Fast emerging as THE pressing talent challenge of our age is an old, perennial issue: how to accelerate people’s development and help them learn and be ready for progression more quickly.
It is not a new challenge; but it is increasingly becoming a vital one, driven by emerging markets with a need to rapidly develop local talent, technical specialisms with aging workforces, and a desire to minimize reliance on external hiring. According to one recent global survey, 85% of businesses reported an urgent need to accelerate the development of their leaders.
In response, money is being invested and programs are being developed.
But results are hugely variable, with tales of limited impact and individuals being over-promoted. In the face of these failures it can be tempting to question whether development really is something that can be accelerated.
Yet the research is clear: While the rate at which people develop is partially due to inner, individual factors that cannot be easily changed (such as intelligence), it is also determined by external factors, which can be controlled. So while the pace at which individuals learn and develop may not be able to exceed a certain level, it can be optimized.
So what are these external factors that can influence the rate of development, and how can they be optimized?
A quick Google reveals no shortage of opinion on the matter, but let’s look at what the independent research says.
1. Identify those who can develop fastest and furthest
Not everyone is equally capable of becoming a high performing leader and some people seem to benefit from development activities more than others. As a result, some people develop faster and further than their peers. And in the face of limited development budgets, being able to identity who these people are can be critical.
The traditional way to do this is to be led by performance ratings. But the ability to perform is not the same as the ability to develop. So a more effective way is evaluate people’s potential to develop. And interestingly, there is evidence that just evaluating potential and giving feedback on it to individuals can help accelerate their development.
Specifically, those who have had their potential objectively and formally assessed, and then received feedback on this, appear to develop faster than people who have not been through this.
Why this is so is not certain, but one obvious possibility is that it can help both firms and individuals identify what they need to develop. And people do seem to need help with this, given the research showing that 89% of leaders have at least one blind spot - an area where they think they are more skilled than they actually are.
So the first thing you can do to accelerate development is evaluate people’s potential.
2. Individualise development
There was a time when big, generalized leadership development courses were the development solution. Not so much, anymore.
These one-size-fits-all programs are still popular and can still add value, of course, but to really accelerate people’s growth, the development offered to them needs to be individually tailored.
Different people have different learning styles and different development needs, and so the development activities they experience need to differ too.
To really accelerate people’s growth, the development offered to them needs to be individually tailored.
Practically speaking, what this means is individual development plans that incorporate a blend of development activities unique to each person.
As a result, we are seeing an increase in the use of development activities that allow individuals to focus on what they personally need to, such as coaching and modularized development courses, in which people can choose which elements to focus upon.
So the second rule of accelerating development is individualize it.
3. Use stretch roles, projects and experiences
While there is solid evidence that different people benefit from different types of learning activities, there is also evidence that one particular type of activity – stretching roles, projects and experiences – can accelerate development faster than any other.
Probably the most famous evidence for this comes from a series of studies conducted at the US telecommunications firm AT&T.
Beginning in the 1950s, these studies followed a group of managers through their careers. Two findings in particular are of interest to us here. First, that those who reached the highest management levels at the twenty-year point in their careers had had more job changes across departments and locations.
And second, that the degree of challenge college recruits experienced in their roles was a strong predictor of who made it to up to middle management levels after eight years. So experiences that stretch us help accelerate our development.
The degree of challenge college recruits experienced was a strong predictor of who made it to up to middle management
Knowing the value of experience is one thing; finding ways to give it to people is quite another. For many firms the idea of actively managing people’s careers and deliberately placing them in specific roles or holding so-called ‘crucible’ roles open for particular groups of high-potentials, is just not feasible.
But all sorts of experiences can accelerate development. Role changes are just one kind of stretching experience, and research shows that too many role changes can actually hinder development.
So other stretching experiences can and should be used – from things as simple as someone accompanying their manager to high-level meetings, through to leading or taking part in special projects.
The key issue – the thing that makes an experience developmental – is the degree of change or challenge involved.
So any experience that involves this – be it speaking at a senior forum, leading a difficult project, or moving internationally – is likely to be accelerating.
Of course, the specific experiences people are likely to benefit from will vary between individuals, as people differ in their development needs. But brings us to our next rule of accelerating development.
4. Match stretch roles, projects and experiences to individuals
Just giving people stretch assignments is not enough to accelerate development. It may work, but then it may not.
Research shows that some types of jobs are more developmental than others, and that different types of roles lead to different types of learning. So if you want to help people develop through experience, it needs to be the right experience.
As we noted above, it is the degree of change or challenge involved in a job or task that makes it developmental.
And obviously, people’s experiences and skills to date will determine which future roles they find the most challenging. To help us think about this, researchers have tried to categorize the different types of challenges that new roles or projects can provide. One common such categorization distinguishes between four different types of challenge:
Another, popular categorization describes seven types of developmental experiences: early work experiences, first supervisory jobs, a switch from a line job to a staff job, handling a project or a task force, starting from scratch, fix-it/turnaround assignments, and increases in scope.
