Development: Making the Most of Learning

Coaching and Development

Learning and development (coaching) are one of the fundamental aspects in the world of athletics. Players are expected to learn their plays, new skills, and team culture.  They must use those learnings along with the feedback to develop and show growth from when they joined the team.

The responsibility for learning and development doesn’t rest solely on the athlete. Coaches and athletes work in partnership.  Consistent feedback is provided by the coaches. Opportunities for the deliberate practice required for athletes to grow are also provided. Learning and development is a constant cycle with the ultimate aim of growth.

Aim for Growth

There are managers who believe “develop my employees will just make them want to leave sooner”.  However, in sports, one of the best measures of an athletic coach is their ability to “coach up” talent.  Primarily because the time with the team is often short. If the name of the game is high performance, then whatever can be done to maximize performance (including growing the talent) is what must be done.   

Say you’re able to get 125% out of an employee after 3 years before they move on with hands-on development. That’s a whole lot better than getting 100% for 1 year followed by 90-95% the next 2 with hands-off development as the employee’s engagement goes south.

Example data for illustrative purposes only.

In Partnership

Management partnership with employees is needed for proper development.

Managers and employees have a vested interest in employee development.  With development comes an increase in the scope of job duties. The manager’s team can increase their productivity. The manager can offload more tactical work to the employee so she can focus on more strategic work.  The employee has challenging work that spurs engagement. Promotion possibilities abound by excelling with an expanded job description.

Consistent Feedback

Consistent feedback is needed for proper development.

When it comes to feedback, take a cue from athletics – more is better.  Managers should consistently observe performance and provide both positive and constructive feedback.  Managers must be able to point out specific areas of improvement and ask the right questions. This will allow the employee to remain mentally engaged in their development.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is needed for proper development.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 rule to achieve mastery is often misunderstood. First, it won’t always take 10K hours. More importantly, the practice must be deliberate. (Check out this video from peak performance expert Andres Ericcson)

Managers can help develop their employees develop by providing the following:

  1. Specific area(s) of improvement
  2. Opportunities for deliberate practice
  3. Further feedback (praise and/or guidance)

Corporate America could learn a lot from the world of athletics and high-performance. Make the investments in learning count by also investing in developing.  This is done through partnership, consistent feedback, deliberate practice, aiming for growth.  It’s time we think of Corporate America as a high-performance sport and coach up our the workforce.  

The Kite Runner

Kite Runner
Click to enjoy "The Kite Runner" for yourself!

Author: Khaled Hosseini (2003)
Listening Length: 12 hours and 1 minute
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
(this article contains affiliate links)

This book. Typically you will find me swimming comfortably inside the personal development and business book lanes. That is until I heeded Tim Ferris recommendation to change things up with fiction novels every once in a while.

Tim highly recommended this book and it didn’t disappoint. I listened to Khaled read the audiobook. The book was wonderfully written. It was quite poetic with great imagery and descriptions.

It felt like I was listening to a moving church choir. Every beautiful quote was a moving stanza. The transitions were so purposeful and poignant. They felt like radio/television teases that left you paralyzed wanting to hear more. The moment Amir finds his nephew in the bathroom. I felt the transition was amazing in that only a few moments into the next chapter did you fully grasp what had transpired. It’s like the author uses his transitions to cast a fishing line into the near future only to slowly draw you back to where he left off in the next chapter.

There were quite a few times when I literally gasped and a couple where I almost cried. That’s how emotionally engaging the story was at times. I also loved learning so much about Afghanistan culture. It was great to also gain valuable historical perspective untaught in Western schools. I learned that the “g” is not pronounced when saying the proper name of the country or its people

There are many memorable quotes throughout the book. Two that stood out for me were the following:

“When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal a wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness. There is no act more wretched than stealing.”

“…lifting him from the certainty of turmoil and dropping him in a turmoil of uncertainty.”

I was in awe at how much detail the author was able to remember about his childhood until it became clear that it was indeed a fictional novel. The use of the first person gives the book that autobiographical feel. The term is actually Creative Non-Fiction. The book goes right up there with Ready Player One as one of the best modern fiction books I’ve consumed.

