Too many bosses leave discussions about professional development to one or two occasions during the year, usually syncing them with the annual performance evaluations. Follow this formula and you’re doing your team members and your firm a tremendous disservice.
Rather than keeping professional development talk locked to the calendar, I’m a big fan of frequent “on the fly” conversations that directly support an individual’s developmental needs and goals. Frequent conversations keep the topic front and center and allow you to focus on providing active coaching that transcends a task orientation. And importantly, the regular development discourse helps build trust between you and your co-workers. After all, there’s no higher form of respect you can pay to someone in the workplace than helping them work towards achieving their career aspirations.
6 Ideas to Help Strengthen Your Daily Professional Development Conversations:
1. Establish a Firm Foundation for the Discussions. Start the process by establishing a mutual understanding of your team member’s next step and long-range professional objectives. Armed with an understanding of personal professional goals, you can better assess and coach as well as design opportunities to support development of the needed skills and experiences.
2. Emphasize Strengths Initially. Our first reaction is to typically look at the weaknesses we perceive in an individual and focus our developmental efforts (training, feedback etc) squarely on those items. They’re weaknesses for a reason, and my encouragement is to look at the individual’s strengths and call those out (always with examples!) as they relate to the next step. If someone has shown success in informally guiding teams or serving as a trouble-shooter, those are great places to reinforce positive behaviors and link them to the individual’s position and career aspirations. I love building on strengths rather than preoccupying on weaknesses.
3. Treat this Work Like As If You Were Building an Apprenticeship Program. (You are!) In most environments, the higher one rises on the organizational ladder, the more the issues of leadership, strategy, presence and the ability to cope with uncertainty or ambiguity are relevant. Establish a common vocabulary around these somewhat squishy topics by using examples and encouraging external reading and study. It’s hard to grok professional presence unless you can point to examples, and it’s tough to talk about strategy unless you’ve built a common vocabulary and given it context. Invite the individual to a strategy session, encourage them to read on the topic and then provide opportunities for the individual to contribute to the process. It’s key to design assignments to expose the individual to these various areas of professional growth. Other ideas: identify an opportunity for the individual to informally lead teams or groups (projects are great for this!); offer an opportunity to help work on customer or market facing activities, and expose the individual to complex problem situations. Watch their performance and supply regular feedback during your daily discussions. (Feedback is best served warm.)
4. Yes, You Still Need to Mind the Gaps. While I emphasized focusing on strengths above, good observation over a wide variety of activities in your Apprenticeship Program will offer ample opportunity to identify critical gaps in knowledge or behavior. Ample feedback…always two-way, plus the identification of necessary training fits well in this stage.
5. Use Questions to Teach. Effective coaching is much about asking great, thought-provoking questions. No need to deliver monologues…ask people for their own reactions, perceptions and emotions based on their experiences with different activities. Asking an individual to assess his or her performance for a particularly challenging activity opens up the discussion and coaching opportunities. Reinforce where you perceive they get it, and help them see blindspots. All of this works better when driven by questions.
6. Create Opportunities to Link Daily Performance to Development. One of the great things of leading and supporting the development of others is that we have nearly endless opportunities everyday to observe and support our team members. While everyone is busy, adding a few minutes on to a status update, grabbing a cup of coffee once or twice per week or reaching out with that extra phone call as the week is winding down, are all easily accomplished.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Deliberate development of your team members and teams is much about you cultivating the right presence of mind for this topic and then incorporating it in your regular discussions. There’s no rule against talking early and often about development, and in fact, it’s an ingredient in promoting high performance in your workplace. You have dozens to hundreds of interactions with your team members every week, start using them effectively.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.