Sunday, 28 September 2008

To Train or Develop?

To train or develop? That is the question.

Consider for a moment how many managers up and down the country sit down with their staff to review their development needs (often as part of the appraisal process) and end up by simply sending them on a training course. Job done? I think not.

When your staff attend a training course, the best you can hope for is that they return with new knowledge, new skills and some ideas about how these can be applied in the workplace. And if you don’t make any interventions you might, just might, get lucky and find that their diligence enables them to apply what they have learned from the training course and actually get better in the area you had intended.

However, all sorts of things can (and often will) go wrong with this approach. Firstly, staff members might not agree with your assessment of their development needs and will not be either a willing or motivated learner at the training course. Secondly, the training course might not deliver the knowledge or skills you were hoping for, especially if you have simply picked out a one-size-fits-all course from a training catalogue. And even if these first two barriers do not apply, the most common problem with using training courses as your primary development tool is that your staff will often struggle to apply what they have learned when they return to work.

Many human resource departments have developed processes to help overcome these common barriers. There is the development section of the appraisal form. There is often a pre-course briefing form where learning objectives need to be identified followed by a post course debriefing form where learning outcomes and action plans can be captured. But here’s the thing. Many managers see these as forms that need to be completed whereas the most important thing is the conversation that needs to take place between manager and staff member at each of these junctures – the form is merely a tool for helping to record the conversation.

These conversations aside, the most important thing a manager can do if they are truly focused on developing their staff is to make coaching interventions as staff members seek to practice and apply what they have learned. Coaching interventions that are constructive, objective, motivational, timely and learner centred. And let us not forget, coaching does not have to be used in conjunction with training courses, it can also be used instead of them. A good coach can pass on knowledge and develop skills just as effectively as a good trainer can.

Why then, do so few managers proactively engage in coaching their staff, preferring instead to rely on training courses to do the job for them? Perhaps it is due to a lack of appreciation for the power of effective coaching, a lack of time to coach or a lack of coaching skill. All of these are barriers that can be overcome and in most instances, relatively easily.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to staff development. The most powerful learning occurs through experience and work assignment where the staff member takes ownership of their own development, supported by effective coaching as appropriate. There are a variety of different types of work assignment that should be considered.

Leap Experiences – This is when high talent staff members with high levels of self confidence are exposed to a completely new and challenging skill set that stretches them to their limit. This is a high risk, high reward learning strategy which if successful, will see the staff member climb a steep learning curve in a short space of time. Well designed experiential workshops offer a form of leap experience with a much lower risk profile and it is also possible to design work based projects that offer leap experiences in a controlled environment.

Good to Great – We often don’t think to develop staff in areas that they are already strong. This can be a missed opportunity when somebody has the natural talent to become exceptional. Having identified an appropriate area, the leadership challenge is to create opportunities in which the staff member is able to advance their skill level by increased exposure to situations which stretch their ability.

Skills Transfer – It is not uncommon for staff members to have already developed the core skill required but struggle to transfer this to a new task. The coaching role here is to help them make the appropriate connections in order to transfer the skill to the new area.

Exposure – One of the challenges often encountered in developing staff is to find sufficient opportunity to expose them to the skill area. This can be particularly true when the development relates to a future rather than current job role. Simulation, secondment or special projects all provide potential solutions in this area.

Confidence Building – Quite often staff members are capable of performing in a new skill area but lack confidence in their own ability. Enabling them to practice in a safe environment with sufficient time to check and correct any errors before the work goes live provides a useful strategy in these instances. You might also look for quick-win opportunities to help build their confidence level.

Marketing – Sometimes a staff member will believe that they are capable in an area which is unproven as far as you are concerned. This can be especially true when considering experience gained in previous jobs or environments outside of work. A useful strategy here is to give them an opportunity to market themselves to you and others by demonstration and example in a controlled environment.

Feedback – Sometimes it is an awareness of a weakness that is required in order to develop the motivation to improve it. This feedback might come from you but can also be driven through multi-perspective feedback. After all, sometimes the leader is not aware of a weakness either whereas others might be.

Assessment – There are times when a general awareness of a weakness is known but the specifics are not. This requires an analysis of the underlying issues, often by an external expert, to identify the specific areas that need to be improved in order for the weakness to be overcome.

Redeployment or Workaround – You cannot put a round peg into a square whole. Sometimes you will have to accept that a staff member simply does not have the underlying talent in a particular skill area to perform tasks requiring that skill. If these tasks are non-critical to the role you might be able to facilitate a workaround by utilising other team members or resources. If they are critical to the role you are best advised to look at opportunities to redeploy the staff member in another role, especially if their general talents and work ethic warranted retaining them in the organisation.

There are then a plethora of development activities that extend way beyond simply sending a staff member on a traditional training course. While training courses have their place in the developmental toolbox, they are best used in conjunction with coaching in order to maximise the return on investment. Coaching can also be utilised independent of any training courses. However, the most powerful forms of development involve engaging the staff member in targeted work assignments or experiential events that enable them to fulfil their potential and deliver maximum return to both the team and the organisation.

To train or develop? Brilliant leaders know the difference focus on developing their staff.

Simon Cooper is Chief Executive of the Experiential Learning Centre, based in the UK but operating worldwide. He is also the author of Brilliant Leader and architect of the unique and powerful experiential workshop, Brilliant Leadership.

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