Are workers missing the mark? 6 steps to fixing employee development delusions

There are 6 steps HR should adopt to make employee development effective

Unrealistic expectations make employee development a wasted investment at many companies, according to Marc Effron, who explains that there are six steps HR should adopt to make employee development effective

There’s a yawning gap between the concept of employee development and its execution at most companies. Despite spending billions of dollars on development activities, companies have few tangible benefits to show from their investment. In fact, only 23 per cent of HR professionals rate development planning as being effective in their organisation.

A key challenge is that HR leaders are somewhat delusional about how managers will approach development planning. We think they will set good development plans because we’ve given them resources and training. We’ve told them that experiences matter most, so we trust that they’ll use them as a key development tool. We assume that they believe there’s a business case for developing employees.

Our assumptions about employees are equally unrealistic. We believe that the average employee can accurately guide his or her own development. We assume that they will use the expensive self-learning videos and other resources that we’ve provided. We think that they will diligently pursue the activities listed on their development plan.

These and other delusions guide how HR designs and executes employee development processes and are a primary reason for their limited success. Making development planning work requires that we more accurately assess what’s reasonable and make six changes in how we develop employees.

1. Radically reduce your expectations
There’s little disagreement among HR leaders about the value of employee development. In fact, it’s the primary reason most HR leaders give for being in this profession2. We’ve also spent countless hours building employee development tools and helping others to complete development plans.

“Radically reduce your expectations for what should be accomplished and ask managers to set just one development goal for each employee”

There is a powerful first step in setting realistic expectations:

Set one development goal: It’s unlikely that an employee’s achieving their third most important development goal will deliver anywhere near as much value as completing their most important goal. It’s also unlikely that the average employee will actually complete more than one major development activity. Given those facts, radically reduce your expectations for what should be accomplished and ask managers to set just one development goal for each employee.

That one goal should follow the typical tenets of good goal setting – be measurable, experienced-based (see recommendation #5 below) and achievable. It’s also helpful to state if the development goal is intended primarily to increase current performance or to develop capabilities for a future role. Is having just one development goal setting expectations too low? Maybe. Once 80 per cent of your company is flawlessly completing their one development goal, feel free to increase your expectations.

2. Differentiate your development investment using a talent philosophy
It’s the rare executive team that has discussed and agreed on their company’s talent philosophy or “rules of the road” for managing talent (see What’s your talent philosophy?) A company’s talent philosophy defines the relative importance of performance and behaviours, describes how much they differentiate their development investment and defines how much accountability and transparency they expect in talent management processes.

Focus on differentiation: One part of a talent philosophy describes how your company will invest in employees with different levels of performance and potential. Will high potential employees receive twice the development investment of average potential employees? Five times the investment? How will the investment differ between average performers and high performers?

You can make your talent philosophy real by using a talent investment grid to allocate your company’s developmental opportunities. Think broadly when completing this grid and include not only the obvious development tools like classes and programs, but also powerful developmental levers like exposure to the CEO and Board. The grid should set investment targets, not specific requirements, for those in each of the nine boxes. Your goal is that those with similar levels of potential and performance receive a relatively similar level of investment.

“Transparency about your company’s talent philosophy creates a level playing field by ensuring that everyone knows the rules for success”

Broadly communicate your talent philosophy: It may seem challenging to be transparent about differentiation but we find that executives strongly support this and most employees highly value it. Transparency about your company’s talent philosophy creates a level playing field by ensuring that everyone knows the rules for success.

3. Let managers set development goals
Employee-led development is the default approach in many organisations as a consequence of declining development budgets, reduced HR staff and recalcitrant managers. While seemingly logical and even empowering, employee-led development is the approach that’s least likely to build your organisation’s critical capabilities.

Managers should lead the development process because they’re best positioned to accurately assess their direct reports’ development needs. There’s conclusive science that individuals are the least accurate assessors of their own performance and behaviour. Asking employees to create their own development plan ensures an inaccurate starting point and potentially misdirected efforts.

A manager should also have more accurate insights to which capabilities are critical for the company’s success. They should apply their knowledge about their function’s or group’s needs to create the employee’s development plan. The employee’s interests are inputs to that plan but the organisation’s needs must take precedent.

Does this recommendation shift more work to managers? Absolutely. It shifts to managers’ work that they should have already been doing.

4. Double-down on experiences
While not a scientific fact, it’s widely accepted that we learn more from experiences than from other types of development3. Many companies communicate this belief but few structure development planning to actually enable it. Traditional competency models work against using experiences for development. If success is described in the bite-sized nuggets favoured by competency models then, by definition, the development conversation isn’t about experiences (see the Life After the Competency Model). Shifting your company’s development approach to one that’s focused on experiences requires meaningful effort.

