Investing in mentorship and upskilling employees is the key to building a high-performing team

Panel photo from Future of Work, Insider Event, June 30, 2021
This panel, titled “Mentorship and Upskilling” was moderated by Insider senior editor Chris Weller (l), and featured Annette Richardson, managing partner of Richardson Partners LLC and Suneet Dua, chief product officer at PwC.

  • CEOs are keen to upskill employees, yet one in five haven’t started the journey yet, PwC found.
  • Today’s employees need to become “lifelong learners” and digital citizens, experts told Insider.
  • This was part of Insider’s virtual event “CEOs on How Talent Drives Transformation”, presented by ProEdge, which took place Tuesday.
  • Click here to watch a recording of the full event.

The business case for actively coaching, mentoring, and upskilling all people across an organization is clear.

“The cost of inaction around upskilling and often reskilling is going up,” Annette Richardson, founder and managing partner of consulting firm Richardson Partners LLC, said during Insider’s recent virtual event “CEOs on How Talent Drives Transformation” presented by ProEdge, which took place June 29. “We saw with COVID-19 that we could potentially lose a decade of human gain.”

“This concept of leaving no one behind is really important,” she added.

The panel, titled “Mentorship and upskilling – the two keys to a high-performing workforce,” was moderated by Chris Weller, senior editor of strategy at Insider, and featured Richardson and Suneet Dua, chief product officer at PwC.

In the consulting firm’s recent “Hopes and Fears 2021”survey, 77% of PwC employees said they want new skills, while 60% are worried about digital automation.

CEOs are really concerned about “the key skills of their individuals – but one out of five CEOs in our survey showed that they haven’t done anything about it,” Dua said. “We’re trying to help companies work through the how,” he added.

Dua said that in the context of a hybrid workforce and remote work being here to stay, employees have to be performing at the highest level.

“Your employees have to become what we call lifelong learners,” he said. Once there, he added, “they will graduate to be a digital citizen. That’s where we then transact with automations and bots on a day-to-day basis.”

Dua said PwC has over 270,000 people currently being upskilled and there are about eight to 10 digital disruptive technologies in the world that are going to create these new skills.

“Let’s dispel the myth – it’s not hard to start,” he said. “You don’t have to start with everybody. You should start now.”

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How one Durham-based foundation is investing in North Carolina’s entrepreneurs and growing the state’s innovation footprint

Thom Ruhe and Roy Cooper in suits
Thom Ruhe and Roy Cooper.

  • The NC IDEA foundation supports entrepreneurship and economic development across North Carolina.
  • Using grants, seed funding, mentoring, and other programs, NC IDEA helps entrepreneurs directly.
  • Some initiatives include the NC Black Entrepreneurship Council, NC IDEA SOAR, and NC IDEA LABS.
  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called “Advancing Cities.”

From a non-dairy cheese brand and sustainable oyster-production company to many software, hardware, and social-media firms, the nonprofit NC IDEA invests in a variety of businesses across North Carolina.

Thom Ruhe of NC IDEA headshot
Thom Ruhe.

“It’s a shorter list to tell you what we wouldn’t fund than what we do fund,” Thom Ruhe, NC IDEA’s president and CEO, told Insider.

The Durham, North Carolina-based organization supports entrepreneurship and economic development across the state through grants, seed funding, mentoring, and other programs. Last year, it distributed about $3 million to entrepreneurs – and plans to provide $3.5 million more this year.

Durham is a “national case study for what an entrepreneurial ecosystem can do,” and the region has long been a center for innovation, Ruhe, who previously directed entrepreneurial programs at the Kauffman Foundation, said.

“There’s a lot of collaborative energy here, more than I’ve experienced in other markets,” he said. “It’s refreshing and productive. I know it’s cliche to say, the rising tide argument, but it really has helped here.”

Here’s a look at how NC IDEA invests in entrepreneurs, who the organization believes transform communities and boost local economic development.

