“I have three millennials on my staff,” said Renee, “and I know they’re restless. I’ve got to give them better development opportunities. For that matter, I’ve got to do it with all my staff. I’m overwhelmed, and they’re eager to do more, but they need some maturing. I just don’t know where to start. Should I send them to a class?”
Well, Renee, the class might indeed be a good idea – but it’s not a first step.
Renee has already taken the first step – she genuinely wants to support her staff in their development. But she admits she doesn’t know how to get started. And this is a common difficulty we hear in our work. So as we explore how Renee and you can be good people developers, let’s kick it up a notch – how can you be extraordinary, inspiring people developers? How can you take people not just the next incremental step, but help them see the entire path and how they can navigate it? Here’s what the best people developers do:
Help them define a vision for themselves
- Dream big dreams with them. As people learn to be leaders, they begin just as we did as new drivers, looking over the hood of the car to just what is in front of us. Your job is to lift their eyes not just down the street, or even around the next curve, but to the beautiful destination in the distance – helping them to craft their own vision of the leader they want to be: what values they really espouse, what legacy they want to leave, what competencies they want to master and demonstrate, what creativity and innovation they want to express. Great people developers help their reports think outside their own boxes. Steve Jobs was notorious for pushing the ‘big dream’ envelope with his reports by asking a different kind of question. When Apple decided to adopt a retail store model, he asked, “How can we reinvent the store?” Big dreams instill passion, help people to see that they can be and do more, and inspire them to leap-frog their own limitations.
- Set high expectations. Give them scary assignments that stretch their confidence, giving them the support and resources to assure their success. Take them beyond incremental growth. Nothing proves to be better development than trying something big and succeeding.
- Focus on strengths and unique abilities. All people have the tendency to dig into what they know to be their weaknesses. Keep pointing out what makes them unique and powerful, and give them work that shows those capabilities to best advantage. Help them to build bridges over their weaknesses instead of wallowing in them.
Help them to get where they (not you) want to go
- Keep development efforts focused on their Author Daniel Pink points out that the ultimate motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Keep your development efforts focused on giving your leaders more of these three motivators as they relate to what you know about their own goals. Take care to not push your organizational goals at them in lieu of meeting their needs. If you need someone to fill a crucial project leadership role, your pitch should not be about the big hole you want to plug or the fear of the division’s failure if the project’s not carried out well. Instead, “This effort needs someone who can pick it up and run with it without a lot of oversight; you’ve said you really want to try your hand at leading a corporate-level project; this effort, if we can pull it off, can tremendously advance the ability of our company to put needed drugs in the hands of people who can’t afford to pay retail price for them. I’d like you to take it because I believe you’re the one who can do it – and I commit to support you if you take this assignment.”
- Build competencies all the time. Establish a plan for development of their capabilities. Identify what they want to improve or build on, and select the right way to approach it. If the need is for skills – like project management or budgeting or regulatory requirements – Renee’s question about a class comes into play as an appropriate option. And when the desired improvement is in areas like people management or conflict management or negotiating with others, more applied options will better serve the purpose, such as coaching or mentoring. But keep the development plan updated, assessed periodically for progress, and the development actions in continual play.
- Help them make connections that matter. Introduce them to people who will expand their ideas and flesh them out; to people who will find potential stumbling blocks and help to clear them; to people who might otherwise be detractors if not involved in their work. Give them credibility as they meet people; know the story you want to tell about your leader, and make sure you tell it each time you make an introduction.
- Be a sounding board. While both you and they want autonomy, leaders also need a place to go to try out their ideas and approaches. Make it clear you are open to this role, and that you see your value as twofold: helping them to assure they are thinking at the highest possible strategic level, and helping to draw out blind spots in their thinking. As soon as you micro-critique their work, you’ve lost your power as a great sounding board.
Help to remove obstacles in their path to growth
- Help them navigate the political landscape. Instill a mindset that organizational politics is an interesting challenge in the leadership world, something to be factored into the leadership behavioral equation, not a frustrating curse to be endured. Give them insights into how people think and why; what the groupings are around issues; where there are unspoken ‘rules’; what topics are considered dangerous or off bounds and how to approach them when needed. Knowledge about the political landscape helps to make it less chaotic. To help them get through the maze unscathed, mentor them, or take them to others who can aid in their mentoring.
- Point them away from danger zones. Eager leaders will sometimes push forward with a zeal that can take them into dicey territory, like head-on challenges to a rigid senior leader. Help them understand right timing and right approach to difficult situations. Give them kudos for the vision, and help them to find ways to accomplish it without compromising their careers.
Help them to see their growth
- Underscore what they may overlook about themselves. Growth is hard, and we are hard on ourselves. Keep pointing out the traits and strengths they may not see, and how those are contributing to their personal advancement. Express confidence, even when they are under-confident, and be clear about what makes you feel assured about their success.
- Give them a yardstick. It’s difficult to see our own growth. Periodically revisit the goals they set for themselves and ask them to identify the ways in which they’ve changed/advanced. Add to their observations with your own. Ask them to plant a marker on how far they’ve come from where they started to where they hope to be, and celebrate with them what will certainly be significant growth!
Inspiring people developers are treasured assets – to the people they develop, to their organizations, and in their own fulfillment. Yes, it takes time. It also yields enormous rewards in spreading the work, building a team that functions at an optimal level, and in building an organization renowned for both satisfaction and off-the-charts performance. Take it on. You’ll never regret it.
Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant
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