“There’s conclusive science that individuals are the least accurate assessors of their own performance and behaviour”

Two tactics that can help are:

Make experiences the language for development: In the tool you use for development planning, make experiences the default language of development. What is Mary’s experience plan for this year? What one experience does Mary need to achieve to succeed in this role or advance to another? What one development experience will you give Mary this year? How will you measure the success of Mary’s experience? This may seem like a facile approach but it reinforces that experience is synonymous with development.

Competency models define job success as gaining static pieces of knowledge or skills (i.e. strategic agility, political savvy). Experiences describe what must be demonstrated to prove that competence (i.e. create a new product marketing plan, manage a project across diverse geographies). These are two very different approaches and the average manager isn’t able to create a development plan that bridges them. Ask any manager who suggests a non-experience based development activity to include a sentence in the development plan describing why they aren’t able to use an experience to achieve that development goal. (Note: An “education experience” doesn’t count!)

Create experience maps: Shifting your organisation to experience-based development is far easier if you create “experience maps” for each function. An experience map describes the five to ten key experiences that are the building blocks of success for a function. These maps are practical, experience-based guides for development and career planning. They make it far easier to emphasise development through experiences because career paths are defined by those experiences, not by competencies.

5. Create development plans in talent reviews
Development plans often fail because individual managers either lack the ability to create a strong plan or don’t follow through on the plans they do create. You can solve both problems by shifting development planning into the talent review calibration meeting. A typical talent review calibration meeting includes at least a brief conversation about everyone listed on the performance and potential grid. The meeting participants discuss the individual’s strengths and weaknesses and come to agreement on his or her potential to advance.

With these facts on the table it’s the ideal time to ask, “What one development experience would best accelerate Suzy’s performance or career growth?” This discussion will produce a superior development plan because you’ve tapped into the collective wisdom of the group. Not only will more development ideas likely surface, the collective input of the group should neutralise any of the direct manager’s biases.

“Development plans often fail because individual managers either lack the ability to create a strong plan or don’t follow through on the plans they do create”

The group’s decision should become the individual’s development plan and be recorded as the group’s commitment to develop them. Recording this development commitment and revisiting it at the next talent review meeting also helps to ensure accountability for follow through.  While not every employee can be discussed in a talent review process, those that are can receive a meaningfully better development plan.

6. Make managers accountable for development
Development plans typically crash at the intersection of good intentions and busy managers. We shouldn’t assume this situation will change until we clarify who’s accountable, for what and with what consequences.

Managers are accountable: It’s a manager’s job to ensure that their employees are being developed both to perform their current job and, if appropriate, their next role. If an employee doesn’t complete their one development step, primary responsibility lies with the manager. The manager is accountable because their role is to ensure that the organisation has the capabilities it needs to win. If they fail in their efforts to build those capabilities – independent of the reasons why – they need to take accountability.

Why isn’t the employee accountable? They are, but in a different way. The employee who resists efforts to (or isn’t capable of) improve their performance or behaviours is sending a clear signal about their future value to the organisation. Their consequence is a plateaued career or a pink-slip in the next round of layoffs.

For just the upper half: Let’s make this even easier! If your organisation considers it a burden to hold managers accountable to develop every direct report, only hold them accountable to develop half of their team. The upper half likely includes the high performers, high potentials and those with critical skills – those categories where you likely want to invest more anyway. While it may seem a bit Machiavellian, this reduces a manager’s burden to an embarrassingly easy level. They simply need to set an experience goal for everyone in the upper half of their group and ensure that it’s completed.

For actual completion of the experience: The manager’s accountability is that the employee actually completes the development experience. One can assess completion in a multitude of ways but one suggestion is for the manager’s manager to assess this using data that the manager provides.

With career consequences: Accountability means little unless there are meaningful consequences for achieving or not achieving a result. The consequence for employee development results should be the acceleration or deceleration of career growth. A manager’s proven ability to grow talent, over time, should be a key criterion in the talent review discussion about potential to advance. Its weight should be at least enough to “round up” or “round down” a potential rating.

The business case for employee development is both intuitive and compelling. It’s essential to produce the capabilities a company needs to remain competitive. It’s a primary driver of employee engagement. It can quickly improve an individual’s performance and behaviours. A recent academic meta-analysis even showed statistically significant links between skill-building and improved financial and operational outcomes.

Yet no matter how compelling the business case, employee development will become effective only when we align our mindset and practices with corporate reality.

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