Developing others is a leadership competency of increasing importance; however, many managers don't really know where to start.

The first step in developing others is to put in place an employee development framework that encompasses processes, resources, and a culture that values learning and development. Many organizations have accomplished this but have failed to follow through by equipping their managers with the skills and knowledge they need to develop their direct reports.

A fairly small investment in improving managers' skills can produce significant improvements in the effectiveness of employee development programs, offering an attractive bargain to companies in these tough economic times.

Sharon Daniels, CEO of AchieveGlobal, sees a difference between coaching and mentoring, and developing others. She says that "organizations must have a broader focus to do a good job developing their employees. The culture, starting at the top, must attach importance to developing people. Setting expectations through the performance management process and reinforcing them through rewards and recognition are critical for embedding these priorities in the culture, and managers need to be held accountable for supporting the development of their staff."

Daniels also points out that senior leadership should avoid weighing managers down with administrative duties so that they have time to develop their staff.

Competency models and career paths

Employees and managers need to know what skills are required for successful job performance and the paths to take for development and career advancement.

Competency models for jobs and a career path or career map provide this information. In working with clients, Daniels has encountered many companies that don't have competency models for managers. Some that do use competencies have failed to align them with what is needed for successfully achieving their organization's strategic goals.

At Fluor Corporation, according to Jennifer Large, executive director of talent development, "employees are provided with a 'developmental framework' that is between one and two pages for each job function. The developmental framework for management and leadership is owned by the dean of the School of Leadership and is housed in Fluor University, where more than 47 different functional frameworks are available to employees. The framework specifies the required and recommended training, experiences, documents, and reading, plus performance competencies for each of three levels: entry-level supervisors; mid-level managers; and senior-level leadership." Fluor emphasizes the experiential piece as the most critical part of learning.

The performance management process

The competencies required to get the work done should be the focus of the performance management program. For managers and leaders, the competency models should emphasize soft skills, including coaching and developing people. According to Alan A. Malinchak, chief learning officer at ManTech International Corporation, "coaching skills don't come naturally to most managers. Finding the time for coaching is a big challenge. Organizations that have a clear talent management strategy to grow talent internally versus hiring from the outside will have a greater effect on succession planning through the development and performance of their employees. A performance management program that gives priority to succession planning and developing people will go a long way toward helping managers find the time to support the development of their direct reports."

Promotion, recognition, and rewards

Promotion decisions and performance rewards should be anchored in the competencies that align with business success. Large considers this to be a major challenge in the United States. She observes that in making promotion decisions, Americans tend to equate performance with potential. Many times, this results in promoting people who are good technically, but not necessarily proven leaders, to management positions.

The Fluor Corporation is now considering the use of learning agility to assess leadership potential. Large explains that "the thought is that an additional tool to measure competencies such as innovation management, dealing with ambiguity, perspective, and listening and learning on the fly, will help to better assess for potential."

Access to resources for learning and development

Just-in-time learning opportunities through e-learning are an essential part of a learning framework. Usually delivered through a learning management system, training modules can be taken alone or in combination with classroom training. When used in conjunction with Web 2.0 options such as online chats, wikis, and microblogging, online learning can foster collaboration and connections that would be impossible to achieve through face-to-face interaction.

Most organizations offer some kind of reimbursement for college tuition for studies that are job related. Professional certifications are growing in popularity and are another valuable source of employee development. For senior employees, attendance at professional society meetings and conferences allows them to stay current in their field. These activities are also a good source of networking and may help with business development as well.

Organizations that have built a framework for learning and development also need to equip managers with the skills to support the development of their direct reports. At Fluor Corporation, Large is leading a sustained effort to get to the point where managers understand the vital role they play in developing people. Coaching and feedback skills have long been recognized as fundamental to good management of people, and in the past several years we have seen a welcome resurgence of interest in coaching and mentoring. But to be effective in developing their direct reports, managers also need to understand the development process in a workplace setting, the important role that managers play in the process, and how adults learn.

