✍ How do you manage professional development for small companies that have little room to grow because there are but so many roles within the organization? How do you develop a dev. plan that still feels like they are growing + learning although they aren’t getting promoted to the next level because someone would have to leave for the opportunity to arise?

Context: Company of 55; typical levels are individual contributor, manager, director and VP

Jennifer Dawson, CPO at StartOut:

In organizations of all sizes, but especially under 100, it is helpful to define professional development very broadly and create opportunities for employees in all roles, functions, and levels to grow both within and beyond their current roles. A few key aspects of a strong professional development program:

  • Skill building – opportunities for employees to build skills in areas they are interested in and/or are priorities for your org. It can be helpful to have some standard paths like project management and external communications, and then opportunities for tailoring to other skills as well
  • Support of external professional development opportunities – be sure to pair it with internal conversations about integrating their learnings into their day to day
  • Leadership development – ongoing leadership specific learning tracks to build leadership at all levels of the org
  • People management – I recommend decoupling people management from any specific level to ensure all people managers go through specific learning and development and that they are actually interested in going into people management (not everyone is meant to be a manager!)
  • Opportunities for more traditional promotion – the key is that you don’t want this to be the only option, but it is important to clearly communicate what opportunities exist for promotion and what would be required to be eligible for that promotion if and when the opportunity comes. In a small org it can be helpful to add ‘senior’ level options to give room for employees with greater experience or tenure in their roles who may not have a position ‘above’ them available.

A non-exhaustive list, but the key is to have options and again that balance between growth opportunities both within and beyond current roles. Hope that helps!

Rebecca Taylor, Co-Founder at SkillCycle:

Roles are constantly changing in orgs of any size, just with the constant introduction of new technology and challenges that the business has to navigate. I’ve seen so many companies around your size starting to adopt skills-based organization principles by creating a skills inventory (what do people who work here need to do, broken down by role if necessary), assessing where skills live within the organization, and using that assessment to create skill development paths for every employee. Companies are providing external coaching or e-learning resources to give employees tools to bridge those gaps.

They become more valuable as those skills are developed so while they might not be able to be promoted, it puts them on a path to increase their earnings as their skills become stronger.

Liz Clarke, Sr. HR Business Partner at Environmental Health & Engineering:

For employees that are closer to the senior level, where the next step would be a director or department head, this would be a great opportunity to introduce them to higher level goals/goal-setting. The skills they would develop to achieve those goals would serve them for the rest of their career. For those in an individual contributor role (IC), depending on their level of ability, there could be a case for creating a new role that would match their new skills and abilities.

The jump from IC to manager can be pretty big, especially if management involves managing people vs processes. Sometimes a “Senior” or “Lead” IC role is needed to help bridge the gap.

✍ WHERE does the responsibility for culture sit within your org structure?  We do not have that role, and I’m trying to propose it, but would LOVE to know where it resides in other companies. (HR, Comms, DEI, Marketing…I’ve heard them all!).

Context: Global company that includes a diverse workforce of professional offices, manufacturing and distribution sites, salaried and hourly associates. Culture has primarily been driven at the brand or location level vs top-down, company wide.

Jill Felska, Founder of Want To Work There:

I always start with clarifying what culture is (the beliefs, behaviors, and shared values of any community) and what it is not (employee happy hours, ping pong tables, office snacks). It’s an important distinction to make when discussing how culture change happens.

I also like to stress that every company HAS a culture. The difference is whether or not anyone in the organization is being intentional about it’s design. This is where the role you mentioned often comes in. Ultimately, culture is owned by everyone in the organization, but a defined role can make a world of difference when it comes to intentional culture design.


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While I could go on for days about things to consider, the most important aspect is their ability to drive change and have influence. For that reason, I always advocate hiring someone who directly reports to the CEO and is part of the key leadership team. In the last ten years, I’ve seen more culture-focused professionals in CPO roles, which I believe is where we’re ultimately headed. However, for it to succeed, that person has to have enough support to focus outside of daily fires, foundational structures, and compliance.

All this said, company-wide culture change in a global company that hasn’t prioritized it to-date is a big ask. I say this not to discourage you, but to help guide your focus. We often forget that micro-culture (the culture of a location, team, etc) is JUST as important as the overall culture and can be much easier to influence.

I would spend some time identifying the cultural norms that currently exist across microcultures – both the good and the bad – before trying to define what needs to exist globally.

A couple resources that might help:

Corinne Irwin, HR Consultant and Career Coach at PeopleThrive:

I agree with a lot of what Jill shared above.

In my last in-house role I was Head of Talent & Culture so it was in my title, but I saw myself as steering and advising. I felt strongly that leadership had to help define the culture and role model it since the default culture wasn’t serving the majority of staff.

Hebba Youssef
Hebba Youssef

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