Why Is Employee Development So Elusive?

The excuses—such as it’s too expensive and takes time—are all rubbish. The apathy toward this critical business imperative has a significant ability to damage a business and is doing so across the world. Here’s how to make it different.

The world is getting faster, more demanding, more competitive, smarter, and is changing constantly. Are employees doing the same? Are they getting faster, stepping up to or are ahead of the demands, becoming more competitive or adding to their knowledge base at the rate of the changing marketplace? Frequently and sadly, the answer is, “No.”

After being the senior person on Talent in several Fortune 500 organizations, working around the world for more than 20 years, I have worked with many people at all levels. I find one consistent pattern. The quality of the employees is not what organizations need to meet the demands of their business strategy. In fact, in most organizations, I would remove at least 30 percent of the workforce and upgrade it to a much higher level of skills. Some might find that extreme. It’s actually conservative based on the low level of employee skill sets that are pervasive in organizations and the tremendous demand for higher-level performance in the future.

Grim Reality

Here are a few pieces of data to consider from various studies. Senior executives feel that 1 out of every 2 of their managers in their organizations don’t have the skills to lead people and inspire them. Only one-third of senior executives feel they have the right type of leader to lead their businesses globally. Now add in this data point: Only 2 in 5 employees say their company works with them on their development.

Here’s another perspective: A study showed that there is a 40 percent improvement in performance for people who are actively coached versus those who are not. 40 percent improvement! Yet, lack of feedback and coaching consistently tops the list of issues coming out of employee engagement surveys around the world. I was coaching an executive recently who was in a prestigious development program. When we were discussing his development and the role his manager would play, that executive said to me, “My manager isn’t into coaching and feedback. He doesn’t really believe in it.” What do you do with that? I’ll tell you what you do…you remove it from the organization. The challenge, as you see by the data, is pretty pervasive.

Why Isn’t It Happening?

Many reasons are offered as to why employees are not being developed:

  • It’s expensive.
  • It takes time.
  • Managers don’t have the skills.
  • We hire for what we need.
  • It’s the employee’s responsibility.

This is all rubbish. These are excuses. This mindset and apathy toward this critical business imperative has a significant ability to damage a business and is doing so across the world. Let’s explore how to make it different.

Big Picture Perspective

First, start with the business strategy. Ask, “What are the needed skills, experience, and capabilities needed to execute this strategy?” The next question would be, “What is the gap?” Once you have a handle on the gap, determine if you can build that capability internally or if you need to bring in the capability from outside the organization. A longer-term mindset that consistently asks these questions results in an organization that is better prepared to meet or lead the strategic direction of the organization and ensure attainment of performance commitments.

Where Are You Spending Your Time?

Vijay Govindarajan has a great framework to think about the longer-term health of an organization. VG, as he likes to be called, is a best-selling author, named as one of the Top 10 educators in the world, and is a distinguished professor at Harvard and Tuck Business School. VG says to think in terms of three boxes. Box 1 is successfully managing the present. Box 2 is selectively forgetting the past. Box 3 is creating the future. If you looked at your calendar over the last 60 days and reflected on your time spent on the business, how would you allocate your time across these three boxes? Typically, the majority of time spent is in Box 1.

Culture Trumps Everything Else

Culture is a collection of shared beliefs. Culture drives behavior. Cultural change drives behavioral change. Behavioral change is essential to create a pipeline of high-performing and talented employees. Ensuring an organization is the best it can be every day takes a culture that thinks and acts this way. If you want managers and employees to put a premium on the continuous evolution of skill sets, etc., you need the culture to drive this.

Drive Powerful Cultural Beliefs

Organizations that have institutionalized the idea of continuous improvement and growth have powerful beliefs:

  • It’s non-negotiable: Development is necessary, end of conversation.
  • Shared responsibility: Employees are expected to remain marketable. Managers are expected to invest in their employees.
  • Hire winners: Winners do what they need to do to win and continue to figure out ways to continue to win.
  • Hire for athleticism: Hire beyond the needs of the specific role and think long term about ways in which this person can contribute.
  • Promote early: Put people in roles ahead of when they are ready and help them be successful. There is tremendous energy for learning when people are in new roles or when they feel the role is bigger than they are that smart organizations capitalize on.
  • Simplify: Everywhere. All the time.
  • It’s forever: Development is not a destination. A development plan is a path, an accelerator, and a set of ideas and agreements. Don’t measure plan completion; measure whether it’s been developed.

This isn’t difficult. It takes intentional commitment and needs to be worked over time but it truly pays off. IBM, for example, heads many lists year after year for its talent development work. But the results of that work shows up in its profitability, shareholder return ,and other key financial metrics. An ongoing determination of what is needed to execute today and tomorrow and specific action behind it is just purely good business sense. Such a focus will no longer let employee development be elusive.

A coach and change agent, Kim Janson is the author of “Demystifying Talent Management: Unleash People s Potential to Deliver Superior Results.” For more than 20 years, she worked in 30-plus countries in her capacities as the Chief Talent Officer of H.J Heinz; SVP of Leadership Development at Bank of America; Head of Leadership, Learning, Org Effectiveness, and Diversity at Hasbro; and other senior roles at other Fortune 500 companies. Janson is a teacher/facilitator for Harvard University and provides executive coaching in programs for the Harvard Business School.

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