The Only Way Forward (Is Up): Promoting an Environment of Continuous Improvement


You love your work. Every day is a new challenge and an unexpected opportunity. But you’ve been around long enough to know that your company is only as strong as its people.

Being a good leader means understanding better than anyone that success isn’t measured by dollars earned or contracts signed. It’s about developing your people. It’s about helping them to be more, to do better, to achieve beyond their best hopes and most ambitious expectations.

Success, in other words, means that your team — and you — never stop growing. It means that no matter how robust your company might be today, you never abandon the upward trajectory. And that means fostering a culture of continual improvement for you and your people.

This article provides the best leadership strategies you can start using today to build an environment of excellence for all the tomorrows to come.

Starting Right

Cultivating a culture of continuous improvement isn’t just for established employees. In fact, it’s best to start at the beginning, with the onboarding process. Those first few days of a new team member’s tenure are perhaps the most important of their entire career, and yet only about 20% of companies actually have a formal onboarding process.

And what that means is that the new recruit’s first experiences on the job are probably going to be haphazard and inefficient, incomplete and inefficient. What it also means is that, as a manager, you’re missing out on a prime opportunity to develop that new talent. After all, we all know that first impressions are everything. That applies as much to professional life as it does to the personal one. When you’re onboarding a new employee, you’re setting the tone for the career to follow.

This is the perfect time to introduce your new hire to the company mission, the particular values, goals, and expectations that drive the organization and unite the people in it. It also prepares the new employee for the continual improvement mindset.

Providing a cohesive, systematic, and formalized onboarding process that delineates career planning as an important attribute of the job function, for example, affirms the significance of continuous learning and ongoing growth within the organization. It also verifies your company’s commitment to supporting its employees, their enrichment, and their successes.

Talk It Over

In work, as in life, relationships live and die based on the quality of the communication between individuals. That’s why optimizing communications will be one of your most important responsibilities as you work to promote an environment of continual improvement.

Effective communication impacts job performance at all organizational levels and across all job functions. And it’s not just about establishing clear policies, detailed handbooks and collaterals, and an effective training and onboarding process for newbies.

It’s also about making sure established personnel have a clear and direct line of communication not only with their peers and subordinates. Perhaps even more importantly, effective internal communications require that all employees, new and old, neophytes and veterans, enjoy unencumbered and productive communication access with their superiors.

After all, your company is a living, dynamic, and evolving thing. As your company’s needs and goals change, your staff has to keep pace. They are, fundamentally, the engine that will be driving that change. But the entire work will come to a screeching halt if the entire team isn’t connected, if they’re not joined, if they’re not engaged, collaborating, and, yes, communicating with one another.

Optimizing communication to drive continual improvement is about more than cohesion. It’s also about transparency It’s about creating safe spaces for bad news. Continual improvement requires risk. And risk, inevitably, means mistakes will happen. Failures will occur as a necessary precondition to success.

But failure can’t give way to success if it can’t be spoken of and subordinates do not have the freedom and security to speak truth to power. When employees don’t have the ability to address painful topics and concerns without fear of reprisal, then failure becomes engulfing quicksand, rather than what it should be: an opportunity for learning, change, and growth.

Supporting Professional Development

The crux of continual improvement, of course, rests on supporting the growth of individual employees. This means providing employees with opportunities and resources to hone existing skills and to cultivate new ones.

This can, and, indeed, should be done in myriad ways. For instance, you can encourage, and perhaps even require (with support) employees to take on challenging new projects that are just a bit beyond their comfort zone or particular area of expertise.

This could include offering bonuses, promotions, salary increases, and other incentives for employees who complete formal training and certification courses. Likewise, employees who may appear reticent to assert themselves publicly might be specifically encouraged and incentivized to attend professional conferences or present at organizational or industry events.

But the responsibility for fostering an environment of continuous improvement doesn’t have to rest on your shoulders alone. In fact, if you really want to demonstrate your company’s commitment to learning and growth, you can’t go wrong by bringing a chief learning officer onboard.

When it comes to creating a culture of corporate learning, the CLO will bring the best of both worlds into the executive suite. The CLO combines both the rigorous academic credentials in fields like training and education with vast industry experience. The CLO, in other words, knows both how to teach and how to do.

That is what the CLO can bring to your team, harnessing her particular expertise to bring out the skills, the talents, the vast capabilities of your employees. She will partner with you and your individual team members to create development plans that will enable your organization, and everyone in it, to excel beyond your — and their — best hopes.

The Takeaway

In an increasingly competitive global business environment, cultivating an environment of continual improvement is essential not just to your company’s success but, often, to its very survival. However, supporting continual development across your organization requires a strategic, multifaceted approach.

It also requires commitment. It is not a one-and-done event. Rather, continual improvement mandates that leaders begin with onboarding and continue their efforts throughout their employees’ tenure with the company.

Continual improvement requires robust communication institution-wide, and this must include free and secure communication between superiors and subordinates. Above all, it means the freedom to speak truth to power when necessary. It means having the transparency and the confidence to discuss challenging issues, to autopsy failures so that a new, better, and more informed strategy can be formed.

Above all, it means harnessing the vast training and development opportunities that exist both within your organization and outside of it. This will also, often, include the retention of a CLO to help you bring out the hidden talents of your team, both as individuals and as a cohesive and high-performing unit.

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