Broadening its reach to help more entrepreneurs

NC IDEA is a private foundation that was created in 2006 under the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, a nonprofit connecting North Carolina entrepreneurs to the resources they need. It became independent in 2015.

Unlike other foundations, such as the Gates Foundation or Kauffman Foundation, NC IDEA doesn’t have a benefactor, Ruhe said. The primary source for its endowment came from an equity investment that the state of North Carolina made in the 1990s and liquidated in the early 2000s.

To protect the investment, the private foundation was established to economically empower people through entrepreneurship. NC IDEA’s endowment is invested, and the investment income funds the organization.

Recently, the organization began fundraising, which Ruhe said is “very unusual for private foundations because we’re considered self-funded.” NC IDEA wants to increase its budget so it can fund more companies and cover the administrative cost of reviewing additional applications.

“We could see a greater return if we simply had more budget to allocate,” Ruhe said. “We’re trying to take that message out into the economic development and philanthropic communities within North Carolina to say, ‘If you think there’s value to North Carolina and the activity that we do, you can help us increase the yield by just increasing our programmatic budget.'”

Giving grants to businesses and organizations helping startups

Many foundations either operate programs or provide funding. NC IDEA is unique in that it does both, Ruhe explained.

“Our grant-making is better for what we learn in our programmatic activities, and vice versa,” he said. “All of our programs and grants are targeted at helping people live up to their entrepreneurial potential, and in a broader context, make North Carolina the best state in the nation for people to start and grow firms of economic impact.”

NC IDEA operates two categories of grants. Seed grants and micro-grants of $50,000 and $10,000 are provided directly to entrepreneurs or startup founders.

Grants are awarded to founders to whom the money would “at this particular time be very impactful in their ultimate success,” Ruhe said. It provides assistance to get ideas off the ground or help companies scale to the next level so they can create jobs and generate tax revenue for the state. The grants don’t need to be paid back, and the organization doesn’t receive equity in the business.

Another category of grants is what Ruhe calls B2B, where NC IDEA supports other organizations that help entrepreneurs, such as universities, two-year colleges, cities, counties, and others. The organization has about 60 partners in its network.

Supporting underserved communities

NC IDEA recognizes that economic development in North Carolina is not a one-size-fits-all approach, and the organization strives to support underserved communities. Grants are distributed based on what’s relevant in different parts of the state, whether it’s educational programs, access to capital, or mentoring.

“We have to meet people where they are and help them from that starting point,” Ruhe said. “The best way we could do that was the creation of this ecosystem partner program where organizations that are on the front lines in various parts of the state say, ‘Here in our corner of the state, this is what’s most needed.'”

NC IDEA also created the North Carolina Black Entrepreneurship Council and has committed $1 million to advance Black entrepreneurs in the state. The council and foundation will work together to identify and recommend programs, grant recipients, and partners.

large group of people around table in board room
NC IDEA SOAR Day May 2019.

Another program, NC IDEA SOAR, aims to support women in entrepreneurship. The program offers networking, professional development, and connections to resources to help female founders grow their businesses. There’s also a four-week program called NC IDEA LABS that’s open to anyone wanting to take their business to the next level.

Group of men around a table with laptop
NC IDEA LABS fall 2018.

SOAR and LABS are “traditional accelerator”-type programs, Ruhe said. “It’s specific business-growth assistance around market valuation, customer discovery, lead generation, revenue generation – all the nuts and bolts,” he added.

NC IDEA delivers its programs at no cost, but Ruhe said there’s a competitive application process that involves companies providing details about its founders, the company as a whole, revenue, funding, and the type of grants they’re seeking. The organization receives hundreds of applications during each application period.

Growing North Carolina’s innovation footprint

Since its beginning, NC IDEA has provided about $15 million to companies and partners throughout North Carolina. Ruhe added they’ve supported nearly 500 companies, which have created more than 3,300 jobs and brought many benefits to communities.

