As the light of daybreak creeps over the horizon on another mundane Monday, a lone figure strides across the dew-kissed grass with determination and purpose. They’ve poured endless hours into perfecting their craft, pushing their body to the brink for a shot at glory when the comparatively fleeting moment of competition comes.
Elsewhere, in a starkly lit office, another individual sips their morning coffee, ready to embark on a 40-hour week of paid performance, with barely a minute assigned to practising their skills or training for their long-form game of business.
The comparison is mind-boggling. Professional athletes might train for as much as twenty-five times longer than the amount of time they perform. Then there’s the everyday office warrior who hurtles along, spending an average of forty times less time practising their skills than performing.
This conundrum was first brought to my attention by my former CEO at Auth0, and forever mentor, Eugenio Pace. While we were busy crafting what would eventually become a startup unicorn, curiosity, a thirst for knowledge and an unwavering commitment to improvement were key ingredients in staying ahead of the competition. Eugenio firmly believed in setting aside regular chunks of time during office hours for staff to level up their game. “Think about it,” he would say, “athletes train day in and day out for a mere two-hour performance come the weekend. We are expecting people to perform for forty-plus hours!”
So, what sneaky reasons are lurking beneath this bizarre imbalance and what wisdom can we borrow from the world of sports to elevate our game in business?
In the fast-paced world of modern startups, everyone’s chasing success and growth. But, get this: a LinkedIn survey revealed that just 26% of employees received any form of training or development opportunities from their employers in 2020. That’s a jaw-dropping contrast to the whopping 94% of employees who said they’d stick with a company if it invested in their learning and development.
So, why the wonky disconnect between employee desires and employer offerings? To unravel this mystery, let’s hop in the ol’ time machine and fly through the history of workplace professional development. It’s been an ever-changing landscape shaped by a whirlwind of factors like technological wizardry, economic rollercoasters, social revolutions, and cultural shenanigans. Buckle up!
We’ll arrive first in the 1950s when office employees were getting cool gadgets like manual typewriters and adding machines. Professional development was all about scientific management and efficiency — think optimizing worker outputs through standardized processes and quality control. This approach was influenced by the early twentieth-century work of Frederick W. Taylor, who pioneered scientific management as a way of applying science to the engineering of processes and management.
Employees were expected to follow the rules, stick to procedures, and leave their creativity at the door. Training mostly revolved around technical skills and job-specific tasks, with little thought given to personal growth or career advancement. Unsurprisingly, people started to criticize Taylor’s methods for treating workers like cogs in a machine and ignoring the fact that, hey, we’re all human beings with feelings and stuff!
Then there was the groovy ’70s and rad ’80s — the era of disco balls, neon leggings, and…corporate professional development! Yep, during this funky time, professional development got all dressed up in formal attire and started strutting its stuff. Training began to focus on giving employees a real shot at success by up-skilling them for their own future development and less so for their current specific role. The increased enforcement of equal employment law and affirmative action in the United States, which required employers to provide training and development opportunities for minorities and women, helped to accelerate a more human focus. Corporate training programs, performance appraisals, and career planning took center stage, while cheesy corporate videos became the bread and butter of workplace learning.
Finally, a stop-off at the 1990s and 2000s, when professional development gets another sweet makeover. We’re talking online learning, coaching, mentoring, and even DIY self-directed learning for those who like to blaze their own trail. Flexibility was the name of the game, and professional development started to look like a buffet of tantalizing options, just waiting for employers to invite their employees to dig in.
Except they aren’t. So, why?
One possibility: maybe leaders, drunk on the flexibility of buffet-style training, have lost sight of the need for a more focused, structured training approach that addresses employees’ needs and desires. Perhaps there’s a case to be made for the “vintage” training methods.
Back in the days of scientific management, employees knew the drill. They were handed a script, told to follow it to a T, and their training was all about getting better at their specific roles. Sure, it lacked the pizzazz and personal growth opportunities of today’s training. But what it did have was consistency and regularity on its side.
That could be one of the biggest drawbacks of the current smorgasbord of training opportunities and their self-serve nature. During the 9-to-5 grind, time is rarely dedicated to training — instead, there’s an assumption staff can squeeze training around work, given it’s often accessible anywhere and any time. This is certainly something I’ve observed in many startups and particularly with the nature of asynchronous working. The result is haphazard training habits. Any athlete will tell you that consistency is key to training.