The key elements of successful development at the level of the individual learner are well established. The following must be available to the learner:

  • information about his learning needs
  • the ability to set developmental goals, identify resources needed to achieve them, and prepare an effective development plan
  • support for development and feedback on progress
  • opportunities to try out and apply new skills and knowledge and to improve existing skills through practice.

The learner's manager should be involved in all areas, and this is particularly critical for the last two elements (providing support and feedback and providing opportunities to apply what has been learned).

Identifying individual learning and development needs

The starting point for preparing a development plan is finding information about the employee's development needs. One source of this information is the manager's performance appraisal. But managers tend to focus on what the employee accomplishes in the job rather than how she gets work done. A 360-degree multirater feedback assessment can provide valuable feedback on development needs from the perspectives of direct reports, peers, and customers.

Perhaps the most accurate way to collect data on development needs is through an assessment center, which is a competency assessment based on a simulation of real-life work situations. Unfortunately, this option is costly. However, there are lower-cost options available, ranging from simple paper and pencil assessments to online surveys that pinpoint areas that need development. Employee self assessments also are a good starting point.

Setting objectives and planning development

An individual development plan should include the following:

  • clear linkage between the competencies being developed and business goals and objectives
  • objectives that specify in measurable terms what is to be learned or developed
  • list of learning and development activities that will be undertaken to achieve each objective
  • identification of resources and support needed to implement the plan successfully
  • identification of barriers or difficulties that might be encountered and ideas on how to overcome them.

Having good development objectives is the most important part of the development plan. The objectives should be specific, measurable, and actionable. Rather than writing, for example, "Jane needs to improve her presentation skills," state the objective as follows: "Jane is able to deliver a technical briefing to a senior level audience that communicates the information in a manner that is clear, concise, and understandable." This formulation gives Jane and her manager something to focus on and measure. The behavioral indicators used to define competencies can be an excellent source of wording for development objectives.

Managers should help their direct reports prepare their development plans. They can arrange stretch assignments, temporary or rotational assignments, and other developmental activities such as shadowing opportunities or special projects.

Development support and feedback

This is perhaps the most critical aspect of the manager's role in developing others. An inherent tension exists between performance and learning in the workplace. It is difficult to find time for learning, and planned training or development activities often are pushed aside by urgent business needs. A rescheduled client meeting, for example, always will take precedence over learning activities. Managers can help make sure that sufficient time is provided to the employee for learning and development activities.

Another way to deal with time limitations is to build learning into work. This avoids the "down time" associated with formal training activities but, perhaps most important, creates the most effective learning experience. Again, the manager is key in facilitating a learning process grounded in real work.

The learning cycle often is short-circuited by a lack of feedback or by inadequate feedback on performance. Practice should be followed by feedback. The task should be repeated until a satisfactory level of proficiency is achieved, with feedback provided to the learner each time. Sometimes feedback is fairly automatic; for example, the frequency and type of questions posed by the audience during a presentation can pinpoint problems and areas needing improvement.

In many cases, however, the learner must rely on others to provide specific information about the nature of problems or errors, why they occurred, and how to avoid or correct them in future repetitions. The manager is often the best source of this feedback.

Opportunities to apply new knowledge and skills

The role of the manager is critical since she has the ability to assign work that will give the employee a chance to apply new skills and knowledge. This may involve decisions about which projects or tasks within a project will provide the best opportunity for practice. Or, opportunities to apply new learning may involve special assignments, briefings or presentations, temporary details, or "stretch" assignments.

Managers can also create a safe environment in which it is okay to make mistakes: Significant learning can occur with little risk to the organization's mission. This is important since much of learning is accomplished through trial and error.

The components of an employee development framework are mutually reinforcing. A company's learning management system, for example, should guide employees toward courses that are tied to business needs and the competencies related to their job. Managers will devote time and effort to developing their direct reports if they know that they will be evaluated and rewarded based in part on that aspect of their job.

While many organizations have made impressive investments in establishing a framework for employee development, they may not be realizing the full benefits because managers don't know how to develop their direct reports or don't view it as a priority. Successful employee development requires both a framework and a management team that understands the development process and possesses the skills needed to develop others.

By making managers more effective in developing their direct reports, organizations can help increase the return on what are often sizeable investments in employee development.T+D