The development dilemma


Over the last 10 years or so we have been helping companies identify the reasons their people leave. Our exit survey data shows that pretty much half of all leavers do so because of a perceived lack of career progression and development.

In parallel I had a coaching session with a newly appointed director this week and one of the issues that arose from his 360 degree feedback was around team members not feeling as though they are being developed, which prompted a discussion around how to do that more effectively.

There were three common, but important beliefs that the director was holding onto.

Belief number 1: Development equals training – “I’ll send them on a course!”.

Well, there is a place for training as I’ll highlight later, but our exit data also shows that even where access to training is rated positively, people still cite lack of development as the reason for leaving. The simple fact is that attending all the training courses in the world won’t take away the routine of doing a job where you feel there is a lack of challenge, no real sense of what the future holds and, even more importantly, that no one cares about your future. Current thinking also suggests that most of our learning at work is done on the job rather than during formal training courses. This is one of the reasons why training doesn’t really work, in addition to the transfer of learning being quite low.

Belief number 2: “But if I develop them they’ll either leave, or they’ll want promotion”.

Well, if you don’t develop them the hard evidence shows that they’ll leave anyway, most likely sooner than they would have done otherwise. And, in the meantime, they won’t really have performed to their potential. Promotion? Of course they’ll want promotion, most people do. Don’t you? If they don’t feel there is a chance of getting it in the future though they’ll leave anyway.

Belief number 3: “But I don’t have the time to develop them as I’m so busy working on the stuff that they’re not capable of doing”.

This is an unbelievably common ‘reason’. It helps explain why managers don’t do one to ones, give feedback, discuss career, coach or delegate. In fact, it pretty much underpins why many managers don’t do any of the basics that make good leadership. Of course everyone is busy, but this results in the mother of all catch 22s. If you don’t spend time developing people they’ll not perform, get frustrated and leave. Which, means you’ll spend all your time checking their work, getting frustrated at their lack of capability and recruiting new people, who won’t perform leading you to spend all your time checking their work, getting frustrated at their lack of capability and recruiting new people……….

Four relatively simple solutions

1.Ensure task capability

Do people know enough to perform in the job? You’d be amazed how many managers get frustrated by poor performance yet have never actually shown people how to do the job. If the job needs someone to create spreadsheets, send them on a spreadsheet course.

Improving task capability means that you’ll be able to delegate more tasks to your team and that they’ll reliably perform to the standard you require. This frees you up to spend some more time on the thing you never have time for – the ‘big picture’.

2. Gradually increase responsibility.

Research shows that people are more motivated when they feel a sense of making progress (I came across this in the Harvard Business Review). This applies to their jobs, but also their development – no one likes to be stuck in a rut. What’s interesting is that doing this well can create a real win:win. One of the sure fire ways to overcome the overload many managers face is to delegate. We’ve already taken care of delegating tasks now that people have task capability. The next step is to delegate responsibility.

Delegating responsibility is about empowering people to deliver the end product, not just steps in the process. If you can achieve this then people will feel stretched. And you’ll be able to shift even more stuff off your plate!

Of course there are certain pre-requisites. Firstly, it must be done gradually – if you simply delegate total responsibility without any support then people will feel overwhelmed and stressed and you’ll end up getting involved again. People also need to not only possess task capability, they also need to be up for it. You also need to be up for it – if you believe your people aren’t really capable you won’t do this properly and you’ll end up micro-managing, which actually disempowers them. Believe that they can give it a go and you’ll find yourself better able to give them some slack.

3. Recognise they’ll need support

You’ve gained experience over many years so your people need to do the same – they won’t be able to go from 0-60 in an instant. They’ll feel nervous and unsure and their first attempt is unlikely to be perfect. Step in and take back responsibility with a sigh and the damage is done. What’s needed here is regular sit downs to review progress, which is why one to ones with people are so important. Ask them how they’ve got on, what they’ve found relatively easy and what they’re finding tough. Explain stuff they don’t know and ask them questions to guide their thinking. Doing this essentially teaches people to think things through in the way you do so over time they’ll stop asking you what you think they should do and come to their own decisions. Hang on a minute, isn’t this coaching, the thing that really good managers tend to be good at, the skill that most companies would like to improve in their managers?

4. Make time to talk career.

One of the most common criticisms our clients have of their managers is that they’re pretty poor at holding good quality one to ones. We’ve already emphasised the importance of one to ones, but the best leaders dedicate time to one to one discussions, not just to talk about task progress, but to talk about the individual employee and what they want to achieve. These are opportunities to provide feedback, enquire about career expectations and plan development activities. You’re extremely unlikely to be able to promise promotion, but you can provide a commitment to help equip your people to be ready for promotion when the opportunity arises. If you can’t provide promotion when they are ready for it then they might still end up leaving, but they’ll have been more engaged in the meantime and they’ll probably hang around for longer than if they thought you weren’t developing them.

  • KatHelen Wickens
    Posted at 19:08h, 09 July Reply

    Great article and really shows that the power of coaching, mentoring and the art of meaningful and powerful conversations cannot be underestimated in any organisation.

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