by: Travis Marsh

The tension in training

For many years, leaders have invested time, energy, and effort into attracting, recruiting, and retaining the best and the brightest. They’re all looking for the most effective employees, whether from knowledge or experience. This approach is anchored in the belief that a small percentage of the workforce, those with leadership potential or deep knowledge, are worth the investment.

There’s a tension inherent in developing people. Here’s the tension as expressed from a very progressive leader I work with. He said, with full conviction, “We need to give people challenges to expand the capability of the team.” And not 20 seconds later said “there’s no one on the team that we can risk giving a bigger role to. They just don’t have the demonstrated capacity.” Growth stretches people, and we don’t know if they’ll succeed in their new shape But the best people became the best through growth, and if we want people to grow to be able to help the team more, we have to find a way to embrace that risk. Stretching people is how we collectively find out if the new shape suits them and the team better.

Along the way, we just have to avoid catastrophic organizational failure. 

Now let’s look at two different traditional ways companies approach development.

  1. Uniform training – There’s a need, and if it’s important, it’s important for everyone in this or that role to learn how to do it. Everyone on the software team needs to learn Ruby on Rails. Everybody in the CSR department needs to have basic customer service and sales skills. And the best way to keep costs down is to train everyone at once.

  2. Bespoke training – This is often reserved for ‘high potential’ employees. Let’s do leadership training for our ‘future leaders’. It should include stretch assignments and rotations. At the highest levels, this looks like getting custom coaching for executives. This method illustrates that training can be accelerated for individuals by customizing the curriculum. Bespoke training tends to leverage people’s natural strengths and because of that can have a bigger impact.

Turning Training into Personal Development

Nothing is wrong with either of these approaches. However, there’s a massive miss by not leveraging something that’s both more bespoke and more scalable. Great training should be able to address needs that are important for the organization, but the training should be able to do it in a way that leverages someone’s unique talents. It doesn’t have to be challenging, but it does require some thought. 

Here’s are three key elements for personalized development that can scale to everyone in the company.

Know the company goals – You have to know what the organization trying to achieve in order for the best personal development goals. If the company goal is growing revenue, not every goal has to be perfectly in line with that specific goal, but over half of people’s individual goals should contribute to a meaningful company, or else the larger goal will never be achieved.

Marco specialties, a growing eCommerce company in South Carolina, tackled the challenge of aligning the company around specific goals by creating their five top ‘rocks’ for the company, and their two to three top rocks for each individual team. They now update these goals on a quarterly basis. They got buy-in at the exec level, and now everybody can see what’s most important for the company.

Look at an individual’s current strengths and growth opportunities – Uncover what is going to be useful for each individual to work on. It should absolutely include someone’s strengths and talents, and can also include a development area. Strength’s based assessments are great at this.

A culture of feedback is also very helpful.

Galen Eye Center, a growing eye clinic that had to change and adapt dramatically in the time of Covid, created a view of people’s personal strengths and development areas by doing 360’s for the entire leadership team. This helped illuminate where people’s strength’s could fit into organizational priorities. When they did this view they could see that there was an opportunity for everyone on the leadership team to communicate more broadly to the rest of the team. They could also see how each person’s unique strengths could be used to achieve this team wide need.

Combine and make concrete – This is where the magic happens. Have a conversation with the company goals and the individual development goals visible. It’s easiest to keep a wide variety of company goals and only a few personal strengths and growth opportunities. Typically this conversation has been relegated to the role of the manager or positional leader. But there’s no reason that anyone with a bit of creativity and care and ability to hold space to create an environment for open curiosity and reflection couldn’t do this.

Here are some questions that can help in the final conversation

  • What outcome do I/we/you desire that has not yet been achieved?

  • Where do I/we/you need to develop to achieve this outcome?

  • What new thing do I/we/you want to work on and learn about together?

  • How does this area of development link to the business and support it to flourish?

  • How can our colleagues support me/you/us in deliberately finding places to practice this?

  • In what ways do I/you/we need to be supported?

A final thought on personal development:

CFO: What happens if we train them and they leave?
CEO: What happens if we don’t and they stay?

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