top of page
  • Writer's pictureRyan O'Mealey

6 Steps to Better Employee Development in Higher Ed

Improve retention and achieve your goals with this simple approach to employee training

Is your college struggling with stagnant retention rates or - worse - declining enrollment? Perhaps you are frustrated at the lack of progress when it comes to better student outcomes, employee satisfaction, or any number of metrics you wish to improve.

The problem may not lie with the quality of education. Instead, I would challenge you to look at this from a different angle.

What if the problem is in how we identify, train and educate our employees?

As higher education professionals, we are the first to recognize the benefits of lifelong learning. But, this is almost always in the context of offering courses, certificates and workshops that add new skills, rather than programs designed to improve existing skills.

We package continuing education (sometimes called lifelong learning) into bundles of courses, and incentivize employees to add skills - or even degrees - to their portfolio through employee tuition discounts.

And yet, in a system of higher education that is almost entirely populated by employees with college degrees, institutions are still suffering from falling retention rates, high employee turnover, increased numbers of students who transfer away, and declining enrollments.

Consider this for a moment. If you were in the auto industry, and your company was seeing increased numbers of defective cars on the road, would you tell employees to go get a master’s degree - any degree - then come back to work on improving these cars?

Auto manufacturers address the problem through quality analysis and then build a system of employee training and procedures that is tailored to their unique industry. The investment in training and development becomes part of the business model, because we know that revenue and satisfaction will increase.

Before we get to the 6 steps that can improve college retention with better employee training, it’s important to remind ourselves of the social cognitive learning theories that form the foundation for all of our efforts, in and out of the classroom.


The importance of self-efficacy

For all higher education management, whether you are a faculty department head, or a registrar, or a dean of students, the concept of self-efficacy should be the cornerstone of your employee development efforts.

Self-efficacy is so important that the phrase “believe in yourself” can be found in almost every self-help book and seminar on the planet. I challenge you to find a self-improvement strategy that doesn’t include some form of “believe in yourself”. If a person can imagine their life after they’ve achieved a goal, they are far more motivated to work towards that goal.

Simply put, self-efficacy is the ability of a person to believe that they can accomplish a goal.

Therefore, the extent to which our employees can produce results is largely influenced by whether or not they believe it is possible.

Beware of overwhelming your crew

One major obstacle to self-efficacy is being overwhelmed by the scope of a problem. As managers, we can accidentally slip into discussing large-scale problems - like retention - which have hundreds of variables that affect the outcome.

If I’m in the financial aid office, I might think there is nothing I can do about the classroom experience. And if I’m on the faculty, I might think there is nothing I can do about the increasing cost of an education.

In other words, I can’t possibly envision myself solving this problem.

I may hear my manager talk about not meeting goals, slow response times, the need to improve, etc. My manager might even have a lot of suggestions for improvement, or may roll out a new strategy that they feel will help the problem.

But, if I haven’t gone through the exercise of understanding how I can contribute to the greater picture, then my only motivation to do the work is “because my boss told me to do it.”

That’s not very motivating, particularly in higher education where salaries and budgets are almost never based on performance. On Wall Street, doing what my boss says might get me a financial bonus, but in non-profit higher education that incentive doesn’t exist.

Avoid the temptation to micromanage

If your unit is experiencing declining enrollment or lower performance, it is such a temptation to descend on our employees and examine every little thing they do.

Nobody likes this. I don’t, you don’t. Let’s all agree that micro-managers are the worst.

No matter how friendly we are, the act of micromanaging is demoralizing because it goes against the principles of self-efficacy. If you are doing your job to the best of your ability, and your boss comes in and tells you that you’re doing it wrong, how do you feel?

Ashamed? Angry? Frustrated? Unappreciated?

These emotions are inhibitors to self-efficacy. Remember, in order for a person to achieve a goal, they must first be able to see themselves achieving that same goal. If I need my boss to show me how to do every single step, then there is no mental paradigm where I can do this on my own.

As managers, we need to approach employee training and development with self-efficacy at the forefront of our efforts.

6 steps for improving retention through better employee training

Step #1: Identify the problem with a sense of urgency

Identifying the problem may seem obvious, but you would be surprised at how many managers assume, without verifying, that their employees understand the institution’s challenges.

If the problem is a very large concept, such as overall enrollment or retention, I recommend that you break this up into component parts. Review your institutional data and break down the problem into two or three areas.

For example, if four-year graduation rates are declining, I might identify two major areas of improvement: students who transfer out between academic years, and students with a GPA below 2.0 who withdraw. There may be many more variables to identify, but the problem you present needs to be one that your employees can imagine themselves actually addressing.

If I only talk about macro-level problems such as four-year graduation rates, that problem is too large for a single individual to see themselves making an impact.

Don’t start with more than three urgent problems to address, even if you intend to address more items later. Prioritize the work of your employees to address the two or three most urgent issues, first. Then, when they succeed in improving these outcomes, they will be motivated to keep going. They will be empowered to enact real change.

Step #2: Present case studies before your own solutions

This is probably the biggest mistake I’ve made in my own career, and is a step that many busy managers skip.

After identifying the problem, as a manager I may already know how I want to tackle it. I may have a deep understanding of my institutional variables, and I know that my plan will work. So, I go ahead and roll out the solution at the same time that I present the problem.

This is a huge mistake. If we go back to social cognitive learning theory, we see that humans are capable of realizing a goal can be accomplished by seeing that someone else has done it. If I want to climb a mountain, it’s easier if I know that it’s been done before.

This is sometimes referred to as symbolic capability. I don’t need to try something myself in order to realize it can be done.

