Over the last five months, I’ve been “blogging a book” on the leader’s role in developing people. Early on, I lamented that there wasn’t enough written on the subject, and called dibs on authoring a good book on the subject.

In the meantime, I’ve run across Make Talent Your Business by Wendy Axelrod and Jeannie Coyle (Berrett Koehler, 2011) which – albeit a decade old – has valuable things to say on what “exceptional development managers” do. Importantly, the practices these authors advocate are based on their research on developmental leaders, so they are able to share plenty of specific behaviors and examples. While not quite the book I have in mind, they dive deep on a number of key recommendations that resonate with me, and other leaders may find their commentary inspirational as well.

After you have mastered your functional skills, developing others may be the largest contribution you make in your work life. You will be in the enviable position to inspire your employees to much greater contributions with lessons that are remembered for their entire careers. ~ Wendy Axelrod and Jeannie Coyle (p 171)

Axelrod and Coyle have summarized their findings in five key points: the importance of constantly taking developmental actions, the vital underpinning of strong trusting relationships, the need to connect people to developmental partners, the necessity of building a learning culture, and the criticality of developing one skill in particular: that of navigating organizational politics.

Ensuring learning every day

“Exceptional development managers use what is in front of them – namely, the work itself and their daily access to people doing it – to make bite-size progress on a big goal: continual development of the capacity of all their people so that they make talent their business.” (p 18)

Axelrod and Coyle suggest that on-the-job learning is the primary base for developing people, and they make recommendations similar to mine. Namely: When leaders use work assignments to provide the kind of stretch employees need to hone skills and begin developing in new directions, they need to be sure to scaffold that with clear learning goals and appropriate support. Coaching through the use of questions is an impactful approach, and good feedback also makes a difference.

Building relationships

“High-trust relationships open the door for the necessarily candid discussions about performance and development, receptiveness to your counsel, and willingness to take risks inherent in learning and behavior change. With trust intact, you give employees a safety net that encourages them to take the leap.” (p 65)

Learning can be very fraught. It involves risk-taking, making mistakes, needing feedback – all of which can generate uncomfortable emotions. Managers can help employees through that, but that’s best accomplished in the context of a trusting relationship. Developmental managers keep an eye out for rising emotions and coach employees through situations rather than doing work for them or removing them from hard projects. Employees need to know they can raise questions, stumble and recover, and still have manager affirmation.

Connecting people to other developers

“Define skills needing development? Check. Development partner defined and recruited? Check. Your job done? Not so fast. Great learning doesn’t flow automatically even from the best development partners. There’s lots you can teach people in order to turn on that faucet.” (p 76)

Axelrod and Coyle recommend identifying clear learning goals and identifying who is in the best position to help with that development. They talk about creating a “contract” of sorts, which may be going a bit too far in my estimation. Still, having a good conversation about what is needed and how the teaching/learning will be facilitated in the interactions is a good idea. And leaders can guide employees to go further by talking them through how they will interpret, retain, and apply what they are learning from interactions with other developers.

Cultivating an environment for learning

“When we asked exceptional developing employees about managers who contributed the most to their development, we were given a litany of very specific behaviors and interactions – not references to speeches or memos. It was the sheer density of development-focused interactions with their manager – a lot of them happening all at the same time – that created a deeply felt developmental environment. Increasing the density of development actions comes not from big, dramatic acts, but instead from lots of little things done often.” (p. 127-128)

I suspect constant development activity is among the hardest things for managers to juggle – trying to manage their responsibilities, plus giving plenty of attention to each employee’s development plus crafting and executing plans for accelerating development when needed. The good news is that little things apparently count a lot, but they need to be frequent and targeted. While I have conceptualized systems for both employees and leaders to create planned development strategies, it’s equally important for leaders to make small development moves spontaneously yet consistently (whether connected to a bigger plan or not).

Teaching people to be politically savvy

“When asked about the biggest impact their best developmental managers had on them, large numbers of exceptional developing employees stated that they were taught to navigate the political terrain and what a huge difference that made for their effectiveness and recognition in the organization.” (p 92)

The recommendation to teach people to be politically savvy was the odd duck on the list. It’s less about how to develop employees writ large and more about how to develop a particular, important skill. It is often true that whatever their specialty, an employee is far more successful if they can hone their political savvy alongside their professional development. Axelrod and Coyle capture a solid list of particular actions for developing this skill that should be useful for any leader.

The skills required to be an exceptional development manager

Management competency lists are always impossibly long – so many different skills come into play in taking on a leadership role. Nonetheless, Axelrod and Coyle offer a list of competencies in a variety of areas that come to the fore in developing employees. They categorize these skills in four buckets (from pp 155-156):

  • Strategic and long-term outlook: strategic thinking and perspective setting
  • Deep interpersonal connection: emotional intelligence, discovery learning, building trusting relationships
  • Deliberate and decisive communication: enhanced listening, productive inquiry, on-point articulation
  • Conviction and character: tenacity, risk-taking, adaptability, passion about development

It strikes me that these skills are about the ability to strategize development and engage deeply and effectively with employees. They underscore why we call these types of manager-employee interactions “developmental relationships” with relationships as the anchoring noun and developmental as the adjective. As much as the underlying impetus may be to improve organizational performance, developing people needs to be human-centered.

More leaders recognize the importance of communicating and coaching, generosity over greed, and service to others more than self-interest. These enlightened leaders understand that business is about people, inside the company and as investors and customers outside the company. Simply stated, when people are at the heart of business, business operates better.
~ Dave Ulrich (from the Forward)