Between a Managerial Rock and a Hard Place

Managers, Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Work can be tough for middle managers. They are literally between a rock and a hard place. Your everyday middle manager has a team reporting to them and she also has her own boss.  Neither of which make the best conversation partners when it comes to a workplace confidant.

While many offices have an open door policy, that doesn’t mean all types of conversations should be occurring between the ranks of employees.  Managers must maintain a level of loyalty to leadership in their words and behaviors. Managers must display to their employees a united front between them and senior leadership and the company as a whole. Elizabeth Shassere says this boils down to maintaining loyalty, integrity and honesty:

Managers are often between a rock and  a hard place

“...If anyone has a problem with me, a teammate, a decision, or action is taken, it is fair to bring it up constructively (preferably with an alternative or a solution to follow) but privately.”

Elizabeth Shassere

Read Also: Enhancing Culture

This is all the more difficult for first time managers. Especially for those now leading former co-workers.  That new manager is no longer able to have the same level of chit chat with any individual contributors about work.  The pool of compatriots narrows significantly.  

This means less people to complain to, question strategy with, share frustrations about.  They’re there, but for less accessible than your former co-workers were and still are.

Let’s try and keep this in mind. Managers are caught in a tough spot.  A spot that might literally be between a rock and a hard place. Rock (their boss) and a hard place (their employees). Be kind.

What if Human Resources reported to the Board of Directors?

How about Human Resources reporting to the Board?

People are our most valuable resource.” Most companies would agree wholeheartedly with this common adage. Yet most companies are structured in a manner where there are two perspectives (leadership/management and employees).  Employees are left on one side of the divide – by themselves. Human Resources then naturally appears to be aligned to the interests of leadership.

The impact is that employees perceive that they are often feeling alone against management. Especially when it comes to performance, career transition, or discipline.  This leads to employee disengagement, decreased productivity and retention issues.

Read Also: Engaging Employees with Autonomy, Mastery, & Purpose.

The common practice in many Fortune 500 companies is that the Internal Audit team reports directly to the Board’s Audit Committee. This helps ensure that the IA department is able to maintain a certain level of objectivity when examining the financial books that it might not have if reporting to the CFO or CEO.  

What if, in like manner, the company untethered Human Resources? What if the Chief People Person (CHRO) reported to a Board committee like Internal Audit?  Imagine if this were the case. It could:

  • send a clear message that the most valuable resource adage isn’t more than lip service.
  • do a lot to curb the scourge of most organizations – middle management.
  • do more than an Ethics Line ever could to make employees not feel the threat of retaliation.

There are lot of folks talking about innovating the workplace.  Consider making the corporate HRs similar to NFL Referees who report, not to the owners, but to the League Office. Talk about a giant step for inclusion and engagement.

5 Benefits of Adopting a Learning Culture

Learning is probably the number one trait that the most vibrant and dynamic cultures possess.  Growth is enabled through learning. Learning enables them to remain nimble, resilient and innovative n the face of constant change. Here are 5 reasons cultures should be focused on learning.

Evolving the Culture

Culture, at its core, is a set of behavioral norms and tacit assumptions of what it takes to be successful.  It is dependent on events – whether successes or failures. A company’s culture must evolve in response to the every changing world we live in.  Or else risk being made a corporate relic of the past. Just ask Blockbuster, Borders, Kodak, Aol or Yahoo. This means becoming a learning culture. One that is able to re-test assumptions.

Learning cultures embrace change

Experimental Leadership

If one of the best ways to learn is through failure, why do so many companies avoid it like the plague?  The fear of failure must be faced and it begins with leaders. Leaders must encourage disciplined risk-taking through experimentation.  Assumptions must be validated quickly well before the final product is rolled out.  Oh, and by the way, rolling out an inferior product to an entire division or business unit is not an MVP.

Enabling Innovation

Let your customers be your teachers.  They have the greatest to offer companies eager to be innovative.  And no, this doesn’t mean asking them what they want. It’s about being human-centered in the approach to product development.  Assess their actual needs. What jobs are they attempting to get done? This creates the shortest path to innovations.

