramatically, even in depressed markets such as Las Vegas and Phoenix. Sales people were totally energized by the training, calling it a life-changing event.

Development does not have to mean employees are sitting in training classes. Asking employees what they think the company needs to do to get it back on track and then empowering them to take action is development too. Supplementing this with training on the specific skills they need to execute these plans, and you have a win for everyone.

Development does mean empowering the team that does the work. Hand them the challenge, close their knowledge and skill gaps, and then get out of the way. Talent development is a market shaper.

Gary Kaplan, President Construction at AXA XL, a division of insurance giant AXA, emphasizes the value of tapping into the experience of long-time employees as a way of helping a company overcome a growth plateau. He says, “Don’t let your most senior people retire before you pull out of their heads all of the value that they bring to the table, all of the knowledge they have acquired. Teach your seasoned people how to be teachers and have them spend more time on that instead of their regular jobs.”

There is no question that companies need active, engaged employees. But does engagement mean constant busyness? “One thing we’ve learned from employee surveys is that teams need time to think, time to contemplate on how they can make changes,” Kaplan says. “If there’s no slack in people’s days, they can’t do the things that make them more effective. Some people need time to meditate or exercise. When you encourage them to take a break, it refreshes their brains and also helps foster a culture where they are willing to share information with others and generate momentum.”