Your Workforce: The Most Important Asset You’re Not Maintaining

By: Jon Picoult

Business leaders, in a nod to the value of their workforce, will sometimes declare that their most important assets “walk out the door” every day.  (They’re referring to their employees, of course.)

While such proclamations are fashionable given the buzzworthy nature of employee engagement, the reality within many workplaces is that these most important assets are often left to wither, due to a lack of maintenance and reinvestment.

It makes intuitive sense when companies draw a parallel between their capital assets and their human assets. In practice, however, the analogy falls short.

Capital assets, such as machinery, require regular upkeep – and so, too, do human capital assets. Whereas pieces of equipment might need regular oil and greasing to operate at peak efficiency, employees need regular skill development and education to operate at their highest level.

Yet such staff development activities can get lost in the whirlwind of day-to-day business priorities. They become a secondary concern. As a result, the knowledge and capabilities of those human capital assets are left to… depreciate.

That’s a real tragedy for businesses large and small, given the investment that is typically made in recruiting, hiring and onboarding new employees.

But this “depreciation” of human capital assets is not a foregone conclusion. Here are four ways to ensure that your organization is truly maintaining its most important asset – your workforce.

Hire with the Expectation to Train
Many employers assert that they are unable to find qualified candidates in today’s labor pool.  Look a little closer, however, and it becomes apparent that what they’re really looking for is the perfect candidate – the person who has all the right skills and competencies, enabling them to come on board and hit the ground running.

The search for the mythical “perfect candidate” has been fueled, in part, by cutbacks in staff training programs, borne out of companies’ desire to hire people who essentially don’t need any training.

However, what hiring managers are increasingly discovering is that the perfect candidate rarely exists. What is available is good talent that — with some training and coaching — can be shaped into a productive member of a company’s workforce.

To successfully maintain and invest in employee assets, this training process must start on Day 1 (in much the same way that capital assets require attention and care from the first day they are brought online).

Save yourself the frustration of searching for the elusive perfect candidate. Instead, focus on hiring good people with the expectation that, even at the outset, you’ll need to invest in their development.

Avoid the Delusion of On-the-Job Training
“Go over there and watch what she’s doing.”

That simple directive may constitute an organization’s entire employee training program. Be it for new employees or experienced workers, training at some companies is an exercise in shadowing a colleague for a brief time, taking notes, and then (trying) to replicate the new tasks.

While on-the-job training is unquestionably valuable, a problem arises when this becomes an organization’s exclusive approach to refining and expanding the skills of its workforce. The dirty little secret about on-the-job training is that many managers rely on it because they don’t really have an employee training program.

That revelation is not lost on employees, who can surely distinguish between such haphazard attempts at skill development, compared to more organized and thoughtful approaches.

There’s no substitute for hands-on training. However, it’s bound to be more effective when paired with traditional instruction methods, such as those delivered through classroom venues, e-learning tools and formal procedural documentation.

Don’t Confuse Training with Rollouts
Companies commonly cite training associated with new product rollouts as a key component of their employee development program (“of course we invest in our employees – with every new product we introduce, they get training!”).

New product training is important, but it alone does not constitute a robust employee development program. True reinvestment in your employees involves broader skill development and education, not just operational details associated with a new product or service.

A robust employee development program helps staff expand their horizons beyond just the latest product launch. It might help them cultivate much-needed soft skills, such as customer service, communication or negotiation. It might augment knowledge that, while not directly related to their current role, helps position the employee for future opportunities that are aligned with their aspirations (thus improving retention.)

These are the hallmarks of true reinvestment in staff. Yet many organizations neglect to offer such opportunities to their workforce, focusing instead on very parochial and tactical training activities.

When crafting a comprehensive staff development strategy, think broadly about the competencies your employees need to succeed. It’s likely to encompass far more than just the skills required to support your next product rollout.

Let People Focus on Learning
Lastly, maximize the value of your investments in employee training by giving your employees the gift of time. That is, allowing them to be fully present and focused when it comes to advancing their own development.

Imagine trying to perform routine maintenance on an aircraft while it’s flying.  Or changing the oil in a vehicle while it’s driving. Or upgrading a piece of machinery while it’s operating.

Any reasonable person would acknowledge that these “maintenance on the go” scenarios are neither realistic nor prudent. Yet, this is how some organizations maintain their employee assets — expecting staff to effectively absorb new learnings while simultaneously handling their routine responsibilities.

That philosophy comes in the form of directives that employees complete self-training (often delivered online) “as time allows” during their regular workday. It can also be seen in classroom training programs where participants are encouraged to stay in constant touch with the office. (I’ll never forget one training workshop I conducted where my client requested breaks every twenty minutes, so her staff could check their e-mail and voice mail messages!)

It is a disservice to employees when an organization neglects to give them “quiet time” to participate in skill development programs. Indeed, the value of those programs (and the investment a company makes in them) is greatly diminished without the benefit of employees’ undivided attention.

As a business leader, if you equate capital assets with human assets, then be prepared to take the comparison to its rightful conclusion. Acknowledge the importance of maintenance and reinvestment in both types of resources.

By demonstrating that philosophy through your staff development strategy, you’ll help ensure those prized assets who “walk out the door each evening” are actually treated as such.

 Author Bio:

 Jon Picoult is Founder & Principal of Watermark Consulting, a management advisory firm that helps businesses impress  their customers and inspire their employees. Contact Jon at or follow him on Twitter @JonPicoult.