And in the “good ol’ days” of the ’80s, employees had to pop in a VHS tape to get their learning fix. Sure, the ’80s were all about big hair and even bigger shoulder pads, but at least folks had no choice but to absorb their training in a logical, step-by-step fashion — cheesiness be damned!
Nowadays, we have an over-reliance on asking employees to be self-starters, to hit the books in whatever order they see fit, and to magically know what skill path they’ll need for future success.
So, the lesson to be learned from the past: sometimes, a little structure and focus can go a long way in making professional development more, well, professional. Like a good mixtape (well, Spotify playlist nowadays, I guess), it’s all about finding the perfect balance.
We’ve had a lesson from the history books. Now it’s time to take a page out of the athlete’s playbook. How can we blend the best of both these worlds — the tried-and-true structure and focus from the mid-last century and the flexibility and personalization of modern professional development — plus mix in an athlete’s consistency and deliberate strategic progression? Can we turn our workspaces into training grounds that even an Olympian would be proud of? Let’s give it a crack.
World-class distance runners are known to plan their training over a whole season or year. They methodically map out a training program with a razor-sharp goal in mind. Their secret weapon to get through it all? Adopting the concept of periodization — switching up the type, intensity, and duration of their workouts to keep things fresh and avoid becoming as stale as last week’s bread. In fact, periodization has been shown to enhance athletes’ cognitive abilities, too. Who wouldn’t want brawn and brains?
Great athletes also vary their form or mode of training and practice. They may do sessions with a personal trainer, watch videos of their performances, and study their opponents’ strategies to identify areas of improvement.
Another insight we can glean from athletes is the significance of adhering to a consistent and ritualistic training regimen. Athletes understand the need to maintain a routine. It keeps them concentrated, driven, and disciplined in their training.
Athletes also rely heavily on their coaches and support teams to guide them through training and help them achieve their goals. Coaches provide valuable feedback, encouragement, and accountability, which are crucial for an athlete’s success. They help them design personalized training plans, monitor their performance, correct their mistakes, and celebrate their successes.
Just like our athletically-inclined buddies, employers ought to be thinking long-term and with greater intention to nurture and promote employee growth.
We will never hit that sweet spot where our work-to-training ratio mirrors that of our athletic buddies. But we can still make strides in upping our game. There’s always room to improve; a few clever steps can take us a long way!
We can kick things off by laying down crystal-clear expectations about making room for training. One move we can make is to let our employees know it’s A-OK to train while on the clock, and squash the notion that they need to cram their learning into what should be their own precious downtime. By embracing a learning culture where employees get a slice of their workweek set aside for training or learning, we’ll bring some much-needed consistency back to the table.
In practice, I’ve seen this work in various ways — from entire teams carving out a chunk of time each week for learning to folks taking the reins and setting their own training timetable. Either way, pencilling it in for the same time each week keeps that consistency train chugging along, channelling the ritualistic regimen of athletes. Of course, getting the thumbs up from leadership and the support from managers is crucial to executing this across a business.
I’ve recently noticed a sneaky trend in startups of throwing a bunch of content-rich training platforms (like Pluralsight, LinkedIn Learning) at employees and hoping that a one-size-fits-all approach does the trick. Despite coming from a well-meaning place, this approach doesn’t hit the mark. But this is where borrowing the athlete’s secret sauce of periodization is a no-brainer. Just like their training schedule would have a mix of various modes and intensities, our employee’s training should be kept spicy with a blend of different things like workshops, webinars, reading and mentoring sessions, keeping things fresh and engaging. This is an important element when choosing training tools and platforms. After all, the one-size-fits-all platforms get boring fast!
And let’s not forget about goal-setting! Just like athletes, employees need clear, measurable objectives to work towards. And just as athletes have coaches to drive this, leaders should sit down with their team members and hash out a personalized roadmap for success, complete with skill-building milestones and even the occasional high-five for good measure.
In a nutshell, workplace training and development in a startup isn’t a fancy extra; it’s a must-have for employees and employers looking to succeed in an increasingly competitive business landscape. By taking some pages from the pro athletes’ handbook, we can be better at whipping up a more effective, engaging, and personalized training culture that fuels growth and performance.
So, go on, let’s turn our workspaces into top-notch athlete-worthy training grounds. Don’t hesitate — kick off your training change now and watch how far your employees will soar. Everyone’s got what it takes to be a top dog in their field. Like an athlete, you need to train hard, train smart, and keep at it consistently.
Remember, practice makes perfect.