However you go categorize things, though, the key thing is that development will be accelerated most if there is a careful and deliberate matching between people’s development needs and the development experiences they are provided.
1. Use scaffolding to ensure development actually happens
Scaffolding is a term from educational circles, and refers to the processes, tools and other support put in place to help people extract the maximum learning from developmental experiences and activities. The things you put in place to make sure it has the impact you want it to.
And these are not just optional extras, because scaffolding is critical in making sure that development really happens.
In fact, one of the most consistent findings from research into the effectiveness of development activities is that the scaffolding processes surrounding them are actually more important in ensuring people genuinely learn something than the quality and content of the development activities.
Some of the scaffolding methods receiving the most headlines recently have been technology solutions, such as apps to collect real-time feedback, track progress against development plans, and both prompt and record development conversations.
Networking opportunities are commonly provided too, with an increasing emphasis on information-rich peer networks rather than supportive social networks.
And formal mentoring or professional coaching are also on the increase, as firms look to support learning and ensure it translates into performance improvement.
With all of these, the focus is on embedding development activities and experiences within a larger system that helps ensure that development genuinely happens. Which brings us to our next rule and the scaffolding factor that can help accelerate development more than any other.
2. Involve and invest in people’s managers
If you really want to accelerate someone’s development, then a good place to start is with their manager, because research shows that it is the most important scaffolding factor. Managers simply being involved is the first and biggest step here, but they need to go beyond passive involvement.
They need to coach people, helping them reflect on and understand the challenges they are facing. And they need to provide guidance and advice when it is needed, and support and encouragement when things get tough.
Unfortunately, studies show that while over three-quarters of leaders are confident identifying development needs and giving people feedback, less than a third are confident they know how to then help their people improve and get the most from developmental activities and experiences.
And growing awareness of this is why a rapidly growing number of businesses are investing in ensuring managers are better trained to enable, drive and support their people’s development.
3. Make people accountable for developing
Strictly speaking, this also a type of scaffolding, but is so important it deserves its own place in our list.
Research shows that the time required for people to develop from a junior role into a mid-level manager can be reduced by an amazing 30 percent on average just through organizations holding individuals accountable for showing they have learnt and developed from experiences and activities. Similarly, there is evidence that development can be accelerated by organisations recognizing and rewarding those who show more development.
What both approaches require is tracking whether people have genuinely developed – and not just the so-called happy sheets of whether they have enjoyed development activities, but visibility on actual progress made – on whether performance has improved or behaviour has been changed.
Make individuals identified as high-potential not just accountable for developing themselves, but also for developing their direct reports
One slight embellishment on this is to make individuals identified as high-potential not just accountable for developing themselves, but also for developing their direct reports. The idea being that through doing this, development can be cascaded through the organisation. Again though, visibility on progress and accountability are the driving forces.
4. Do not forget training and coaching
Our final rule for accelerating development is a simple one: with all the emphasis on learning from experience and customised coaching, do not forget good old fashioned training and development workshops.
When arguing against training, people often cite what is referred to as the 70:20:10 rule. The idea is that 70% of learning should come through informal, on-the-job, experience-based learning; 20% should come through coaching, mentoring and performance conversations; and that just 10% should come through formal learning interventions, such as training, and from reading books and articles.
However, it needs to be remembered that these figures are essentially guesses that originally stemmed from a single piece of research that asked senior leaders what had made them successful. It is neither a scientific fact nor a recipe for how best to develop people.
Different competencies require different sorts learning.
Instead, if you really want to accelerate the development of people, then you need to accommodate the fact that the best recipe for driving individuals’ development will differ between people.
For some people, it may well be that it is training that will drive their development the most. Different competencies require different sorts learning. For example, while there is evidence to suggest that political savvy and networking are best learnt through experience and coaching, studies also suggest that developing others is best learnt – initially at least – through training.
Likewise, strategic thinking can be significantly improved through more educational activities. So our final rule of accelerating development, is to not forget traditional training.
Using the accelerators
How long it takes people to develop varies massively between geographies and industries. But there is research to suggest that on average it takes 18 months to develop an individual contributor into a frontline manager, and 29 months to develop a high-potential middle manager into someone ready for senior-level management.
At present, the most common approach to accelerating development is to select a cohort of people and then create some development programs for them. This is not bad, but it is hit and miss. Because as we have described, what works best is two things. A strongly individualized and targeted approach. And a focus on putting in place the right scaffolding around development activities to ensure that they work.
Inevitably, this requires more thought and resources than simply providing a few development programs. But it need not be much more resource intensive and is often no more expensive. And if you want to accelerate people’s development, there are – unfortunately - no shortcuts.
About Nikolas Kinley
Nik Kinley is a London-based Director and Head of Talent Strategy for the global Leadership Consultancy YSC.
His prior roles include Global Head of Assessment & Coaching for the BP Group and Head of Learning for Barclays GRBF.