Last Updated on August 20, 2021 – 9:12 am

Developing employees is one of the most rewarding things a leader can do. Google’s people analytics team examined data from thousands of employee surveys and reviews to find out behaviors of most effective management. Coaching was top on the list that also included helping people grow. A Gallup research found out that teams in which employees report that their supervisor talks to them about their career progress, encourage their development, and provides opportunities to learn and grow have lower turnover and higher productivity than teams in which employees report that these developmental elements are scarce.

Here are five ways you can use it to develop your employees.

Help them create an effective development plan. 

The Corporate Leadership Council examined 17 different development interventions in the “Voice of the Leader” study. One of the two most influential development actions turned out to be the existence of an individual development plan (IDP). Yet, in too many organizations, development plans have become little more than paperwork required by the HR department. The authors of Real-Time Leadership Development argue, “We propose that the single best strategy you have at your disposal to drive on-the-job development into the DNA of your organization is to encourage all employees to create an individual development plan (IDP).” The best way to start developing employees is by helping them create a development plan.

Learn more about development plans and employee development; check out our white paper, People Development Report 2021.

Help them set the right development goal.

An individual development plan (IDP) starts with a goal. And studies reveal that just setting goals make a difference. A management study at AT&T followed the progression of leaders over 20 years. The researchers found out that “the single greatest predictor who would eventually become an executive was their early ambition to be an executive (in other words, having a goal).” Having a goal was more effective than having a high IQ, high EQ, strong personality, or good management skills. 

How to set the right development goal? Here are some suggestions:

Identify business-critical areas of growth. Our pilots with companies indicated that development engagement drastically improves when managers and employees view the development area as business-critical. In contrast, when the development area is a nice-to-have, engagement drops. “Like a button on a buttoned shirt wrong,” do not let the development journey start with something that they would sacrifice for “real work.” 

Let the employee focus on one topic at a time. When people set multiple growth areas to improve, they lose focus. Conversely, as Laszlo Bock, former Chief HR Officer of Google, mentions in his book, “If people have just one thing to focus on, they’d be more likely to achieve genuine change than if they divided their efforts.”

Review every quarter. Our pilot studies at Journey showed us that three-month development plans are much more effective than a half-year or one-year plan. 

Agree upon a goal (do not assign!). Self-determination theory suggests that people tend to become happier when pursuing things that are intrinsically motivated and are aligned with their own goals. It makes them feel more responsible about the outcomes and helps them focus their time on what they want to do. Thus, do not assign growth areas, rather work with them on their development plan. Be sure that your team member is also willing to improve the selected skill/area. 

Use on-the-job experiences to develop employees.

“Experience is the best teacher, then an employee’s job is the best classroom.” Based on a CCL study, which reflects the relative impact of 3 types of experiences on employee development, learning and development are influenced 70 percent from job-related experiences, 20 percent from interactions with others, and 10 percent from formal educational events. On-the-Job training is also the development method with the longest history. Even in the times of Hammurabi, Babylonians already put this method into practice to educate artisans. 

Managers should challenge employees with the right assignments to develop themselves. Challenging (or stretch) assignments are at the heart of experiential growth. Put individuals in new or unknown situations where they have to take action, see immediate outcomes, and refine their approach.

Help them learn from others.

As a manager, your job is not only to delegate tasks but also to empower your less experienced team members. Make sure to connect them with other professionals to learn from them and casually exchange information. 

Make introductions to role models, subject-matter experts, and mentors. Let’s assume that you and your direct report set a growth area (i.e., resolving conflicting situations). If your team member is the apprentice, who would be the master? Find a role model and ask the person to work with your team member a couple of sessions weekly or bi-weekly on that skill/area. 

Check-in regularly 

Most companies ask their managers and direct reports to discuss development in performance reviews conducted once or twice a year. They start by reviewing performance and then continue with development discussions. There are two problems with this approach. 

The first problem is combining two things that should be completely separate. When managers sit down to give employees their annual review and salary increase, the employees focus on a reward -a raise, a higher rating- and learning shuts down. What is the solution? Simple. Split reward conversations from growth dialogs. 

The second challenge is that development conversations are too infrequent. As one interviewee noted, “We completed an IDP form with my manager. A year passed. And I realized, just before our review, that I (and my manager, of course) forgot what we were aiming to develop.” Development requires continuous follow-up.

Schedule conversations regularly to review development progress with your direct report. Mark Kizilos, a development consultant, advises asking these simple questions about on-the-job assignments:

  • What challenge or issue have you faced?
  • Is what you are doing to handle it working?
  • If what you are doing is working, why? If not, why not?
  • Where else can you apply what you are learning?

“The key to making this routine successful is never skipping the last question. This is where individuals mentally rehearse the application of newly generated insights to new situations—a critical step for making what is learned useful in the future,” states Mark Kizilos.

You can also turn weekly meetings into learning opportunities. Laszlo Bock, former head of HR at Google, wrote about his learning experience when he was working with a senior executive at Google. “In the minutes before every client meeting, he would take me aside and ask me questions: ‘What are your goals for this meeting?’ ‘How do you think each client will respond?’ ‘How do you plan to introduce a difficult topic?’ We’d conduct the meeting, and on the drive back to our office, he would again ask questions that forced me to learn: ‘How did your approach work out?’ ‘What did you learn?’ ‘What do you want to try differently next time?’ I would also ask Frank questions about the interpersonal dynamic in the room and why he pushed on one issue but not another. I shared responsibility with him for ensuring I was improving. Every meeting ended with immediate feedback and a plan for what to continue to do or change for next time.”