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OPINION: Green Light Development Programs During Times of Uncertainty

Last week, one of my clients wanted to talk about their annual ‘leadership development’ spring retreat. After a few minutes of conversation, it all came down to this question, “do we host this year or not?” Because timing is relevant, I wanted to share my take on the topic. 

Typically around this time of year, property management companies rev up planning efforts for their annual spring or summer development program. Community assistants, leasing agents and other on-site team members across the nation have counted down the days until they can submit their applications. They have seen past success stories, and have dreamed of joining the program’s alumni list. They know attending a program like this would change their trajectory in the industry.

Personally, I look forward to this time of year because I know corporate teams are about to select, meet and interact with their next batch of future leaders. How exciting! Eager employees have waited all year for this opportunity and the thought of cutting programs outright (especially after what we all just went through) may feel like another punch in the gut to some. 

The COVID pandemic is currently forcing companies to cut spending and make tough decisions on what programs and positions will stay and what will go in the coming months. Looking at a side by side list, the natural reaction would be to cut programs that have historically cost thousands of dollars, or cut programs that won’t have the same effect without in-person contact, right?  

This year undoubtedly has new barriers and other reasons why skipping a 2020 program would make sense. No matter what the excuse is for a freeze, the fact is this: companies can’t simply push the cancel button on critical workplace development opportunities. Adapt the program delivery or maybe postpone, but please do not cut it. Almost everyone feels some level of uncertainty about their future and cutting annual programs that could be hosted through other channels will only fuel the fire. 

Not only is this my opinion...past program alumni back this side of the debate, too. Last week, I distributed a survey to over a dozen individuals who have participated in spring or summer development programs previously hosted by their company (past or present) or current university. They know what it is like to be on the receiving end of the deal and here is what they have to say:

  • 100% of those surveyed said they still believe a remote development program would be impactful this spring or summer. 

  • If given the opportunity to either host now, postpone or cancel 75% said keep now and 25% said postpone to fall. Because a lot can happen between now and then, no one voted to cancel outright. 

  • 67% said that even knowing the program was remote, they would apply and attend again. The other 33% said they would still be happy to attend but would want a chance to come to the office later in the year for another event such as annual conferences, onboarding events, etc. 

Before you put the big red X next to your upcoming program plans, I challenge you to first think about the long term negative effects of doing so. 

  1. Loss or freeze in immediate pipeline strength. Canceling development programs will put a pause on your internal hiring pipeline. The individuals who would have attended these programs are the employees that are next to move across the country, get promoted at their current community, take a new corporate role, etc. Without exposure and access to the right leaders and departments, talent conversations are less likely to happen organically and the natural excitement of movement smolders. When the COVID lockdown ends, your business will bounce back faster than ever. You need your best people locked and loaded for the reboot.  

  2. Loss of immediate employee engagement. Summer programs in student housing typically target Millenials and Gen Z’s. Not hosting this year will cause a loss of engagement from your most ready and willing demographic. Ask your student workforce this question, “Would you rather take a one time $1,000 bonus or be selected into this exclusive development program?” 90% of those employees will pick the development opportunity because they get to engage with leaders they look up to. They also understand and want the option that has long term benefits. 

  3. Loss of good employees to your competitors. We are all aware of the hard cost associated with employee turnover. The math behind saving on those costs is simple: You will lose employees to other companies (your closest competitors) who are willing to invest. If you want to keep your people you must provide unique opportunities that your competitors are not willing to offer (in both good and hard times). Offering a development program this year will be a competitive advantage, I promise you. 

Now more than ever, it’s important to not only keep these development programs BUT to also raise them to a higher level through more thoughtful engagement. Don’t have the funds to fly everyone to town? Completely understandable and no worries. Although the layout/feel will be noticeably different, hosting a remote event is better than hosting nothing at all. If you have the manpower and your executive team’s buy-in, consider the following for this year’s program:

1. It’s okay to stay remote. COVID forced us to complete the ‘remote beta test’ we all needed. Our company’s technologies have received the stamp of approval at this point, and leaders at all levels are up to speed on all things virtual learning. This ‘transition in the format’ should not be too big of a shock for your presenters or attendees. Here are some tips for a smooth transition:

  • Good development sessions begin with an even better participant experience. Host a kick-off call well BEFORE day one to review agenda, distribute class materials, complete attendee introductions, outline remote expectations, etc. Individuals typically tend to follow the rules and having clear direction ahead of time will lead to less scrambling for your actual kick-off. 

  • Sitting on one conference call for eight hours will.not.work. Use this time to mix up content delivery. Use pre-recorded videos, invite guest speakers from outside of your company (many subject matter experts are doing free services right now), integrate group chats and polling to facilitate engagement. Also, consider features such as breakout sessions for group project work and case study conversations. 

  • Some believe that applicants will shy away from applying because their main goal of “seeing the main office” or “ shaking the CEOs hand in-person” won’t happen. Sure, everyone is looking forward to that and on the surface some might be bummed, however, you can advertise new perks that will blow an office tour and group sessions out of the water. For example, if each participant is guaranteed a 30-minute one-on-one call with their CEO, COO, CFO or VP of a department, they will forget about the other events or meetings that did not happen. A simple solution like this will combat the issue at hand. One individual who was surveyed also commented on this saying, “I think hosting remote would also help narrow down a group who is solely interested in the material and growth rather than a getaway trip.” 

  • Since we are saving on the travel budget, remote sessions mean that you can actually accept MORE participants and give more people exposure to the program and content. Instead of 6-10 participants, you can increase to a group of 15-20. Again, this should still be a small setting with application entry only.

  • Don’t cut your team building events. 66% of those surveyed said the number one thing they would miss is actually the networking events (hiking, happy hours, team dinners). This was placed before being at the office, meeting leaders in person, traveling to a new city, etc. Still have that happy hour virtually, do a class workout together, play the fun games that would fill up your time in person. Distance should not stop human interactions outside of a learning session. 

2. When not to spend vs. when to spend. Think about it. What are the typical line items that open the wallets? Flights, lodging, and food. A remote learning and development environment eliminates your highest costs so COST should not be the main factor for a cancel. 

  • Items you should still invest in: a design for unique learning guides, per diems for morning/afternoon coffee runs or beverages for a team happy hour, 2020 class uniforms/jackets and program welcome gifts. These programs are still exclusive for our rockstars and we want it to look and feel that way. They earned this spot! 

3. It’s okay to cut down on the program and presentation length. On average development programs last between 3-5 days. After cutting all of the travel and transportation time sucks, it’s okay to host an advanced one to two-day program. It’s all about the quality of content and one to two days of learning and team building is still a phenomenal feat. Cut the fluff from your presentations and get messaging down to what is most important. Gone be the days of hour-long sessions. Push 30-minute segments and lots of interaction.

Everyone is looking for something positive right now and your development program might just be the answer. Let’s give our teams something to build upon and look forward to. I could go on and on when it comes to this topic and my tips and opinions don’t stop here. If you would like to continue this conversation, please email me at shannon@sfiveconsulting.com. Development programs are in my blood and I’ll do everything to keep them alive. Cheers to developing future leaders.

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