Steve Jobs masterfully explains the importance of starting with customer experience [1:58]

Employee Growth

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you as an employee has at least two jobs. The first is the one you were hired to do. The second is to get grow and become an even better version of the person you were when you were hired. Employees must seek to be curious about their job and things adjacent. Books, articles, podcasts, videos or networking are avenues employees can use to apply learning outside of just doing the work.

Ensuring Humility

Jim Collins Level 5 Leadership model describes great companies with great cultures as possessing great leaders that are humble and have a great professional will. Humility is an acknowledgment of the fact that you don’t know everything.  That your way isn’t perfect and there can always be a better way. Humility is really a gateway drug.  It leads to curiosity, which leads to a learning binge. Learning can hopefully then results in an innovation high.

Learning is the key to the positive evolution of culture. It involves the risk of failure and the leadership to be creatively courageous. Learning is essential to innovation. At the end of the day, learning is everyone’s responsibility. This is all enabled by a willingness to confront one’s own ignorance – aka humility.

Annual Themed Weeks: A Window Into Culture

Annual Themed Weeks

A question typically posed by job candidates is “How can I assess an organization’s culture?” After all, the company’s first interview is typically to assess whether you’re a “fit” for their culture. So naturally, you as the candidate should be just as interested in getting a better feel for their culture.

For the candidate, this can often be a major challenge. According to The HT Group, “It’s common for employers to mistake the culture they aspire to with what their culture actually is.”

Cultural artifacts demonstrate values

You can, however, tell a lot about an organization’s culture based on its artifacts. Organizational Psychology Edgar Schein defined cultural artifacts as the aspects of an organization’s culture which can be easily discerned but not always clearly understood.
These include (but aren’t limited to) :

  • the technology used
  • their dress code
  • company perks
  • schedule flexibility
  • leadership hierarchy
  • and other patterns of behavior

Ask this question for culture insights

One question job candidates can ask their interviewers is “Tell me about your favorite Annual Themed Weeks.” After the interviewer composes themselves with the seemingly obligatory “that’s a good question“. They’ll then likely answer with some of these classics: Safety, Diversity, Health & Wellness, Quality, and Community Involvement.

Assessing your next work culture is important. Annual themed weeks gives you some needed insight.

Annual themed weeks give you that all-important window into discovering what the company really values and celebrates.

My top 5 annual themed weeks

  • Innovation & Creativity: hack-a-thons, brainstorming workshops, pitch contests, innovation games, idea-thons, design sprints, prototyping, experimentation
  • Inclusion & Diversity: company/building wide icebreaker, unconscious bias, walk in their shoes, round tables discussions, random cafeteria seating
  • Customer Appreciation: random acts of customer delight, customer breakfasts / lunch, conference/summit with an awards gala
  • Mental Wellness Awareness: meditation training, yoga classes, workshops, associate profiles, immersive experience simulation
  • Employee Appreciation: company swag bags, leaders make dept shoutout videos, lunch concert, top leader(s) in each building greet associates on arrival, awards gala

I encourage you to make a list of your top 5 themed weeks. Your top 5 will undoubtedly align with what you value most out of work life. Compare your list with what you hear from your interviewers. This will give you a qualitative way to assess how well the prospective company’s culture aligns with your values.

Go ahead and share your top 5 in the comments below!

Why Taking a Gap Year Isn’t The Problem

Gap Year and Values-first

I recently saw the following question posed on Quora: Will taking a gap year de-motivate my kid from going to college? The answer to this is an overwhelming NO.  At least for the 99.6% that aren’t lucky enough to launch a unicorn tech start-up.

Students are not a homogeneous group. They come in all shapes, sizes and levels of self-awarenesses. They all enter high school knowing one of three things:
(1) that they’re going to college and already know what they want to study
(2) that they’re not planning on attending college because what they want to do doesn’t require a 4YD (four year degree)
(3) that have no clue as to what to study (so either are / aren’t sure about school)

The first 2 groups are all well and fine. That 3rd group, they’re the ones that I’m going to give this piece of advice: If you don’t know how you want to contribute to society, DON’T GO STRAIGHT TO COLLEGE.