With regard to self-efficacy, an employee can begin to see themselves achieving a goal if they see that other people have also achieved that goal. In this case, they see it by examining case studies of other higher education institutions, and examining the results.

If we have not done the cognitive work to understand that we can accomplish our goal, then the perfectly written plan our boss hands us is no better than micromanaging. I’m being told what to do, and how to do it, but my brain hasn’t gone through the process of “believe in myself”. My only motivation is that my boss told me to do it.

Before you provide your own solutions, present two different case studies of how other institutions have addressed the same problem you face. I don’t recommend more than two examples at the beginning. You want to gauge the level of understanding your employees have of the variables at play, and as your employees compare/contrast two approaches they will be forced to articulate these variables. You may even choose to include a case study of an institution that has failed to achieve results, and host a guided discussion around this.

Step #3: Use assessments that require employee engagement

Have you ever led a workshop, discussion or seminar where you ask questions, and nobody in the room volunteers to answer? You may be met by a bunch of poker faces, secretly horrified that you will call on them individually.

This is usually a product of fear, where the people in the room are not comfortable enough with the material to voice a spontaneous public opinion.

To combat this, I hope you will consider creating an online assessment experience.

The point of this exercise is to require employees to engage with the material, read the case studies, and demonstrate their understanding by answering questions anonymously via a quiz, survey or game.

You may choose to host a series of sessions, where you give employees homework in between group meetings. By using an online assessment, you know who has done the work, and you can keep the answers anonymous to respect employees who may need more time to develop.

Another approach is to design an entire online mini-course, where employees are guided through the concepts at their own pace. In this format, they can privately message you if they have questions without fear of embarrassment in front of colleagues.

Or, you could include an online discussion board where you pose questions and people can take time to draft their answers before sharing with the group. This is often more effective for engagement than speaking up, on the spot, in a large training session or department meeting.

Once everyone has had a chance to engage with the material and respond to the assessments, you will have the information you need to plan the next steps in your employee development.

Step #4: Identify barriers, perceived or real, that could prevent progress

This is another critical step that so many managers leave out. In my experience, managers and department heads are uncomfortable with this step because employees often express concerns in the form of criticism.

It’s common for employees to blame poor performance on a lack of resources, or on their busy schedule, or on the work of another office. They might say that they need more staff, increased pay, or better equipment.

Why would a manager willingly put themselves into the position of hearing this criticism?

But think about it. If you are a teacher in a classroom, do you let students get away with blaming these same problems, without ever seeking to use resources that can help?

If someone is legitimately impacted by resources, or by another office, etc., then they will easily be able to give examples of how this impacts their job. These are things you need to know, so that you can address them and work to remove these obstacles.

If someone is very busy, stressed, or exhausted by their workload, and yet performance is not improving, then we need to find the cause. No employee deserves to feel like they work hard but are failing at their job. How can we improve? What tasks are perhaps not so important, or could be streamlined?

It is important to hear from your employees what barriers they perceive would prevent them from success. If you don’t, then they will never be able to realize themselves achieving that goal and they will always be frustrated.

Step #5: Plan for small successes and keep the motivation going

Everyone likes to win. It’s in our nature. If we didn’t, the US sports industry wouldn’t be a $500 billion economic powerhouse.

What’s more, if we’re building self-efficacy in our employees, small wins can add to a strong sense of empowerment, responsibility, and a lasting connection to the students. People can see how their work is improving, and they feel good about the progress they are making.

For example, let’s say that the problem you identified in Step 1 is that students can’t find information on the website. Your team is getting phone calls, emails and walk-ins packed with repetitive questions that should be easy to find, but aren’t. That can feel overwhelming, as busy faculty or staff are so swamped with answering questions that they don’t feel they can take time to review the website and make productive changes, let alone get students to trust the site again.

You can break this problem down into digestible chunks, though.

First, you could ask them to tick a category box for every email, phone call and walk-in question they get in a week. What was the nature of each question? Second, ask them to compile the results and show the team what the most common questions are. Third, organize a group of peers or students and ask them to time themselves - how long does it take you from the home page to find the answers to these questions? How long from the search bar? Finally, have the team present those results and hold a meeting to discuss how to clean up the info on the site, and communicate the changes to the students.

Breaking down the problem into small steps may seem elementary, but for busy working professionals it helps them realize that they can achieve big change one step at a time. They can see where the ultimate goal lies, and how to achieve it. Plus, you’re not adding too much work onto their plate each day.

Step #6: Celebrate wins along the way

No matter how great your workplan is, if you don’t publicly celebrate the achievement of small milestones, it will be difficult to achieve the results that you hoped for.

In each step, celebrate the task that has been done. There are several ways you could do this! Write the tasks on a white board (or digital project management tool) and put a big green check next to each one that is done. Send out a congratulatory email after each step and copy the whole team. Make a point to notice how the number of questions is reducing over time. Bring candy or treats and pass them around after each milestone is achieved. Even just publicly acknowledging the work in a weekly meeting goes a long way!

As you build confidence by celebrating small wins, your employees will begin to see that they can break the pattern of stress and frustration, and instead engage in self-reflection on how they can improve their work. They will begin to feel ownership over their work, and you will see a change in their engagement and ability to identify and solve problems on their own.


If you follow each of these six steps, in order, your employees will be able to envision their own success and will be motivated to work towards a goal. They will have done the mental work to understand the issues at hand, and can take ownership of their work.

As a manager, you will benefit from not only seeing which employees engage with the process, but also from the time you save as your unit begins to work more efficiently towards a common goal.

Need help getting started? Contact Arise to find out how we can help your department identify and achieve the very best student experience!



Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page