L&D is an acronym that bounces off the walls at a lot of big companies. But for tinier businesses, learning and development may not have that much swagger, mainly because it looks like you have to throw fistfuls of money behind it to make it work.

The truth is, there are plenty of ways you can wrap educational benefits into your team’s lives—no astronomical budget required.

Why is it key to promote learning at work? Because it gives people a chance to blossom beyond where they currently are—and it helps your company develop at the same time. Not to mention, people are thirsty for the chance to zip forward in their careers. When thinking about which jobs to apply for, Gallup found that Millennials place the opportunity to learn and grow way ahead of income. That is, advancement is even more important than salary.

In this article, we’ll show you how to create opportunities that will unleash your team’s true potential.

Get guerrilla

An educational opportunity doesn’t always have to start as a giant number in a giant spreadsheet.

At ONE400, a Pasadena-based legal marketing firm, a project manager named Jeff wanted to dip his toes into front-end software development. It didn’t take long for his manager, Allen Rodriguez, to get on board. “I like to invest in my team,” says Allen. “We all benefit from it.”

ONE400 office

So Allen found courses on Codeacademy, Code.org, and Lynda.com, along with an online program to test Jeff’s skills once he passed each course with flying colors. For each of those classes that Jeff mastered, his salary ballooned by $5,000.

After finishing all the courses, Allen changed his job title, since Jeff could now prove he knew his area inside and out. Online courses became a simple and cost-effective way for Allen’s team to chase their passions.

Use it to generate extra income

One creative idea that came up among many business owners was the idea of using community classes to double as on-the-job training.

Juniper Designs in Oklahoma City takes this to heart (and seed) through their “Bloom Culture” class. Basically, anyone can drop into a class and create a beautiful floral arrangement, no experience required.

When Floral Engineer Haley Owen first started at Juniper, she would take these classes to perfect her skills along with others who were also new to the world of flowers. According to owner Alison Fleck, watching her team improve through the classes gave them a healthy dose of confidence. Eventually, the entire team started teaching the classes too.

“You learn new things when you’re trying to explain it to someone else,” explains Alison. “It’s cool to see my team see someone struggling and be like, ‘Okay, here’s what I would do.’”

Juniper Designs floral arranging

Personalize paths for each person

“We take a different approach to things,” says Jeebs & Zuzu owner Dave Hickman. “It’s about building up employees individually, whether they’re doing this for 40 years or just out of school.”

Every Friday, the team has a group lunch followed by an optional training session. Several people in the office are studying for their architectural exams, so Dave created a schedule and structure that allows them to sit down and cram together.

“If we can make it enjoyable and train them to know much more than when they came here, we’re giving them a future, whether it’s with us or someone else. Wanting to see them progress in life builds a lot of loyalty, I think.”

At Bright Life Playschool in San Luis Obispo, Kim Love sees performance reviews as a perfect opportunity to carve out career paths for folks. First, Kim asks her team to evaluate themselves, and then sets up follow-up meetings to have deeper chats about their reflections. During that time, they create “vision maps” together that capture people’s goals at the preschool, along with a clear path for how to achieve them through classes and other training programs.

Bright Life Playschool art board

Kelsey Firebaugh is a teacher’s aide at Bright Life who is is on her way to becoming an elementary school teacher. “My favorite part of my job is seeing how other teachers interact with kids. We have one teacher who can turn any experience with kids, even a tantrum or bad behavior, into a learning experience for kids,” she says.

“Another will sing everything instead of saying ‘no’ and turn every situation into a positive one. Every teacher has a unique teaching style and I’m trying to find my own.”

Build a culture of learning

Taylor Easterwood, the General Manager at Fat Bottom Brewing, says that the owner gives the team “a lot of freedom to use our knowledge and experience to impact the company in a way we think is beneficial.”

Once, the sales reps decided they wanted to get a more thorough understanding of the beer they were selling. So Fat Bottom scheduled classes on Mondays for how to become a “craft beer connoisseur,” which turned into a playground for trying out new recipes. The owner “gives us resources to be our own boss, and that type of freedom drives you,” says Taylor.

At Kindful, a CRM software company in Nashville, CEO Jeremy Bolls also believes in constructing an environment that breeds learning.

“We want people to move around and grow. There’ve been a number of us who came in for one role because that’s where their background was, but as opportunities open up, and they show interest, we help them explore it.”


To do that, Jeremy creates a split work schedule which enables the person to work with a mentor who’s on the team the person is trying to transition into. They conduct multiple discussions and reviews to ensure people can feel good about the decision before they fully dive in.

And the process works: Two and a half years ago, Daniel was a Sales Rep. He moved his way up to becoming a Business Analyst, and is currently a Product Owner — which is where he wants to be. Says Jeremy, “While we’re still fairly young, we think it’s vital to develop various growth paths so people never have to feel stuck.”

Kristi Aragon from Two Knives Catering sums up the importance of learning at work best: “If you’re only bettering your own skills, your business is still only as strong as the least experienced person on the team. We want to be on the cutting edge of everything we do. And to do that, to allow the team to get better, I have to get out of their way.”

Kira Deutch Kira Deutch is a former Gusto editor. She has a background in publishing and content marketing for startups.
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