Tens of thousands of kids are shuttled off to university with no earthly idea of what they want to study. This can lead to wasted time and money (as that 4YD becomes a 5 or 6YD). Or worse yet that student gets into the job force only to have a rude awakening as they find a totally different reality to what they studied.

For those that can afford it, it would be a much better investment of that first-year tuition for that student to participate in a structured Gap Year program. Learn more about the world, others and most importantly yourself.

What if we’re assuming the wrong thing

More than anything, the question makes a subtle assumption.  That graduating college is somehow the biggest prize for that young scholar.  I contend that the goal shouldn’t be going to or evengraduating college. It should instead be to finding a way to “meaningfully contributing to positively impacting the lives of others“. Imagine how many more possibilities that subtle shift would open up for the scholar.

This would shift it from a “what do you want to do” mentality, to a “who do you want to be?” mindset.  Like most things in life, people ask the former question because it’s easier to relate what a person would does to the strengths/skills. You’ve heard it before: “Oh wow, you’re so good with numbers! You should be an Accountant.” “…an engineer.” “…a Mathematician.” This is how parents and society condition students to focus on their strengths when looking for potential careers.

Read also: What I Wish I’d Learned In High School

From Strengths to Values Focused

We want our kids to be “successful” (code for not destitute) way more than we want them to be “happy and fulfilled”. Some may even think “Hey if they get the latter as a side benefit, great. But you have to be successful at all costs.

This is how we end up with 85% of the workforce hating their jobs.  They did what teachers said they were good at (strengths). They got degrees that made their parents proud. They landed jobs that fit society’s definition of success. Yet, it didn’t keep them happy. ?

We should encourage our scholars to find out what is truly meaningful to them. Using a list of Core Values, select 10. Then narrow down to 4. Finally, reduce it to your top 2. After identifying your core values, look for careers that allow you to perform those core values using your strengths and skills. Starting from this place is how you start them on a path of meaningful work.

Be guided by your values and not by your strengths

Strengths: career first then meaning = Frustration
Values: meaning first then career = Fulfillment

How My Life Might’ve Turned Out

From an early age, friends and family told me that I was good at numbers (math) and logical thinking (puzzles). It  wasn’t long before I started hearing “You should be an Engineer.” or “You’re going to be an Engineer when you grow up.”  So that’s what I became.  I was firmly in the 1st group of high school Freshman mentioned above.

However, if I were asked what is it that I truly loved and valued, I might’ve chosen a different field.  I loved and valued creativity, variety, story, resourcefulness. Chances are I might’ve landed in a Design School studying Industrial or Graphic Design.  Instead of solving problems of throughput and efficiency, I might’ve been solving problems of User Experience, Employee Engagement or Content Marketing.

In the end, a Gap Year can be quite beneficial to students unsure of their future plans. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the student wouldn’t lose interest in college. What is most important is making sure parents (with egos divorced from our child’s perceived success or lack thereof) switch from a strengths-first approach to a values-first approach to the child’s future. This way you’ll give yourself a much better chance of being in the 15% of people that are truly happy at work.  That is true success.

Enhancing Culture

Change is Enhancing Culture

For over a century of modern warfare, ground troops have been supported by close air support (CAS).  For instance, the Army’s ground troops are supported by the Air Force’s covering fire.  Either option by itself wouldn’t be guaranteed to have the same effect and efficiency. Both must be employed.  

The process to usher in positive change within and organization, enhancing culture, is quite similar. There isn’t one set way to begin enhancing culture.  But there’s one way that successful culture enhancement efforts end. It always ends with air cover (leadership) and ground support (project teams) playing an active role.

The Senior Leadership Only Approach

The biggest impact on culture can undoubtedly be from Senior Leadership.  Especially when it comes to the CEO’s edict. A change to the culture will never happen without Senior Leadership. Senior Leadership, however is not enough.  Poor change typically sees leaders using their influence to try and roll out the change across the business unit or function.  Way too soon. Without seeing small successes, even senior leadership can’t overcome the way we do things around here mentality that defines culture.

Read Also: /The Soil of Culture

Enhancing Culture
Using only one of these approaches can stop culture enhancement in its tracks.

