When leaders attempt to “develop” their subordinates, the process tends to be very hands-off and demoralizing. They often start by observing who their most ambitious and politically inclined employees are. Next they let those people duke it out in order to see who can earn a place of power and prestige. All too often, growing professionally seems like something only a small percentage of the entire organization is even capable of. And even those select individuals must self-identify and maneuver themselves into their new roles.
So, what is wrong with this scenario?
In such a scenario, all leadership can do is observe and, when the time is right, give out promotions. The message is clear: only the minimum will be required of most employees and those who know how to work the system will get ahead. Is it any wonder why so many leaders complain about being overly busy due to a chronic shortage of truly capable people to whom they can delegate important tasks?
Here’s the solution: don’t wait for talent to emerge. Develop it.
But this strategy isn’t easy, and it may require your beliefs to change. For example, it requires a belief that everyone has potential they are not fully actualizing and that they themselves may not even be aware of.
A turning point in my own life was the result of people seeing more in me than I saw in myself. When I was 16 years old my father, who noticed that I loved tinkering with electronics and taking things apart, informed me that I would be working for a man named Bill Paberzs who owned a service station near our house. Bill recognized both my aptitude for mechanical things and saw my potential despite the fact that I was almost completely ignorant of automotive diagnostics and repair. For years he invested time and resources into my development.
Bill was literally a hands-on teacher; he would put his hands on mine to show me how to correctly use a torque wrench. With great intentionality, just the right amount of instruction, encouragement, and constructive criticism, he helped me transform myself from someone who could barely do an oil change to a competent mechanic who could completely rebuild an engine. From Bill I learned far more than just technical knowledge, I also learned about self-confidence, discipline, quality, and craftsmanship.
But developing people requires more than simply recognizing potential. It also requires having faith in someone else and taking a risk on them. At first, I made innumerable mistakes and experienced failure on almost a daily basis. Developing me into a real mechanic cost Bill money. (Especially the time that I accidentally drove his Jeep through a glass garage door…) But it was all a price that Bill was willing to pay so that in the future I could add real value to his operation and keep it running when he wasn’t around. He knew that there was no guarantee that I would stay. I could have gone to other places. But I felt loyal to the man who had believed in me, and I worked hard as a result.
The time is right for rethinking how we go about developing internal talent because people’s attitudes towards work are changing—younger generations especially. Employees are hungry for more than a paycheck, and they are tired of office politics. If we are going to spend 1/3 of our life in an office, they say, please let it count for something. They want to contribute in a meaningful way. They want to develop and to experience growth in their professional lives. They want to be invested in and have someone take an interest in them. In return they will be engaged employees seeking ways to add value, rather than to extract it.
It’s up to us, as leaders, to spot those who are far from reaching their potential and encouraging them to take the first step towards their own development. We need to stop complaining about not being able to find the right people and spend money investing in the employees we have. We need to stop rewarding people who are good at manipulating others and are climbing a corporate ladder solely for the purpose of boosting their own egos. We need to be hands-on teachers and we need to get intentional about helping people grow. Only by taking risks on individuals and making a sustained effort will we be able to unlock the full potential of human capital that lies dormant in our organizations.