Fast emerging as the pressing talent challenge of our age is an old, perennial issue: how to accelerate people’s development and help them learn and be ready for progression more quickly.
It is not a new challenge, but it is increasingly becoming a vital one, driven by emerging markets with a need to rapidly develop local talent, technical specialisms with aging workforces, and a desire to minimize reliance on external hiring.
Optimising for success
According to one global survey, 85% of businesses reported an urgent need to accelerate the development of their leaders. In response, money is being invested and programmes are being developed.
Unfortunately, results are hugely variable, with tales of limited impact and individuals being over-promoted. In the face of these failures, it can be tempting to question whether development really is something that can be accelerated.
Despite this, the research is clear. While the rate at which people develop is partially due to inner, individual factors that cannot be easily changed (such as intelligence), it is also determined by external factors that can be controlled. So while the pace at which individuals learn and develop may not be able to exceed a certain level, it can be optimized.
What are these external factors that can influence the rate of development, and how can they be optimized?
1. Identify those who can develop fastest and furthest
Not everyone is equally capable of becoming a high performing leader and some people seem to benefit from development activities more than others. As a result, some people develop faster and further than their peers.
In the face of limited development budgets, being able to identify who these people are can be critical.
The traditional way to do this is to be led by performance ratings, but the ability to perform is not the same as the ability to develop.
A more effective way is to evaluate people’s potential to develop: just evaluating potential and giving feedback on it to individuals can help accelerate their development! Specifically, those who have had their potential objectively and formally assessed, and then received feedback on this, appear to develop faster than people who have not been through this.
Why this is so is not certain, but one obvious possibility is that it can help both firms and individuals identify what they need to develop. The first thing organizations should do to accelerate development is evaluate people’s potential.
2. Individualise development
There was a time when big, generalized leadership development courses were the development solution. This is not so much the case anymore. These one-size-fits-all programmes are still popular and can still add value, of course, but to really accelerate people’s growth, the development offered to them needs to be individually tailored.
Different people have different learning styles and development needs, and so the development activities they experience need to differ too: companies need individual development plans that incorporate a blend of development activities unique to each person!
3. Use stretch roles, projects and experiences
While there is solid evidence that different people benefit from different types of learning activities, there is also evidence that one particular type of activity – stretching roles, projects and experiences – can accelerate development faster than any other; but knowing the value of experience is one thing, finding ways to give it to people is quite another.
All sorts of experiences can accelerate development, though. Role changes are just one kind of stretching experience, and research shows that too many role changes can actually hinder development: the key issue – the thing that makes an experience developmental – is the degree of change or challenge involved.
Any experience that involves this – be it speaking at a senior forum, leading a difficult project, or moving internationally – is likely to be accelerating and incredibly useful.
4. Involve and invest in people’s managers
If you really want to accelerate someone’s development, then a good place to start is with their manager, because research shows that it is the most important scaffolding factor. Managers simply being involved is the first and biggest step here, but they need to go beyond passive involvement.
They need to coach people, helping them reflect on and understand the challenges they are facing. They also need to provide guidance and advice when it is needed, and support and encouragement when things get tough.
Unfortunately, studies show that while over three-quarters of leaders are confident identifying development needs and giving people feedback, less than a third are confident they know how to then help their people improve and get the most from developmental activities and experiences.
Growing awareness of this is why a rapidly growing number of businesses are investing in ensuring managers are better trained to enable, drive and support their people’s development.
5. Make people accountable for developing
Strictly speaking, this also a type of scaffolding, but is so important it deserves its own place on our list. Research shows that the time required for people to develop from a junior role into a mid-level manager can be reduced by an amazing 30% on average just through organizations holding individuals accountable for showing they have learnt and developed from experiences and activities.
Similarly, there is evidence that development can be accelerated by organizations recognizing and rewarding those who show more development. What both approaches require is tracking whether people have genuinely developed on whether performance has improved or behavior has been changed.
One slight embellishment on this is to make individuals identified as high-potential not just accountable for developing themselves, but also for developing their direct reports. The idea is that through doing this, development can be cascaded through the organization. Again though, visibility on progress and accountability are the driving forces.
So – if you want to accelerate people’s development, there are no shortcuts: face these challenges, deal with them following these 5 simple rules and you’ll obtain positive results over the long period.