Staff development

Staff development: How to build excellence into your current staff

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Staff development should also be at the forefront of our minds as we hire, train, and manage staff. A robust staff development program benefits our clients, communities, teammates, leadership team, and the staff members themselves.

But before we get into what that program might look like, let’s define what I mean when speaking of staff development. 

Defining Staff Development

Of course, when we hire staff, we do all the standard stuff any business would do. We train every new hire on how to do all the tasks for their position, etc. But while staff development included job training, it is more involved and far more impactful and long-lasting. Consider the following ways to think about staff development. 

First, we want our staff to develop into more mature and healthy people. And we want that growth to continue throughout their employment with your organization. We hope your organization fosters each person’s growth no matter what their role. 

Second, staff development means that as a group, they become a supportive community with each other. A team that truly becomes a community is more potent than a random collection of people. As challenges come, a staff that is a community will work collectively to overcome any problem. I have written more on this subject here: How to become a community of clinicians.

Third, staff development means helping clinicians develop into more skilled and confident clinicians. Clinical growth occurs quite naturally as clinicians gain experience. And yet, having a place to process and work on clinical skills is essential to turning clinical experiences into the practical lessons needed for the future. 

The leadership sets the tone

Our leadership sets the tone for staff development by their time-intensive investment in our staff. A big part of all leaders’ job is to know every supervisee as thoroughly as that staff person will allow. We want our supervisors to be as honest and transparent in their supervision and management meetings, as is reasonable. Experiencing a supervisor who reveals who they are is quite powerful for the supervisee. 

Our staff should have the sense that their leaders are in the trenches with them. There is, of course, a natural distance between leaders and staff. After all, staff and leaders are not on the same plane. Nevertheless, leaders can meet staff on the same turf, i.e., around our struggle to be the best therapists we can.

Leading with honesty and transparency

In addition to the support that honest and transparent supervision provides, there are other benefits. First, having approachable leaders creates a bridge for communication when harder messages are necessary. Whenever our leadership team discussed one of our staff, we always considered this question, “Who is the closest to this person?” The leader with the most intimate relationship should deliver whatever message was needed. 

Second, leaders closeness to their staff members allows them to have a sense of any restlessness or discontent that might be emerging. Knowing the supervisee gives us a heads up for addressing any possible issues before they became entrenched and calcified.

Furthermore, the closeness between staff and leaders creates opportunities to explore where staff skills matched the organization’s needs.

For example, we noticed that a restlessness tends to creep in after about four or five years into a person’s tenure on our staff. This disquiet is natural. Anticipating this turbulence and then discussing it, often allows for creative solutions that work for all.

For some, the antsiness might be assuaged by supervising a practicum student. Or maybe they wanted to explore teaching a graduate course or taking on some new specialty training. Some might enjoy taking on some administrative tasks, such as organizing pieces of training or managing some of our technology. We often were able to find stimulating add-ons that softened the restless urges.

How to structure regular opportunities for staff development

Our staff development program was dependent on the meetings we structured. Elsewhere I have outlined the various meetings we had scheduled each month. (How we used regular meetings for building our culture.) Every month every clinical staff member had these regular meetings: 

  • Individual clinical supervision
  • Administrative supervision (If the supervisor was the same for clinical and administrative oversight, we merged the meetings.)
  • Two local office meetings of two hours each
  • One two-hour all-staff meeting
  • Retreats, picnics, and annual events

This meeting framework gave us the opportunity to invest in staff, individually, and as a group. Once the structure of meetings was in place, then we could work on making the meeting times valuable to all participants. 

What happens in the individual meetings?

We had individual meetings each month to allow for staff development in several ways. First, as I said earlier, we wanted every clinical person firmly attached to someone on the leadership team. Doing so combats the isolating tendencies of private practice. 

The clinical supervision meetings would sometimes focus on a particular set of skills desired by the supervisee. I had some that only brought their struggles with couples or trauma or some other population. But for some, the clinical meetings were rarely about a particular case. Instead, the focus might be on the trials of living in the therapist’s role. And yet other times, it might be about life struggles that are affecting their attentiveness in sessions. 

