Perhaps the wisest investment a company can make is in its employees. Coaching and mentoring the employees you already have pays dividends in more ways than one – you create a pool of talent that you can draw from as needed, develop a loyalty that reduces turnover and increases morale and productivity, and foster an environment of continuous improvement that can impact your product or service offering. If you don’t already have an employee development plan and don’t know where to start, these are some key points to keep in mind to avoid becoming overwhelmed:

Start with your performance review process.

Feedback and communication are key with employee development plans, and annual reviews are a good starting point. Do not make these a one-way street, as this is an ideal time to get an idea from your employee about what he or she enjoys most and what they want to learn more about. This is a gold mine for the manager! You might find that one of your customer service reps is really interested in learning more about the technical support side of your product or that your production lead is going to school at night to study accounting. If you don’t know and take advantage of these goals up front, you might find out about them when these employees give their notice for opportunities that more closely align with what they would like to be doing.

Empower your employees.

Once you decide together what the short- and long-term goals are, determine how best to reach those goals. Classes and seminars have their places, but the best learning takes place in the real environment of your company. Job shadowing, cross-training, and working with a department or process mentor are all great ways for an employee to increase their knowledge and experience with your company.

Set up regular meeting times with your employees – these could be informal weekly or monthly “check-ins” as well as more structured quarterly or semi-annual “mini reviews”. This allows you to have employees provide self-assessments on their progress toward their goals so you can help support them so they don’t lose steam or flounder, unsure of what they should be doing. It’s important for managers to provide suggestions, help employees set timeframes, and identify potential obstacles in their paths, but putting your employees in charge of their own progress can give them the sense of empowerment that comes from holding your future in your own hands.

Get out of your comfort zone to help employees get out of theirs.

We all have our “go to” employee for a task: the one to set up or change a machine, the one to give a presentation to a customer, the one to train new people, the one to get it done the fastest and with the fewest mistakes. Managers need to make a conscious decision to let go of their go-to gal or guy, and to give other employees a chance to up their game. If it works for your company, or even for just a specific department, consider job rotation so no one gets too comfortable or complacent, and everyone has the chance to try something new to find what they like best. This is another opportunity to engage your employees, as you can enlist people to be mentors and to identify those they believe would be the best suited for a particular task. You might be surprised by the choices you’re presented with!

Consider a tuition reimbursement plan.

While most employee development will take place within a given department, investing in your employees also means having a wider pool to look in when trying to promote from within company-wide. You might discover that one of your best choices for a new HR specialist is currently sitting in the receptionist chair, unable to afford the degree he needs to apply for the job. A college education is a prohibitively expensive choice for many adults, and offering this as a benefit allows you to have a better selection of applicants to start with and a known asset when someone is ready to move ahead in your company. This type of plan can also decrease turnover, as most stipulate that an employee must stay with the company for a certain amount of time after reimbursement or risk having to repay the tuition.

This is an ongoing task.

Especially in today’s high tech world, training is an ongoing proposition, and choosing the type of training through an alignment of company and employee goals is just smart business. Employee development done correctly is an expensive investment, but the reduction in turnover, the increased employee loyalty and productivity, and the higher-caliber and more highly-trained workforce that result from it make the effort and expense worthwhile.