In a recent column, I wrote about my reaction to a recent Conference Board Study that cited human capital as the biggest challenge for CEOs in 2014. The article went on to cite three particularly challenging aspects of human capital management: engagement, development and retention. In the first column, I said that I would come back and talk about how to “do development” in a later column. That column is now.

In the first column, I described my experience with line managers who wanted to develop their people but did not know how. The Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro has focused on manager/leader development for the last 40 years. In the 1980s, three of the center’s faculty members, Mike Lombardo, Anne Morrison and Morgan McCall, published a book entitled, “The Lessons of Experience.” The most significant finding in the book was that the place where most executives learn and develop is on the job. I remember when I first read the book and mentioned that finding to some of my “line” executive customers. Their response was, “No kidding.”

So if on the job is the place where most managers learn and develop, why do companies spend so much time and money on training? In later work, Lombardo and Bob Eichinger of Lominger fame asked executives where their development occurred. The executives claimed that they got 70 percent of their development on the job, 20 percent on dealings with other people (good and bad bosses, for example), and 10 percent of their development from training. So the good news is that we know where people develop; the problem is that bosses don’t know how to develop their employees other than to throw them into these assignments.

If you are trying to give someone experience with turning around a business that is in trouble, you put them in a turnaround situation. Is that the only developmental opportunity in a turnaround? The answer is no. Turnarounds require the person in charge to think on his feet, think strategically, influence others, communicate clearly, hold people accountable, drive for results, use diagnostic skills and separate the most important issues to address from the least important issues. I know this is not an exhaustive list. The point is we would have missed most of the real developmental opportunities in this situation if we had stopped by describing it just as a turnaround.

For managers to get better at development (and yes, this is part of their job) they have to think more strategically and diagnostically. They need to think more broadly during the performance management process as they look to their people and the year ahead. What skills/competencies does this person need to take them to the next level? Set aside some time and ask yourself:

  • First, what are the objectives/project/assignments that I have at my disposal over the coming year? I would suggest you catalog them.
  • Second, for each of those projects and assignments, what skills/competencies are required to execute the projects and assignments? Now you need to match people to assignments. And you need to tell the person, “The reason I am giving you this assignment is because if you do it well, you will be required to demonstrate competency X, Y and Z. You remember from our performance discussion two weeks ago that I said these were the things you needed to develop to move to the next level. The reason I am giving you this assignment is so that you can work on these skills. When we get together to talk about your progress on this assignment I would like you to talk in terms of how you have demonstrated these competencies. “

So let’s go back to where we started. The Conference Board indicated that the biggest challenges for CEOs in 2014 involve human capital. Looking deeper, CEOs said they were concerned about engagement, retention and development. My experience has been that senior managers agree about the importance of development but claim they don’t know how to do it. It is not terribly complicated, but it does require a manager to be clear on what skills their people need to develop.  A manager also needs to think about the skills needed to accomplish the developmental opportunities at their disposal. 

It is that combination of matching development needs and job opportunities that will enable managers to be better developers of their people going forward.

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