Marrying innovation and entrepreneurship offers the biggest economic impact, and he said the state of North Carolina does well cultivating both. As word gets out about the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and it keeps attracting major tech companies like Apple and Google, the region has even more potential for up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

“The greatest natural resource that exists is the entrepreneurial spirit of people,” Ruhe said. “It’ll be entrepreneurs who will solve our biggest problems. It’s entrepreneurs who are creating the companies that create the jobs we so desperately need. That’s why we do what we do.”

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3 ways to inspire and nurture leaders in your organization

Black professional speaking, Black entrepreneur, Black woman
Leaders who encourage professional growth can build a strong team of self-starters.

  • All great leaders were once given the opportunity by another leader to prove themselves.
  • To create a culture of self-starters, employers should find ways to nurture early-career workers.
  • Employees that are prepared to take on leadership roles will help a company steadily develop and grow.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ethical, confident, wise – these are among the many attributes of great leaders, and these attributes usually stem from that leader’s experiences and personal style. But there is one thing all great leaders have in common: At some point in their career, someone believed in them.

Simple as it may seem, this realization can inspire new leadership tactics in great leaders and help them turn their attention to developing their teams.

Here are three tips on how to use your own expertise to build the next generation of leaders for your organization.

1. Present opportunities to your people

When you think about your own trajectory to a position of leadership, you likely got there because you had experiences that others didn’t. It is so important to help others develop themselves, and to start you must give them opportunities to do so.

Opportunities can be presented in a number of different ways. One tactic I use is to share examples of my own experiences – experiences that might inspire new ideas or help someone develop an understanding of the similarities between situations that can help them move forward.

Guiding The UPS Store throughout a global pandemic will be a story I tell for years to come. Our network of franchise owners remained open as essential to serve their communities, a feat that inspires resilience and optimism that can carry you through those more challenging times. I also draw on my experience as a former officer in the Marine Corps to help explain tough conditions and how planning, preparation, and the ability to adapt can help you forge ahead.

Another way to nurture development is to give employees stretch projects beyond their normal day-to-day roles. Let them take the driver’s seat so that they can develop the wisdom and confidence needed to make good judgment calls.

You’ll have to find what feels right and works for your company. Keep in mind that without these opportunities, you could be leaving your employees flat-footed to do their jobs and rise as leaders, both of which impact your organization overall.

2. Recognize your own hesitancies

Know that it’s normal to feel some level of stress when handing over the reins to your team. Whether you are worried about being accountable for someone else, giving up control or becoming a micromanager, you must overcome those feelings to give employees the opportunity to expand and evolve.

Start by identifying the sources of any hesitancy you might have, and then look for solutions to overcome it. If accountability is something you are worried about, is there a way to find shared responsibility within a project? Start by clearly outlining the project goals and then ask your employees to check in with you at specific milestones. By keeping you informed and sharing regular updates, you can have confidence that the project is moving forward and in the right direction while allowing employees to develop their own leadership skills, generate new ideas and build upon new experiences.

Remember that failure is a part of the growth process, and a big proponent of helping employees develop themselves is giving them the space to learn, try, and push beyond their comfort zone. But keep playing the role of coach or adviser to help them gain the knowledge and skills to develop as leaders.

3. Extend your circle of trust

Humans are creatures of habit and that extends to leadership. Once you’ve successfully relied on members of your team to accomplish a big task or launch a new initiative, it can be tempting to go back to the same people to do it all over again. But as new projects arise, it is important to continually identify and leverage the strengths of other employees.

Ask other leaders throughout your organization to recommend people for a project. This practice helps employees gain exposure to new areas of the business, work with a different team and adapt to new team dynamics. By trusting your people to take on new roles, you help foster a culture of integrity and develop leadership skills among a broader base of people.

The best employees are adept at making sound decisions and have the ability to plan, prioritize, and solve problems. It is so important to give people the opportunity for continued professional development. Through these new opportunities, you often reveal strengths in people that you were unaware of, while at the same time, you help to scale your organization with diversity of thought and experiences that can drive your business forward.

Remember, it all started with someone believing in you. Be that person for the teams you lead.

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