The goals of supervision meetings were to help the clinician grow into a comfortable, confident therapist. Any method of pursuing that was encouraged.

When an office grew to over ten clinicians, it was difficult for one supervisor to do all the clinical supervision. In those situations, we would have some of our more experienced clinical staff supervise one or two of our newer clinical team members. That meant that in addition to the clinical supervision, these team members would have a monthly meeting with the administrative supervisor, i.e., with the site director. 

These administrative meetings had a little different tone. The primary connection, of course, would be to the clinical supervisor. So then the goal of the administrative meeting was to create the opportunity for a secondary connection to the site director. The director then was checking in on how the adjustment was going and answering any questions. Sometimes we might explore things about the organization, for example, why things happened as they did. Sometimes it felt more social. The goal again was establishing and maintaining a connection with one of the leaders. 

What happens in the office group meetings?

We had two regular group meetings every month. Both contributed to staff development. The first was a meeting with those at each site and was for two hours twice per month. These meetings were more about local issues. The general format was this.

We began each meeting with any administrative issues that might be on the list. This part of the meeting might be about local marketing opportunities or policy or procedure changes, etc. 

The second part of the meeting would be a time of checking in with each other. Sometimes this meant going around the room and sharing what was going on with life. Sometimes it would be more the popcorn method of sharing. 

The third part might be a particular clinical case presentation or clinical topic. There were times we were seeking the group wisdom. Other times the discussion would be a more general topic. The group would often redesigned this part of the meetings as they went along. Creativity was encouraged.  

As a local office got too large to share in this way, say over ten participants, we shifted approach. Instead of a whole group checking in with each other, we broke into topical subgroups. We have had smaller groups on subjects such as couples, trauma, spiritual integration, play therapy, etc. Whatever the group decided was a popular topic was accepted. These smaller groups would take the rest of the time.

What happens in our Monthly All-Staff meetings?

We also had a monthly two-hour All-Staff meeting. We met in a church building once we outgrew any of our offices. In the early days, we did a mix of three elements: admin, team building, and clinical topics. Eventually, we dropped the team building. The admin time stayed as did the clinical presentation. The clinical presentation was on a single topic. Either an outside expert or one of our staff would present.

What happened at the retreats, picnics, and other annual events?

We also regularly had larger events. In September we had an Annual Retreat at a site of-campus, often a camp or retreat center. We spent from 9 am to 3 pm. The one rule was that we did not want to try to improve anything. Rather we wanted to relax, spend time with each other, and enjoy the day. There was often a loose agenda with lots of time to wander, journal, or converse. All was good.

We had an annual Christmas party. Sometimes with was with significant others and sometimes we rented a dining area at a local restaurant. The owner would make a few general comments about the year. Otherwise, again, the focus was on conversation around the table. Very low key.

Some years we also had a summer family event. These might just be grilling out at a park. Or sometimes we met at a small zoo or historical farm in the area. These were harder to schedule because of the nature of summer. The events were a success when they happened but with low attendance.

The emphasis with all these annual events was socializing. They were not mandatory like the individual, local office, and All-Staff meetings. We found that staff enjoyed being together and these events provided another opportunity.

Did these methods develop staff?

As I reflect on what was most effective in growing our clinical and support staff, it was when staff or leadership took a risk, when real sharing occurred. And it seems to me that the most profound sharing happened either during the individual times or in circle or popcorn sharing. When risk-taking happened, the community connections grew. And yet I think all the activities set up the more intimate times. All was part of the process of developing the safety needed to that deeper risk-taking.

In my view, we did accomplish all three of our senses of staff development. First, our staff did mature and grow as people. Second, they did become a community of colleagues working shoulder to shoulder and pitching in when there was a need. And third, they did become more effective, confident clinicians. Furthermore, they would attribute much of their growth in all these areas to the patterns we established via our meetings and structure. 

While there were, at times, resistance to all the time we required, most were glad for the efforts and opportunities. And even if they ultimately would leave for other openings, they still expressed appreciation for the investments made in helping them develop.

For more on managing and growing your staff see these posts:

Our philosophy for working in community

The training we never had–Managing staff

Understanding staff complaints

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