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

Written by: Marc Schultz
Published on: Mar 25, 2024

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(Image: Kate_Sept2004)

Whatever you’re looking for in your current or next job, chances are it includes the opportunity to advance. Indeed, 2021 research from Nonprofit HR showed that the top two reasons people leave their employers are “better opportunities elsewhere” and “invisible career paths.”

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

But 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. Among the advantages:

  • Skipping costs in productivity. Outside hires can take two to nine times longer than internal hires to get up to speed.
  • Minimizing risk. Multiple studies in the for-profit sector show that 40 to 60 percent of external C-suite hires fail within 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, because 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 relatively little funding. (And it’s additionally cost-effective through Nonprofit University, a national leader in virtual training run by Work for Good's parent company, which offers affordable courses in all areas of nonprofit management as well as subscription plans.)

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 designed the 70/20/10 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 your nonprofit isn't quite as well resourced as Google, 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

It's a significant time commitment, but 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. Think skills, capabilities, and experiences that enable you to achieve your goals and to get better every year. Consider what's universal (like teamwork) and role-specific (like donor management), as well as leadership competencies that your organization values. If your employer is unsure about what they need, point them toward this breakdown of the Bridgespan Group’s Performance-Leadership Matrix. (Or forward 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 to develop a specific skill or knowledge area while identifying current assignments that can be deprioritized to make space.
  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 should 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 your development goals), as well as adding to their sense of purpose and the organization’s capacity.

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, most held virtually, with options for those at every level of their career and cost-saving subscription plans.

Marc Schultz is communications editor for Work for Good.

This article was fact-checked and updated in March 2024.

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