For my book “1,001 Ways to Engage Employees,” I did a regression analysis of three million employee surveys and found that the second-most significant driver of employee engagement is career development – that is, learning, development and advancement opportunities that are provided to employees on a systematic basis. Career development isn’t an occasional training class or periodical promotions but, rather, the daily journey of learning, job skills and networking that puts employees on the course they most want to travel in their career – with their manager’s help getting there.

Employees need to know that their manager is interested in their development and is willing to periodically take time to discuss and encourage their progress, including learning, stretch job assignments and potential career paths. Managers should develop learning goals and, when debriefing on projects, discuss what the employee learned from that project.

This strategy can also help increase the effectiveness of all training at your organization. I have a colleague who focused her doctoral dissertation on increasing training effectiveness and found that the effectiveness of training increased by 90 percent when learners’ managers did two specific things:

  1. Meet with an employee prior to a training event to discuss why he or she was participating in the training.
  2. Meet again with the employee after the training to discuss what he or she learned.

Since development opportunities are a motivator for most employees, as organizational needs arise, managers should ask, “Who can best learn from this opportunity?” I learned this lesson early in my career when my first manager delegated an assignment to me with the words, “I could do this assignment faster than you, but I thought there’d be some learnings for you in doing it.”

Later, I saw the same development principle in practice when I worked with American Express. The company developed a delegation technique it called “Label and Link,” which it trained all its managers to use. When delegating work, managers labeled the task an opportunity and linked it to something important to the employee they were considering for the assignment. This technique is the essence of employee engagement: aligning the needs of the organization with the aspirations of the employees.

Another developmental approach comes from giving employees an opportunity to experience different roles. For example, networking company 3Com believes that allowing employees who work “behind the scenes” – especially engineers – to sell to or visit customers gives them a greater appreciation for the value of the work they do. Technical employees often receive customer feedback second- or third-hand and rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to talk with a customer directly. How beneficial it is for them to engage in a dialogue that helps them do their job better and not feel as though they are operating in the dark with piecemeal information!

In my research, I found companies that were implementing innovative strategies to take employee learning to the next level. “It seems to be a growing trend that employees are looking to be challenged with more amplified projects at work and rewarded with greater job responsibility,” says David Kovacovich, an engagement strategist in San Francisco. One of David’s clients, a Silicon Valley technology company with over 10,000 employees, implemented a performance management strategy called SCARF, which allowed employees and managers to rank the employees’ preferences for career development based on status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

Through the SCARF methodology, managers were able to better understand employee individual needs and set them on a course for development accordingly. Status-oriented employees wanted to participate in high-visibility projects, while certainty-oriented employees simply wanted weekly updates on their progress and the company’s progress. This company found that taking performance management from “one-size-fits-all” to being individually structured at the employee level created a career development path that was easy for managers to help plan and follow. Promotions increased, and voluntary leave was greatly reduced.

Software firm Full Beaker, Inc., located in Bellevue, Washington, provides $1,500 per year for each employee to grow professionally. “Employees can spend the budget on books, online courses, professional conferences, coding boot camps, etc. – basically anything that makes the employee better at what he or she does for the company,” says Shavkat Karimov, the company’s director of SEO. Computer networking subsidiary Cisco Systems GmbH, based in Hallbergmoos, Germany, enables its “3G values” of “grow the business, grow your team and grow yourself” by giving employees access to three Es: education, experience and exposure.

Linking learning and career development to employee interests and aspirations is a simple yet powerful way to build employee engagement in your organization. You can start today.