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How can I personalize employee development on a budget?

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Q. I want to help pay for employees to do more personal development (e.g. conferences, online courses, etc.) without making everyone do the same stuff. Any advice for planning or budgeting a perk like this?

yec_Diana Goodwin1. Ask employees what they're passionate about

Ask each employee what they are passionate about and allow them to develop and become an expert in those areas. They can suggest a course or conference that aligns with their passions and get management to approve. Over time, you can accumulate potential courses and conferences based on learning topics that future employees can look at to get ideas of what they would like to learn more about. -- Diana Goodwin, AquaMobile Swim School

yec_Sydney Williams2. Create a flexible program

At the first agency I worked at out of college, they had a program that we could apply for, with a handful of people selected each year. Employees would submit an essay about how they would use the $1,000 prize to expand their horizons: picking up a new hobby, taking a class, etc. It wasn't a "one size fits all" program, and it's flexibility allowed employees to carve their own path. -- Sydney Williams, Planet Green Socks

yec_mary ellen slayter3. Tie it to development plans

Each of your employees should have a personal development plan. Work with them to come up with a strategy for reaching their goals and set aside an appropriate amount of money to fund their needs. -- Mary Ellen Slayter, Reputation Capital

yec_Nicolas Gremion24. Encourage online academies

Online academies such as Lynda.com or Udemy.com offer a plethora of courses, spanning nearly every topic imaginable. Whether it be marketing, programming or even woodworking, there should be something for everyone. Budgeting is easy; with a business account you have one expense with a set cost. Plus you can monitor their use, ensuring your money has been wisely invested. -- Nicolas Gremion, Free-eBooks.net

yec_Brittany Hodak5. Institute a class stipend program

ZinePak just introduced a great company perk that I borrowed from Beth Laird at Creative Nation. Twice per year, our employees receive education stipends of $250 to use for any class(es) of their choosing. The perk is designed to foster creativity, and classes are not necessarily tied to job roles. From painting to guitar lessons to graphic design, the more creative the employee, the happier the employee. -- Brittany Hodak, ZinePak

yec_Christophor Jurin 26. Develop a theme

The development needs of employees are unique to where they currently find themselves in relation to the needs of their employer. I have found that creating a theme -- and then enrolling them in how they will develop within that theme -- may empower them to seek training and personal development. Provide employees with a budget and charge them with identifying resources for their personal development. -- Christophor Jurin, Construct-Ed Inc.

yec_Chris Cancialosi7. Make it flexible and meaningful

We set aside a certain dollar amount each year per person for individual development. How they spend it is based on their continuous development conversations with their supervisor. This way, everyone has access to unique development resources and we can give them and their managers complete flexibility to use their resources in ways that add the most value based on the situation. -- Chris Cancialosi, gothamCulture

yec_kristopher jones8. Provide a range of options

In the past, I would send all of my senior staff to Tony Robbins' "Unleash the Power Within" seminar. It changed some of my staff's lives, while others felt I imposed on them a system that has worked for me but isn't consistent with the type of personal development they were looking for. Based on my experience, my advice is to give options and don't impose. Mix both personal and professional. -- Kristopher Jones, LSEO.com

yec_Adam Brown 29. Give them the autonomy to choose

Employers are always looking for perks to give their employees that are well received. With things like conferences and online courses, you need to be careful to make sure it is perceived as a perk and not extra work. I give my employees $500 a year to use on "self betterment" and let them choose what that is. Give them the autonomy to choose and you will find that is perk in and of itself. -- Adam Brown, Sircle Media

yec_Miles Jennings10. Set a limit

There should be a reasonable limit set to how much can be given through a professional development allowance. Take into account all of the different programs and courses they could be taking and how much they will cost, but let staff know of this limit (i.e. $100/month) and ask them to stay within its boundaries. That way, they can choose what they'd like but know what can and cannot be afforded. -- Miles Jennings, Recruiter.com

yec_Mark Lurie11. Make it an opportunity to build social capital

I've tried offering to pay for good personal development opportunities and giving people a budget to spend themselves. Neither has worked -- they only take up the perk sporadically. Now, I've given each person a budget and set a monthly meeting where people share their personal development initiatives with the rest of the team. This made a big difference. People put a lot of effort into it! -- Mark Lurie, Lofty.com

yec_Mollie Elkman12. Stop thinking of it as a perk

Investing in the education of your team is not a perk. Its a smart business decision that will grow your team and will benefit your business. By investing in people, you are investing in your company. Now think about how much that is worth to your organization and determine your budget from there. -- Mollie Elkman, Group Two Advertising