Developing Your Staff is Key to Keeping Good Employees

by Colin Thompson

Picture this: In her exit interview a very competent and high potential manager told you why she was leaving. "I was told when I joined that there were opportunities to develop and progress. It just hasn't happened and the work is getting boring. I need a change" You remember that you had been reminding managers (or yourself) of the need to develop your talented people, but it hasn't happened. Now you pay a price!

Whose job is it to develop staff?

When you've talked to managers about their duties, responsibilities and tasks, they have, collectively, produced some pretty good answers. You ask, in all innocence, whose job it is to develop staff. They all say, with minor variations, that it is their job as managers. But when you ask them to give examples of what they do to develop staff the replies are not always satisfactory.

It is not surprising that development issues to do not get the attention they deserve: we have made staff development seem big and daunting

They expect staff to come in ready to start work and be reasonably trained or competent. From there on they know that it is their job and that, however good the staff looked when they arrived, there is much more to be done to create a mutually beneficial relationship.

You then ask "Who develops you? How much development do you get". The managers show that they are a fairly self-reliant bunch and, if they like their own manager, will say that he tries but is generally too busy. (If they mean you, it's appropriate to wince at this point!)

Why the difference between theory and practice?

What have we done to help? What did we tell managers about developing their teams? We probably told them that it:

  • is an important regular part of the manager's job. It can improve their people’s performance and should be considered and formalized at the annual performance review
  • is a sensitive area because it affects an individual's career and their future progress
  • takes time: it must be properly thought out and that the discussion on performance and development needed should be well prepared and not rushed
  • and that managers must identify and prioritize development for their people, make good plans, and ensure that the development or promised training happens and the results assessed.

This is probably done during an annual review when managers have a number of people to deal with. Since managers are generally behind on these things and have other priorities, and HR or management is chasing them for the return of the review forms, it is not surprising that development issues to do not get the attention they deserve. In short we have made the job of planning and ensuring the development of staff seem big and daunting. Should we have applied more pressure to make development happen? Perhaps. But would it have worked? Unlikely.

It is essential to develop an attitude about learning so that it is seen to be an essential part of the business

Culture is fundamental and notoriously difficult to change, especially in a long established organization. It is essential to develop an attitude about learning so that it is seen to be an essential part of the business. Continuing personal and organizational development must be seen as normal--so much so that employees expect it. But let's look at the issues.

So what are the big issues in getting managers to develop their people?

The big issues are more concerned with how to do it, rather than what to do. They include:

  • Getting managers to see the value to themselves of developing others
  • Making it easy to start, and start getting clear benefits
  • Monitoring the outcomes as well as their activity
  • Linking the individual’s improvement or extra skill to the individual’s subsequent progress
  • Giving individuals the opportunities to realize their potential within the organization
  • Getting people to believe continuing learning is essential

Get managers to see the value of developing their people

Many managers see themselves as being over-burdened. If they are responsible, they are working long hours and leave at the end of the day feeling that they have not achieved all that they should have. Many of them could have achieved more had they been prepared to delegate more. As usual, they may also have thought that they could have delegated more, but that it was quicker to do it themselves.

Most managerial jobs include substantial tasks which could be delegated if only the manager were to sit with one of the more responsible members of the team, discuss the task, the things which are involved and explain it to the member and then hand that task over while retaining an element of supervision. It can be the gradual process in which the scope of a task is gradually extended, or a new task added or new learning opportunities found, and as the individual becomes more skilled at doing it the manager can add further tasks.

It is important that the tasks are done correctly of course, but it is also important that someone other than the manager understands how it is done. It gives the manager more time to do other things and the benefits are soon apparent once the initial investment of time has been made. Fine so far, but this is unlikely to happen regularly until the manager starts seeing the personal benefit of having better staff.

Part of the manager's job is to teach how things should be done --the saving to the manager is the reduction of 're-work'

And what personal benefits can there be: off-loading a task to one or several subordinates so that the manager can tackle other things; freeing up the manager's calendar; perhaps even to get the job done better because it is new to that individual, while to the manager it is a chore.

