From CEO to front-line supervisor, making sure that people are honing their skills – and thereby ensuring the workforce has the capability to deliver on corporate goals and initiatives – is a primary accountability. And being effective in that role isn’t learned by osmosis any more than understanding a balance sheet or marketing tactics. We need to develop people to develop people.

My blog posts over the last four months have spoken directly to managers – describing tactics and proven practices around developing people. The framework I offer breaks development methods down into six categories of moves: clarifying, coaching, challenging, connecting, curating, and customizing.

But now I want to offer some thoughts to the people charged with developing their leadership team to effectively develop their direct reports. In addition to teaching people about core behaviors and skills, you need to pull up to a higher level to see what is necessary in terms of environmental supports and deeper learning so you can create a space for constant, ongoing development.

To my mind, there are at least three ingredients to that endeavor. You need a culture that genuinely values people and specifically supports learning and growth. Your management team needs a deeper understanding of how people learn, and how to ensure that their tactics for developing people are effective. And most importantly, leaders need to be allocated time for their development responsibilities.

Co-create a learning culture

If leaders are going to develop people, it’s imperative that they work in a culture that expects and supports that. In the wake of the pandemic, many leadership teams are recommitting themselves to creating an environment of constant learning and psychological safety in which people can thrive. They are working together to forge purpose, connection, and human flourishing.

A learning culture is “an environment in which people freely and deeply learn, an environment that creates knowledge and skill as well as passing it on, and an environment that supports the organization’s need for innovation, rapid reskilling, and ongoing development.” It is cultivated on the basis of shared vision, deep interpersonal engagement, and valuing of learning processes and curiosity. It needs to be rife with people who are skilled at developing people and who talk about techniques and successes that can be emulated.

Experience shows that if your organization is not attending to learning culture, individual managers may find it difficult to actively promote learning even when in support of organizational performance. They see that the organization’s near- and long-term business goals take precedence, and they continue doing what they’ve always done just to keep things moving. Learning, if considered at all, is expected to be efficient, just enough, and only when immediately needed. That kind of short-sighted thinking is necessary in a crisis environment but isn’t sustainable over the long term.

Learning leaders who want to advance the development role of managers and supervisors need to simultaneously advocate for and collaborate on cultivating a solid learning culture. It can’t be imposed; it must be mutually brought into being. Promote policies, practices, and projects that impact the broader culture so that individual managers are supported in doing their part to develop people. Initiate conversations and share strategies that work in your organization.

Help leaders explore relevant learning research and theory

When we create courses, resources, or programs to support the managers’ own growth in people development skills, those efforts should include deeper dives into what we know about learning conditions and processes. One doesn’t become skilled at development just by implementing a list of actions; leaders need a real understanding of the learning process they are trying to unleash and how to make that successful. I’ve tried to provide some of that nuance in my blog posts, and there is more that can be explored. (See especially Modeling the role model role and Challenges – Where learning and work intersect.)

I wouldn’t necessarily expect leaders to become learning experts, but if we cultivate a healthy curiosity about the mechanisms of learning, then leaders can explore them as needed. If, for example, they want to take on a mentoring role with a particular employee, taking a bit of time to read up on effective mentoring practices would be timely and impactful. Or learning more about experiential learning would be helpful when making stretch assignments.

As a learning leader, you can make relevant resources about how people learn available to your management team. I humbly suggest my developing people posts and recommend Accenture’s Brain Hacks videos. Help them, too, to work on the communication, coaching, and mentoring skills that will make them great people developers.

Allocate time for developing people*

There’s no getting around the fact that developing people takes time. Time to analyze workforce capability needs, time to speak with employees about their goals and learning activities, time to sit back and plan, time to execute developmental moves, and time for feedback and conversation, not to mention time for learning a bit more about the tactics needed in those plans.

Organizations are notoriously bad at recognizing the need for this time and protecting the little time they do allocate for learning and development activities of any kind. Instead, we expect managers to be “working managers” with their own intense projects and tasks – and we also expect them to work toward creating environments of inclusion, engagement, and belonging. The demands on their time push people development activities to the bottom of the list.

What we really need is a time-turner to allow us to be doing two things at once. (Harry Potter fans will recognize the tool.) But in the absence of that, we need a reasonable investment of time for all leaders who have responsibility for nurturing capability development in direct reports. There’s no one right answer for how much time that should be, as it depends on number of direct reports, where they are in their development, the complexity of the knowledge and skill being developed, how self-sufficient individual employees may be in managing their own learning, what other developmental support is available, and more.

Learning leaders need to do whatever they can to give managers time and space to do their part in developing people. Managers and supervisors are the closest to the action and the most able to customize what is necessary to accelerate growth.

*(And give employees the time they need for development, too. That’s another post.)

Thriving in the new world of work

The pandemic shook us all out of complacency in terms of how we manage people and ensure capability in the organization. The new world of work may seem unrecognizable from the old, with remote work, flexible schedules, different divisions of labor, emerging skill requirements, and other changes, potentially including new lines of business and enriched services. And if your organization is among the many asking leaders to manage a skills portfolio rather than managing a group of job roles, ongoing skill development is a business imperative.

Employees are demanding growth, inclusion, flexibility, and human-centered management. (A tall order – no wonder the “great resignation.”) Learning and development activities are not the sole province of the talent development team (if they ever were) and we need to count on leaders to do their part to initiate and sustain an engine of employee growth.

But it’s not enough to say that leaders are accountable for people development, we need to actively enrich their ability to do that well.

For more advice on developing people who develop people, see my August 4 Your Development newsletter.


This post is part of a series exploring the moves leaders can make to promote development of their teams and employees. Check out the entire developing people series. And please get in touch if I can help you to aquaint your leadership team with these moves and the details of practices that ensure they are effective. I can offer a workshop and other learning materials on the subject.