Can Learning and Development Survive Us?

In case you haven’t heard – or you’ve got an incredible immune system – this year’s flu season has gotten off to a raucous start. As an early victim of the virus, I was unpleasantly reminded that the only benefits of being sick in bed are watching hours of television (guilt free!) and catching up on reading. When I got tired of reading, I tried to teach myself Prezi. So far, my results are pretty dismal, but I’m having fun. I’m learning by doing (and undoing), talking to the handful of other Prezi people I know, and reading about it online. Look Ma, no training!

But, back to my reading. Despite feeling under the weather, I was happy to get the chance to read several articles in the last few weeks that sparked many thoughts about how things stand in development and leadership today.

I started with “Delusions of Employee Development” by Marc Effron. He asserts that we’re expecting way too much from managers to build development plans that are realistic and doable. He goes so far as to say that managers should set only one well-written development goal for each of their employees. When all of the employees across an organization are consistently achieving one development goal, only then is it time to consider raising the bar.

Effron is spot-on. When a company calls me in to coach an employee, I’ll read over the employee’s development plan which often has a subtle theme of “improve or else.” When development plans begin to feel punitive and burdensome, I wonder what’s really trying to be accomplished.

Next, I read “The #1 Reason Leadership Development Fails.” Mike Myatt’s indictment is less about leadership development than it is about leadership training. The trainer in me prickled at this, but it’s hard to refute his logic. He asserts that we should develop leaders through coaching, mentoring, and specific experiences. Training is too standardized; development demands individualization.

Mike Myatt thinks leadership training should “have died long, long ago.” So, for the sake of discussion, let’s say that it has. Imagine an app for your smartphone that has Mapquest- type technology that plans your route from Job A to Job B. Included are the types of experiences/projects to lead, key people for mentoring and coaching, desired learning outcomes, self-reflection questions, colleagues for support and feedback, and automated reminders for follow-up. Sounds pretty incredible, right?

Marc Effron would say that this app already exists in human form, and it’s called “Manager.” And he’s right, though I’ve seen many fall short of those expectations.

Finally, in a must-read article, Sarah Green outlines some recent work by Julian Birkinshaw, a Professor at the London School of Business. Birkinshaw details an experiment performed by a high-performing sales group at a Swedish insurance company. After a 3-week period, the team’s sales were up 5%. What happened to prompt such a positive change? The manager stopped attending non-essential meetings, delegated administrative tasks, and spent more time actually working with her team. Birkinshaw suggests that this style of management built around prioritizing relationships over tasks may not be for everyone, but Green challenges us with: “Why are you a manager if you really don’t want to manage?”

Until managers take ownership for retaining and developing people, we’re just building hierarchies of titles, not talent. Until we collectively decide that development is not a transactional “take a class and you’re done” process, we’ll continue to waste time and resources. If I can learn Prezi using the “Look, Ma, no training!” approach, then we can all tap into more creative and practical ways to grow talent and develop new skills for all employees.