The Project Team Only Approach

Change can definitely start with the spark of one project team. The spark gets larger as adjacent departments see the success and the pull effect begins to take hold.  People in adjacent areas begin saying “Hey, I want to do that in my department.”   This spark will eventually flame out if not fanned by Senior Leadership.   Large change will require a Champion to help the change to scale past the initial business unit.  

Both Leadership and Teams

When Senior Leadership ushers in the change, they should make sure to patiently wait to scale.  Allow time for successes to gradually catch on with pilot projects. One at first, then two. Then maybe four. Next, try eight.  Then consider going outside of the function or business unit.

When a project team attempts to usher in change, while ensuring the success of the pilots, their attention should also be on obtaining a Senior Leader level sponsor.  Someone to champion the change across functions and business units.

No matter how change (culture enhancement) begins in the company, the change must be supported by leadership and through successful projects teams.

Engaging Employees with Purpose

Love What You Do

In a 2017 commencement speech, Facebook CEO/Founder Mark Zuckerberg urged Harvard grads to pursue purpose over success:

“Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for.  Purpose is what creates true happiness.”

Mark Zuckerberg

Every company has a purpose to fulfill. Yet, if you were to survey employees with “what is the purpose of your work?” How many do you think will say something even remotely resembling their corporate mission statement? Employees are engaged when they have a clear sense of the company’s purpose/mission. Here are two key reasons why purpose matters:

Everything Starts with Why (Purpose)

Simon Sinek emphasizes the importance of purpose with his Golden Circle model. Three concentric circles beginning with WHAT on the outside, then HOW and finally WHY in the center.  Sinek asserts that the best way to motivate people toward your desired action is to speak to their emotion, not logic.

Purpose speaks to the emotional core in the limbic system of our brains. Despite what we may think, our decisions have been scientifically proven to be influenced by our emotions. Our logic merely comes behind to justify the decisions our emotions have already made. The company purpose is intended to be a unifier.  People desire to work in service of a cause that’s greater than themselves.

Read also: Engaging Employees with Autonomy

Purpose is a key motivator

Maintain the Vital Connection

From the beginning of time, work has always been in service of others. In the purely agricultural societies, crops were exchanged for livestock/poultry. Artisan societies saw the Blacksmith make the horseshoes for the Rancher.

In today’s Corporate America, outside of Customer Service and Sales, work has become detached from those it’s truly meant to serve. Work seems to be just about getting the widget to the adjacent department to meet the turn around time (TAT). Or it’s about getting the sponsor to approve the project deliverable.  

When employees truly understand who that widget is for focus and quality improves. So does engagement. The deliverables are no longer for the sponsor, they’re for the client or the member.

Read also: Engaging Employees with Mastery

Purpose (the why) is a siren song to customers. When it’s clear, the right customers will find you and tell others.  It’s a steady drumbeat for the heart of employees. It’s the common theme that connects all departments.

Engaging Employees with Mastery

Mastery is making progress in meaning work.

For the past several months I have been teaching my teenager how to drive.  
My role is clear.  It’s more than just keeping her company in the passenger seat. It’s providing clear objectives and timely feedback.  

My daughter is expecting me to let her know when she’s too close to the line. When her speed sags below the limit, she’d appreciate a reminder. As she parks in the shopping center, she’s looking for advice on how to improve.  

How would she ever hope to get better if I just went along for the ride?  She’d probably feel overwhelmed, frustrated, isolated and resentful. It would seem absurd for me to coach with my mouth clothes, wouldn’t it? Yet, this is par for the course in many organizations.  Where many employees get detailed feedback only 1-2 times a year.

Daniel Pink calls mastery the most important motivator. He describes it is as the urge to get better at a skill.  It’s also referred to as making progress in meaningful work. For employees to know they’re making progress, they need clear goals and timely & accurate feedback.  

Also Read: Engaging Employees with Autonomy

In order to help employees feel a sense of mastery, managers must do more.  More than just managing that is. They must also be coaches.

The coaching style is distinct in its focus on developing people for the future as managers help employees improve their performance and cultivate their long-term strengths.

Daniel Goleman

A good manager provides clear goals and objectives. They identify skills needed to succeed at attaining the goals. They provide feedback and encouragement all along the way.