Everyone’s recipe for success is different, but the best recipes share certain basic ingredients. Some are obvious, like quality control or effective marketing. Some are more abstract, and can be overlooked by new businesses that lack an effective long-term strategy. Professional development is one of those. A strong commitment to professional development is an investment that you, as the entrepreneur have to make in order to keep your business viable from year to year.

Too often, new business leaders invest the bulk of their time and resources into what’s happening at the beginning, while neglecting the “structural maintenance” that carries a company into the future. Like constant innovation, professional development is not extra credit; it’s a mandatory part of a sound business plan.

Just as businesses that aren’t seeking growth risk stagnation, employees that aren’t in permanent pursuit of their professional growth risk falling behind. While professional development does require an investment in time and capital, it’s an investment worth making. As years go by and competition rises and falls, the companies that last are the ones that stay ahead of the curve.

The PD Process

In planning and executing your company’s professional development strategy, you and your team will have to determine the immediate needs of the business while also thinking broadly about the longer term. Begin by defining the goals of your business, both specific and broad.

What professional development programs are most relevant to your goals? What developmental results would you consider worth your company’s time and money? The question of which programs to pursue is best answered by asking what newly added or improved skills would best invigorate your team’s ability to compete. Your marketers or web designers may benefit from graphic design programs. Your content providers may need writing workshops. Your sales team may need to brush up on analytics analysis. Solo entrepreneurs may need all of the above!

Create a short list of skills that, when developed, would represent a wise investment. Then, identify the programs and resources that can offer your team the help they need. While the availability of earth-bound programs will vary depending on your location, there’s a wealth of online programs and PD services. Sites like Treehouse and Lynda.com offer a wealth of coding, web design, and other professional programs from the comfort of the home or office.

Once you’ve cross-referenced your needs with the availability of these programs, create your professional development schedule. Determine exactly how long it will take each program to deliver the results you require, and integrate that time into your overall business schedule.

It’s important to ensure that professional development is effective without detracting from your day-to-day operations. One good strategy is to schedule regular PD time into weekly, monthly, and quarterly calendars. Study the available programs and categorize them by length. Devote weekly or bi-weekly time to “mini PD” programs that only take an hour or two. Schedule full day courses monthly or bi-monthly. Every other quarter or so, invest in an intensive week-long program dedicated to the most vital areas of skill.

In choosing and scheduling PD programs, the essential concept to work by is relevance. Try to predict what skills and abilities are most likely to generate sales. Identify the weakest links in your team’s “chain” of collective skills, and reinforce those areas. Rank your professional development needs. Categorize them into immediate, important, and generalized needs, and prioritize accordingly. With both specific and broad strategic thinking, you can ensure that your team is ready for any challenge.

PD Motivation

A commitment to professional development is like a commitment to exercise; it requires consistent motivation. How can you keep your team (and yourself) inspired to seek that continual progression of skills? How can employees understand PD as a worthwhile career-long endeavor and not an endless Sysiphean task? Without the right motivation, employees can see PD programs as chores.

To keep motivation high, it’s vital to establish a culture of excellence in your business. Professional development should be discussed, presented, and most importantly scheduled as part of the job, not as an addition to it. Its role in contributing to the overall goals of your business should be recognized along with those of the other, more immediately relevant tasks with which your team is charged.

Keep track of professional development, and reward consistent improvement. In the field of education, PD is actually required for teachers, with a minimum number of hours per year. For the entrepreneur, requiring and tracking professional development is a great way to offer positive reinforcement to employees. Employees who feel challenged in a positive way almost universally feel more motivated.

Generally, professional development doesn’t have to be a chore; done right, it’s a privilege. Your team should know that when you choose to devote their time to professional development, you’re helping them add to their own skill sets. By taking time and resources away from daily productivity and investing them in your employees, you’re increasing their value in the marketplace along with the quality of your product. Professional development is also a nice way to break up the monotony of a rigid schedule and allow employees to interact with professionals outside of your business. That kind of variety keeps things interesting, and can be a welcome change of pace for hard-working team members.

With a firm sense of purpose, a keen eye for the skills on which your business depends, and smart scheduling practices, your commitment to professional development can be the difference that sets your team apart from the competition. Highly motivated, professional employees who consistently seek improvement work differently; they work with a personal pride that’s worth the time and money spent on building their skill.