As summer dawns, the baseball season is intensifying, its champion to be crowned in the fall. Yet, it’s February when teams and players begin laying their groundwork for success. Ultimately, spring training can make the difference between a world champion celebrated through the ages and a runner-up forgotten by time.

Spring training is made special by baseball’s organizations. Carefully crafted stadiums, state-of-the-art workout facilities and passionate fan bases welcome players to this professional development environment.

Employers would do well to take a cue from baseball and treat their training program as a competitive differentiator. Professionals with in-demand skills have options, but especially in environments like today’s, where severe talent shortages and intense hiring competition are more commonly the rule than the exception. In heated recruiting, robust professional development is a valuable advantage for organizations.

Fortunately, businesses see the light. A recent Robert Half Management Resources survey found companies were nearly three times more likely to increase than decrease their professional development budget this year.

A comprehensive program is essential for companies to attract and retain talented professionals. Effective offerings also enhance employee performance, job satisfaction, staff morale, leadership development, succession planning and corporate culture.

What can firms do to ensure their programs meet top performers’ needs?

1. Build it.

Talk to staff in one-on-one and group meetings and, if possible, conduct an employee survey about what they seek. You need to find out what will help your team most and tailor your offerings accordingly.

You’ll likely find different departments have different wants. While training on soft skills or your company’s new performance management system can be universal, technical needs will vary. For example, the Robert Half Management Resources survey found compliance is the most common training area for accounting and finance teams.

Formal training remains just one aspect of professional development. To be effective, programs should include a range of activities, such as mentorships, job rotations, guest speakers at staff meetings, knowledge-sharing between consultants and full-time employees, volunteer opportunities, and coaching sessions with managers.

2. Promote it.

The greatest program will collect cobwebs if not promoted well. Start by updating the employees who gave input and responded to surveys. These individuals clearly value professional development – they wouldn’t have shared their opinions if they didn’t – and can serve as ambassadors for your company’s efforts. Then, use your intranet, emails, office bulletin boards, town halls and other available methods to spread the news throughout the organization.

As you build internal support, word will get around and out of the office. Potential job candidates and clients will learn about your activities to help employees and the company improve. You’ll be seen as a valued employer and an organization customers want to support.

Don’t miss the chance to talk about your program in interviews with job applicants as well. Tell them how the firm actively supports staff members’ career growth, and highlight specific offerings that can help them reach their objectives.

3. Change it.

Once you set up a successful system, it can be unsettling to think it needs to change. But if it doesn’t evolve, it can’t improve.

Take, for example, how training is administered. People want more say over how and when they learn. As a result, classroom-style instruction frequently is giving way to videos and experiential learning opportunities, such as role rotation and job shadowing.

Your program must simultaneously help employees today and for the future. With compliance training, for instance, it’s not sufficient to educate financial teams on new standards alone. Employers need to equip staff with the expertise and tools to apply what they learn to future regulations. Similarly, with technology, organizations must prepare their teams for the latest-and-greatest software as well as emerging trends.

Forming a Champion

World Series winners aren’t built only through pre-season efforts. High-profile trade acquisitions and hot-shot rookies join the team midseason, players make adjustments, and coaches help their teams navigate challenging situations.

But like in business, the tone is often set with training. Professional development can be your competitive differentiator in attracting, developing and retaining stars. How well you build, promote and change your program will help dictate your company’s success.