​​What on-the-job professional development means (and how to ask for it)

Written by: Marc Schultz
Published on: Mar 27, 2023

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(Image: SDI Productions)

Whatever you’re looking for in your current or next job, chances are it includes the opportunity to advance. Indeed, recent research from Nonprofit HR shows that the top two reasons people leave their employers are “better opportunities elsewhere” and “invisible career paths.” (Disengagement with the culture and compensation came up next.)

So how can you get what you need? By getting your employer (or prospective employer) to commit to on-the-job professional development.

Of course, that leads to two other questions: How do you convince a skeptical manager to make that commitment? And what does on-the-job professional development mean in practice? 

Employers need a talent pipeline 

The argument for professional development is pretty straightforward: The smartest way to hire is hiring internally. Not only does developing and hiring internally mean slowing the merry-go-round of employee churn, but also:

  • Skipping costs in productivity. Outside hires can take two to nine times longer than internal hires to get up to speed.
  • Minimizing risk. According to multiple studies in the for-profit sector, 40 to 60 percent of external C-suite hires fail within the first 18 months.
  • Giving employees (like you!) what they want. Worker demand for learning, mentorship, support, and career-advancing opportunities is only growing.

In addition, it doesn’t require much money to establish a culture of professional development, as formal training is only a small part of a reliable development formula. As you’ll see below, this approach does require thought, effort, and commitment, but the cash expenditure is minimal. (And it’s additionally cost-effective through Nonprofit University, a nationally leading provider of virtual training housed by Work for Good's parent company, which offers affordable courses in all areas of nonprofit management.)

How to pitch your professional development effort

The first step is a conversation about professional development. When bringing this up with your manager, you'll want to discuss:

  • Your competencies and skill gaps.
  • Where you see yourself in the coming years.
  • Challenges that you find intriguing, including those already on your plate and those faced by others in the organization.

With those factors in mind, you can work together on a plan for professional development using the 70/20/10 principle: 70 percent through experience, 20 percent through mentoring, and 10 percent through formal training. The Center for Creative Leadership formulated this approach by looking at research into how adults learn best; you can see the principle at work in disciplines like athletics and musical performance, where daily practice – the experience component – plays an outsized role.

That means the vast majority of professional development should come from on-the-job “stretch” assignments. Many of these stretch assignments are as simple as changing up your responsibilities to give you specific experience with a desired skill set or knowledge area. 

Mentoring and coaching means connecting with someone who can help you develop and hold you accountable for meeting your development goals. Current leadership is the first place to look for mentors, but you should also consider professional associations, retiree groups, and other nonprofits (or for-profits) that you or your organization have developed relationships with. 

And because formal training comprises only 10 percent of the formula, the financial cost for your employer shouldn’t be high.

But how much time, exactly, are we discussing? Google is known for encouraging employees to spend 20 percent of their on-the-job time learning new things. Assuming the resources at your nonprofit aren’t quite as extensive as a multibillion-dollar corporation, 10 percent might be more reasonable. For a full-time employee following the 70/20/10 approach, that means a year of learning involves roughly:

  • 145 hours of stretch assignments
  • 42 hours of mentoring or coaching
  • 21 hours of formal training

The time required is significant, but it's worth repeating that the return for employers is significant: Staff members are energized by the investment in their careers, and the organization gains a trustworthy leadership pipeline.

Getting your talent development process underway

Here are three steps to take to get your professional development process going. Work with your employer to:

  1. Identify the competencies needed for the organization’s future success. Think skills, capabilities, and experiences that enable you to achieve your goals and to get better every year. These include job-related competencies that are universal (like teamwork) and role-specific (like donor management), as well as leadership competencies that your organization values. Got an employer who is unsure about what they need? You can point them toward Bridgespan Group’s Performance-Leadership Matrix. (Or consider forwarding them the employer-focused version of the article you're currently reading.)
  2. Co-create development plans. Using the 70/20/10 approach, craft a plan with your manager to pursue two or three competencies. This means crafting stretch assignments that will develop a specific skill or knowledge area, and identifying current assignments that can be deprioritized to make space for them.
  3. Track progress, learn, and improve. Start simple by focusing on concrete activities: Making sure a development plan is in place, tackling stretch assignments, and keeping tabs on what's working for you and what isn't. Meet with your manager regularly to discuss progress – an hour each week or two is a good starting point. Learn and improve from there.

Be patient with yourself and leadership: Neither of you may know the right stretch assignments when you first start development planning, but with the plan in mind, opportunities that match your particular needs will often arise in the course of broader organizational planning. 

To find mentors and coaches, think outside the box and cast a wide net. When making the pitch to potential mentors, don’t forget to play up the benefits in terms of delegating tasks (so long as they fit specific development goals), as well as adding to their sense of purpose and bettering your organization’s capacity to deliver on the mission, now and in the future.

Work for Good is here to help

Nonprofit University, housed by Work for Good's parent organization, provides affordable training in every area of nonprofit management, all held virtually, with options for those at every level of their career. Among the full schedule of educational events that we encourage you to check out are these two upcoming offerings, suitable for all nonprofit personnel: the Strategies for Eliminating Bias and Creating a Culture of Inclusion Bundle, starting April 12, and the Certificate of Emotional Intelligence series, starting May 2. 

Marc Schultz is communications editor for Work for Good.