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Developing Staff When Advancement Opportunities Are Limited

Learn how to help your financial professionals expand their skills while keeping them motivated and interested in their work in an environment in which upward mobility is limited.

May 18, 2009
Sponsored by Robert Half Finance & Accounting

How do you keep your best employees interested in working toward a promotion when there’s little or no room left at the top? With rising unemployment and a slowdown in hiring activity, many accounting and finance professionals — assuming they’ve not been affected by layoffs — are opting to stay in their current positions. In addition, some survey and anecdotal data suggest that retirement-age baby boomers are likely to stay on the job longer than once anticipated.

While these trends bode well for organizational stability, they can make it more difficult for businesses to provide their people with opportunities to advance their careers. Quite simply: There may not be openings for top performers to move into and the overall business downturn can translate into fewer opportunities for developing new on-the-job skills. Despite these obstacles, companies must find ways to offer talented employees outlets for professional growth and development. Otherwise, valued staff members may become disengaged in their work and likely to seek greener pastures at the first signs of an upturn.

In an environment in which upward mobility is limited, consider these suggestions for helping your financial professionals expand their skills while keeping them motivated and interested in their work:

Increase cross-training. Managers may be able to offer employees exposure to a greater diversity of tasks that lie outside their usual job responsibilities. Cross-training experiences benefit ambitious professionals by allowing them to expand their skills while keeping complacency and boredom at bay. Especially in corporate finance departments, the practice allows you to build a more versatile team and enhance depth at every position. In accounting firms, managers may be able to add more variety to staff members’ work by assigning them to a different group of clients or engagement type. In addition, supervisors may be able to find more opportunities for less experienced accountants to broaden their skills by having them partner more frequently with veteran professionals.

Some companies might also be able to offer top performers a chance to take on rotational roles or projects in other departments. For example, a financial professional could be assigned to the marketing department to help quantify the costs and benefits of various marketing initiatives. These types of cross-functional experiences are valuable in helping professionals develop a broader view of the business.

Offer high-profile forums for building skills. You may be able to offer other strategic skill-building opportunities as well. For example, you might tap a mid-level staff member to make occasional presentations before the company’s board or participate in periodic meetings with the chief executive officer.

Support staff members’ development needs. Especially when the business outlook is gloomy, managers need to go the extra mile to understand staff members’ individual career interests and goals. It’s not unusual to find that it’s not a new title or position that an employee is after but a chance to dedicate more time to an enjoyable aspect of their current role. Find out what your team members want most. What you learn can help you keep employees challenged and content in their roles. In addition, these discussions can help managers identify the best uses for training dollars, based on employees’ stated interests and needs.

Provide stretch assignments. Business weaknesses become more apparent when economic conditions worsen, but because of layoffs, there may be fewer people available to address problems. On the positive side, a leaner staff should make it easier for managers to identify new projects for employees that allow them to stretch their professional capabilities. These assignments, which tend to be more creative or strategic in nature than a staff member’s usual tasks, should provide employees with greater freedom to explore business solutions and seek new directions. They also have the added benefit of helping team members feel more engaged in their roles because they have an opportunity to influence future outcomes.

A business downturn takes its toll on an organization in many ways. Attentive managers can minimize damage to the employee relationship by being even more responsive to their team, especially top performers who may begin to feel that their career has stalled. By becoming more resourceful in developing talent, managers can help employees continue to realize their professional ambitions and grow in their roles even if the economy — and the organizational chart — remain static for a while.

For more management and career advice, listen to Robert Half’s podcast series, The Management Minute, at www.rhi.com/Podcast.