It doesn't have to be a major job either; for example, the simple act of training a subordinate in the way a new business pitch or detailed quote should look, produces a saving. Part of the manager's job is to teach how things should be done --the saving to the manager is the reduction of 're-work'. This is where HR or supportive senior management really can help, by advising the manager on ways of getting these savings, providing guidance, identifying opportunities, and encouraging. All 'carrot stuff', but with the 'stick' ready as well.

Make it easier to start

Many managers know they should delegate more but are unsure where to start as well as how to start. In many organizations there are sufficient similarities in the tasks required by managers for it to be worthwhile to produce a guide to the task and notes for the manager on learning opportunities. It is relatively simple to produce a guide which suggests how a manager may delegate that task, how to identify aspects which may cause problems and guidelines on how to brief an individual who will be charged with the task. Such guides do not take long to produce and sometimes just preparing them identifies system weaknesses --a double benefit to the manager.

Develop a Learning culture

An organization does not develop a learning culture unless there it is led from the top. The example can be set so easily by the chief executive. For example, it was at the end of a long top-team meeting which discussed a range of difficult problems. People were gathering their papers, anxious to get away before any more problems were brought out into the open. The chief executive said "Just before you go" --members' hearts sank noisily-- "I want no more than one minute from each of you in turn on what you have learnt from this meeting, or what you will do differently in the future". After a pause, one of the members stated what he had learnt, and was going on beyond his allotted 60 seconds when the chief executive said, "Fine I don't want any more. Next!" And the others responded in turn. Within two months each senior executive was adopting the same approach at their meetings. It did not take long for that approach to make a big improvement to the learning culture. Try it out.

An organization does not develop a learning culture unless there it is led from the top

There are a range of options. If you have a reasonably simple and useable set of management competencies --not all are simple-- you can organize the development guide around those competencies and find examples which managers can consider when discussing an individual's development and where the improvements can be identified subsequently at annual review.

  • Link the staff development to career progression or to assessment of potential for promotion: Design the processes so that individuals can consider their own progress and raise their sights higher. Many will then put extra effort into self-development.
  • Link the development process to qualification or suitability to undertake special projects or an extension of job role
  • Link it to with such things as eligibility to represent the organization at winter conferences held in sunny places.

For example, a major IT company made two conditions for their sales people to attend the annual 'binge'. One was that they had achieved their year’s sales targets --the other was that they had attended all the training which they had agreed on at the start of the year. "Too busy working on a big project" was not accepted as an excuse. It showed that the business took development very seriously.

Monitor and record the outcomes

Many organizations keep a record of the formal training of each individual. Fewer keep notes on informal training on development experiences. Fewer still record the outcomes and benefits. But it's not that difficult to arrange a quick review after the event; a check up which goes further than the end-of-course 'happy sheet'. It is fairly easy to check three months afterwards by asking about the application of the new knowledge or skills and the benefits. Of course, the manager should respond, but the busy manager will find it another chore, so why not ask the individual who may well be more interested in his or her progress and career?

Look after your people

Of course, managers should look after their people, they should be concerned about their people's performance, progress and careers. It would make life easier all round. Of course, there will always be some manager in some companies who won't, and they deserve to lose their best people--and maybe you'll pick them up!

Look after your staff and they will look after the customer!

Give your feedback to Colin. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Colin Thompson is a former Managing Director of Print Manufacturing Plants, Print Management/Workflow Solutions companies and other organizations, former Group Chairman of the Academy for Chief Executives and Non-Executive Director, helping companies raise their `bottom-line` and `increase cash flow`. Author of several publications, research reports, guides, business and educational models on CD-ROM's/Software and over 400 articles published on business and educational subjects worldwide. Plus, he is an International Speaker and Visiting University Professor on the International circuit. Colin can be reached at  + 44 (0) 121 244 0306 or via email at [email protected]. His website is -