People Development Strategy for Startups | Tory Burch Foundation

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People Development Strategy for Startups

A holistic approach to fostering employee satisfaction and keeping the best people on your team.

Employees’ salaries and benefits account for 70% of a business’ overhead, on average. Your employees are also a critical resource when it comes to advancing your company. “Our ability to focus on people is the way that we can build our businesses to the next level of impact,” explained Reimagine Talent Co. founder and Tory Burch Fellow Chelsea C. Williams in a recent webinar. She spoke to our community about small business people development, company culture, and how leadership impacts both areas. 

What is people development?

People development is defined as the “deliberate strategic processes of enhancing skills, knowledge, capabilities, and overall potential of individuals.” 

Williams believes people development also needs to account for the things happening outside of the workplace. “The reality of what is happening [externally] has a direct impact on our people, their engagement, their development, and how we can keep them involved or retained within our organization.” She went on, “I want to encourage us [so] that we build a muscle of communication on the events and experiences that are taking place in the world, because our people are thinking about that.” Williams agreed it can be hard to know the right thing to say, but it’s important to show team members, including contract and hourly employees, that you understand that they have concerns outside the office. 

What do employees want?

Jobseekers and current employees seek purposeful work, work that aligns with their values, a clear vision of where the company is going and a sense of belonging, explained Williams. Conversely, the top five reasons people leave jobs are poor leadership, poor work-life balance, a toxic workplace culture, low pay and few opportunities for professional development. These factors make intentional people development all the more critical. 

While it’s important to understand these major trends and how they show up in your business, it’s also important that founders and leaders understand the specific values of their employees, even if they have just one person on their team. Surveys and one-on-one meetings are great ways to start that research. “Leading and managing teams is a contact sport,” she said. 

Strong leadership is part of people development.

Employees need to know where they’re going in order to thrive, which is where leadership becomes impactful, focused leadership comes in. Williams pointed to the Center for Creative Leadership’s DAC framework as a helpful guideline for founders and other leaders. 

  • Direction: “Where is your organization going and what mindset, skill-set, and capabilities will help your team get there?”
  • Alignment:  “Where do collaboration and ideation happen cross-functionally?”
  • Commitment: “In what ways are your team members accountable for their impact?”

If a leader can nail down answers to these questions, they can guide teams and help individuals see where they fit, or grow to fit, into an organization’s future. 

Additionally, self-awareness and self-care are key parts of being a strong, effective leader. “There is a direct connection between how we grow as leaders and how we support the development of our people. It has become so real to me that when I neglect to focus on my leadership, that building and how I show up, that trickles down to my team and my people,” Williams shared. She recommends entrepreneurs find fellow business owners to offer peer support, working with a business coach and, if necessary, therapy.

What does people development look like in action?

Williams stressed the importance of cultivating a learning environment, so that employees know their growth matters to their employer. These common people development activities can be part of your company’s strategy. 

Job shadowing and rotation

Job shadowing entails an employee observing and learning, usually from an expert, whereas job rotation gives an employee hands-on experience in a different role. These activities challenge employees to think in new ways and see how they can expand their existing skills. 

Self-paced learning

There is lots of free content (like our webinars!) on YouTube. Platforms like Grow with Google, Skillshare and Coursera also offer low-cost self-paced courses. 


Both official and unofficial mentorship programs can prove invaluable to employees. Some professional associations may offer small business discounts on membership fees. Williams likes LinkedIn groups as a no-cost way to access mentorship. 

Targeted skill-building experiences 

Live classes and conferences are also great learning opportunities. Your local government may even offer grants for educating employees.


Feedback is an important development tool, and employees seek it out. Get into the habit of providing feedback on a regular basis. That includes praise for a job well done! If the feedback is about something they can improve, be sure to frame in such a way that a team member knows there’s a way forward. It also helps to put that person’s performance or contributions in the context of the team or company as a whole.

Peer coaching

Give employees the chance to learn from each other. Not only will they acquire new skills, they will also practice sharing effective feedback.

Development opportunities, especially ones that focus on particular skills, can lead to staff members performing additional job functions, saving your business the expense of hiring another person. However, it’s important to offer incentives for impact and communicate appreciation.

Build your hiring and people development strategy.

Ready to make people development a priority for your small business? Williams shared these steps for you to get started.  

Assess what you’re doing well.

How are you already making your team feel valued? Celebrate that and build on it, if possible. 

Review your current organization chart

Your organization chart is a simple graphic that shows which roles fall into which departments and who manages whom. “If you’re a larger organization with an HR team, they’re likely already doing that. But for us high-growth small businesses and startups, we really need to know where things are moving and working amongst our team,” Williams said. Take the time to assess the engagement, performance productivity and values of the people on the org chart.

Determine what gaps you need to fill.

Are there job functions or major initiatives you’ll need help with in the next six, 12 or 18 months? “Get ready for your upgrade before you think you need it,” advised Williams. Consider supporting your current employees in developing the necessary skills. If you want to open a new role, you should have the responsibilities outlined, “because you don’t know when you’ll meet the right person for the role,” William said. 

Lay out the objectives and key results and key performance indicators

How will you measure the success of existing and future team members? Align those to the overall strategy. Remember, metrics will look different for different roles. 

No matter the size of your team, a focus on people strategy will strengthen your company.  “The more you start to get aware of this early, the more you’re preparing yourself for scale later, because you’ve already thought about these foundational pieces” of your people development plan, Williams explained.