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Staff development: Looking both ways. By Matt Henkes

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Looking both ways at staff development

A modern business without an effective staff development strategy risks a lack of employee engagement and all the nasty things that come with it. But it’s not enough just to throw a couple of ‘sheep-dip’ training courses into the mix. Matt Henkes finds that you must also look at aligning your development strategy with the wider aims of your organisation.


There are many recognised benefits to be gained from fostering growth among your people. For one, the HR holy grail of staff retention is dramatically improved when employees feel the firm is investing a bit of time and resource in helping them grow.

Unfortunately, most people know how it feels to be unengaged with their employer, with no prospects for advancement. It feels like a life sentence of routine drudgery that only serves to inflate the executive team’s already bloated bonus package.

A well-honed learning and development strategy can counter some of these dark and, ultimately, destructive grumblings. Promoting the notion the company cares about the future of its staff, as forward thinking firms really should, not only makes employees happier but will benefit the organisation in years to come.

The end of job-for-life employment has had an effect on UK staff development. Many firms developed a reluctance to invest significantly in their staff. Employees, they feared, would ultimately up-sticks and leave at a moment’s notice, taking their new-found skills with them. However, in these leaner times, where true quality is more cost effective to grow than to hire, more thought is being put into identifying potential, hanging on to it and nurturing it.

Straight down the line

The first bastion of effective staff development is the line manager. As the position which, organisationally, has the greatest effect on the performance of your grass-roots staff, it is perhaps surprising that line managers are often promoted to their position with little or no instruction on how to perform their new role.

Alyson Pellowe, external consultant at training consultancy People Vision, believes firms which pay attention to the management skills of their front line managers can enjoy big benefits in terms of their staff performance. “What you have otherwise is staff with very poor role models from which to get their inspiration,” she warns.

“It always felt like a sheep-dip. People were put through the same course irrespective of their capability. There was never any measurement.”

Russell Ward, director, Silent Edge

Line managers are instrumental not only in delivering the development ethos down from the executive, but also in gathering the information which travels the other way and feeds the top-level decisions on developmental strategy.

Gathering this data is another skill which many newly promoted managers are not equipped with. Most firms’ assessment procedures consist of tiered marking, whereby employees’ attributes are measured through a tick-box system ranging from ‘poor’ to ‘excellent’.

In practice though, what does this really mean? It’s hardly an objective assessment, says Russell Ward, of the sales performance firm Silent Edge, who believes he has the solution.

After years working as a sales manager, Ward decided that too much money was being spent on training courses that couldn’t prove any tangible improvements in behaviour or performance. “It always felt like a sheep-dip where people were put through the same course irrespective of their capability,” he says. “There was never any measurement.”

Ward developed a system for scoring sales capabilities based on objective performance assessment. He believes the system provides an excellent form of training needs analysis, an undervalued facet of development strategy that can make up more than half the battle.

Cable and Wireless implemented Ward’s scorecard system in a team of 26 sales people. Six months later, the team had increased their order intake from £750,000 per month to over £4 million per month. “In six weeks we achieved what would normally take us six months,” says regional MD Mike Siddon in his glowing report of the implementation.

Ward is adapting the process for other sectors such as the NHS and says he has had plenty of interest. The key, he says, is in motivating people to want to change by getting them to see clearly and objectively where they need to improve. “Suddenly the manager is equipped with really detailed information on where they need to coach and develop each individual in their team,” he adds.

Focusing on the bigger picture

But data on the shortcomings of your employees represents only half of the information you need for an effective development strategy. If your decisions aren’t aligned with the wider aims of the organisation, in the long-run no one wins.

As director of the Royal Mail Academy, Peter Turgoose is charged with the role of aligning development with organisational needs. His team sits above learning and development in the organisation, working with the main board and senior business leaders to identify the capabilities the group will need in order to implement its long term strategies.

“The better teams are the ones that have a manager with more of a coaching mindset. It’s critical leadership behaviour for the mindset of our people.”

Peter Turgoose, director, Royal Mail Academy

“We look at what skills and capabilities people will need, then work with the learning and development designers to put in place the capability programmes that will ensure the right people have the right capabilities at the right time,” he says.

On the ground, Royal Mail staff have one-to-one meetings with their line managers, discussing and deciding on the numerous development opportunities open to them. Line managers feed this information into the organisation’s performance and learning management system. This system contains the options that have been crafted in response to the organisational capabilities assessment made by Turgoose’s team.

The result is that staff can define their own development from a range of options that are all relevant to the proposed direction of the organisation. It’s an end-to-end process. “We start from organisational capabilities and work through to individual ones,” says Turgoose.

A well matched concept

Royal Mail managers at all levels are expected to act in a coaching capacity. Turgoose believes that the concept of engaging staff and the coaching mindset go very well together. The manager’s role essentially is to get people to understand why they need to behave in a certain way and to get them motivated about the capabilities they need.

“The teams that are better in that area are the ones that have a manager with more of a coaching approach,” he says. “It’s critical leadership behaviour for the mindset of our people.”

But where is the role of HR in this process? The task changes as you move through the different levels of an organisation as big as Royal Mail. At the board level, HR should be involved in the discussion as part of the strategy and development process.

Further down at the business level, HR should be working with the business unit executive teams to build their understanding and provide coaching so that the strategy is embedded in their plans. At the team and individual level, HR people should be functioning as secondary coaches, helping people get the full benefits from the opportunities available to them.

“Their role really is to ensure that the business leaders are pulling all the right levers to ensure that the business has all the capabilities it needs,” says Turgoose. “They are also ensuring the tools are there and that managers are taking full advantage of them.”

3 Responses

  1. Agree and Dis-agree
    Competency assessment is key to the development of any individual and using system’s to make this analysis is a great help. The dis-advantage /or hurdle to overcome is adaptation of use. If a manger/team leader /or L&D representative does not act /or adopt on the results then all the analysis in the world does not make a difference. I would also question companies that go outside of their core competencies to provide solutions that they have no experience /or previous knowledge of. At SalesTrak we provide an on-demand competency assessment solution, our core competency as a company is Software NOT CONTENT this is why we take leading industry content from the US and UK to provide blue chip and SME alike with industry standard frameworks in the realms of Sales, Procurement, HR, IT etc… This then lets the client form a process that is probably underway but in a rudimentary fashion. Companies like Silent Edge are a consultancy and their core competency is Sales Evaluation and should stay in their retrospective field.

  2. But do Line Managers want to coach?
    I think my concern is that while we all want the line manager to coach their team this may be an alian to many managers. Some because of time and some are not in the right “place” to do it.

    I think that the organisation environment is important, in a call centre all staff from senior to front line may be coached but in a law firm for example the ethos will be very different.

    We in HR have to manage the change and influence the line managers to clarify that they will have a greater career progression if they can take the time to coach and there fore have great people in their team. Not easy!

  3. Agree in principle
    I think that most organisations and people would agree with this assessment. It makes for a common sense approach to delivering more specific targetted training.

    But… why start with managers? The staff themselves quite often have a very good picture of what they can and can’t do and working with them as well as management – achieves a higher level of commitment and the feeling that training provision really is personalised. It can take some time to get this right, and coaching meetings and review meetings between manager and staff can help to align viewpoints as part of the process.

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