Nalini Prasanna on Flickr

Nalini Prasanna/Flickr

Sharpen your pencil. It’s time to think about your best employee’s development!

In my work, I am almost always in some aspect of the “development” conversation. Either defining the need, coaching, or capturing the results of development.

Why Focus On Your Best People?

In some recent work with several clients, I have supported their managers’ success in delivering development messages to high-performers. Why the effort? Three reasons:

  1. Focus on the Best. The biggest bang for developing people is most often in very good- to high-performers. Yet, we can leave them with nice kudos and vague direction.
  2. Identify Real Development. It can be hard to discern the “real” development need. Even when performance and opportunity are clear, the actual development needed can be uncertain.
  3. Set Effective Action. Development planning is often a faded process following performance reviews. To get the paperwork done, the easiest actions are training, a special assignment, or (nowadays) coaching. But, did the person think about what action will get the real development intended?

I’m not saying that we don’t talk to higher-performers about their development. In fact, that conversation is a lot more fun than the one with a struggling performer. What’s missing is:

A focused, development-solving conversation with actions identified that the person is charged up about.

I was reminded of the missed opportunity last week as I summarized a post-program survey for a Mentoring program I help run. The Mentees were so thrilled to have someone talk with them about their development, especially as the Mentors challenged them to personally grow. All they are missing now is a conversation with their boss. It reminded me of the key finding in Marcus Buckingham’s book First Break All the Rules: one of twelve reasons your best people stay is that they “have someone at work who encourages my development.”

It’s Not About the Written Plan

I’m not talking about whether a formal development plan is written. That plan is meaningless if the areas for development are not the most important for success and advancement. So often, I see development areas that are pretty benign—we don’t want to write down the most important truth. I tell clients, don’t write it down then. Just work it through so that you are focused on that development.

Accelerate the Development That Might Occur Over Time (Or, Might Not)

If you’re from the “cream will rise to the top” thinking, of course your best people have already developed a lot without help. But, what’s the value of making sure they have the right information and plan to accelerate their natural development speed and effectiveness.

OK, that’s probably enough of my rant for the week. I’ll close with an earlier point that we often don’t have the development conversation because getting at the real development can be hard. Next week, I’ll share some thinking on how to work with the person to identify the real development need.

And, by the way, you can also think team development.