Training: Beyond Classes and Conferences

One of my favorite parts of managing people is helping them grow their skills and get even better at their jobs. I think a lot of managers have a limited view of how to do this, and don’t think much beyond conferences and training classes. Sure, sending people to conferences and training classes is an important part of developing your team, but it is far from the only part. In fact, I think it is one of the least important parts.

To think about the most effective ways to help your team members grow, think about it the way they probably do: in terms of growing their resume. No, this doesn’t mean you’re training your people so that they can leave you. One of the paradoxes of management is that people who feel like they are learning and growing their skills are usually less likely to leave, even as they become more attractive to other employers. (Employee retention is a complex topic, but this master’s thesis from Scott Brum provides a good summary on how training can impact retention. The perception of opportunities for growth is also important for attracting employees in the first according to these survey results.)

Here is my basic approach to developing my team:

Step 1: Understand each person’s career goals

This is an ongoing process, not a discrete step. However, you must have at least started this process before you can effectively do anything else.

I have a 1:1 meeting with each team member within a few months of when they join the team. I check in on how they are settling in to the team, discuss any concerns they might have, and then ask about career goals. I check in on these goals periodically in other 1:1 meetings, and also at performance review time. This is probably my favorite part of a performance review discussion, and if I ever get to design my own performance management strategy, it might be the only part of the yearly performance review I’d keep. But that is a topic for a later post.

In each 1:1 discussion, I listen carefully to what the person wants to achieve in his or her career, both short term and long term. Then we have a discussion about what skills he or she needs to develop to get there, and talk about ideas for how to get those skills. This leads to step 2….

Step 2: Identify the areas to grow

We can’t grow in all directions at once. Different people have different thresholds. I may be happiest when I feel I’m working on growing a couple of key skills, while someone else might feel overwhelmed if he tries to develop more than one key skill at a time. Neither way is “right,” just like there is no single set of “right” skills for someone in a given position to work on growing. Therefore, it is important to personalize both the length and content of the list of skills to develop. The employee should dominate this part of the discussion, but the manager should provide advice and guidance, to make sure that the skills selected are both attainable and useful for the employee’s overall career goals.

Step 3: Make a plan

This is where training classes and conferences come in, but they should not be all of the plan. The most effective way to develop skills is for the employee to work on a project that requires them. To use this approach, the manager has to really think about all of her employee’s goals and the projects her team needs to accomplish. I wouldn’t generally try to do this in a meeting with the employee: I have the meeting to figure out what the employee wants, and then I go away and think about how to provide that. As I come up with assignments that can help the employee develop the skills she wants, I tell the employee. I always make it clear what skill the assignment will help develop, and there is always a fallback plan for where the employee can go for help if she gets stuck. Sometimes the plan is to come to me, but often it is to go to some other team member who knows more about the topic. In that case, the other team member must be informed ahead of time and agree to help. Since the ability to coach people is a skill that many senior team members want to work on, I often get two employees career development opportunities with one assignment. Bonus!

I do use training classes and conferences, too. If I have an employee who wants to pick up an entirely new type of skill- such as a scientist who wants to learn how to code- a training class is probably a good way to get started. (We might also need to have a frank discussion about the likelihood of the skill being useful on our team, but since I commonly manage teams that work in scientific informatics, coding is usually a reasonable skill to want to develop.) If I have a more senior employee who wants to work on thinking more strategically about projects, attending a conference is usually a good part of the plan. Conferences are also a great thing to suggest to junior employees who don’t have any idea of what their career goals should be.

Step 4: Adjust as needed

Sometimes, things don’t go to plan. I have given employees assignments that should help them develop an important skill, and had them flub them. When this happens, I try to step in quickly, get the project back on track, and then have a discussion with the employee about what went wrong.

The feedback from that discussion can be incorporated into future assignments. For instance, if the first assignment proved to be too big for someone learning a new skill, I look for a different assignment that will help the employee grow a portion of the skill, so that he can get incrementally better at the skill. An example of this is an employee who wants to learn how to manage projects, but whose project stalls when he is given a chance to manage it. I would sit down with him and do a post-mortem to understand why the project stalled, and then give him another chance on a project that didn’t have as much complexity in that particular area.

Deciding when to step in and when to allow an employee to iterate to a solution on his own is difficult, and will depend on how high-profile the project is, how senior the employee is, and how likely it is he will find the solution. Figuring out how to handle this situation is part of being effective as a coach. A manager who struggles with this should perhaps ask her manager for guidance and coaching. After all, managers need to grow our skills, too!

Step 5: Be patient

Employee growth and development is a long-term thing. It might take years to grow the skills an employee identifies as important to his career goals. I find that most people are OK with that. They know that their main job is to deliver on their current projects and help the group or company achieve its goals. As long as we have a growth plan in place and it is clear that we are working to make that growth a reality, most employees are happy.

Related reading

Monique Valcour wrote in HBR about why helping people develop is a core management skill.

A write up in HBR about how to retain “high performers.”  Note this quote:

A high-potential Millennial in China admitted that she felt she had stayed too long in her current role: “My manager keeps me because with every assignment she gives me, she also tells me what new thing I am going to learn by doing it.” Just the simple act of telling people how they will benefit from doing a task or assignment can motivate people to stay.”

One Comment

  1. ARC said:

    One other advantage of telling your employee what they’ll learn by doing the task is that you’re thinking of their needs too, not just trying to get them to do work for you, which is the typical way it works.

    December 30, 2014

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