Janice was excited when she got a job as a systems analyst with a solar company. She saw the position as an opportunity to act on her passion for the environment and to finally do work that mattered. Her actual work experience, however, was far from fulfilling. The projects were ill-defined, piecemeal, and stressful. Her manager was mostly unavailable. No one talked with her about career goals, and her suggestions for improvement went nowhere. Her frustration level was growing daily. Maybe this company wasn’t a great fit after all. A friend at another startup said they were hiring…
If you want to lose your most motivated, creative, and ambitious employees, Janice’s company is a great example to follow.
People who are drawn to working for socially conscious companies seek compensation that goes beyond a paycheck. They want to learn new skills, feel the reward of making a difference, and experience the joy of being their authentic selves. Whether they’re second-career job hunters or new grads, those who are driven by a personal mission choose employment specifically to build a path towards meaningful impact. These change-makers want to develop themselves and build skills and knowledge to move forward. If they’re not getting development in their current role, the most talented people will change jobs to find it.
Actively encouraging growth and developing talent is key to keeping your workforce engaged. It’s how you retain your most skilled team members. It’s also how you build a next generation of leaders with a sense of context and ownership so they can carry the mission forward.
Professional growth doesn’t just happen by putting in time on the job. Someone can accumulate years of experience without expanding their skills, developing self-awareness, or finding their role as a leader. On the other hand, a company can push its employees too aggressively, essentially throwing them in at the deep end without enough support.
It takes skillful guidance to help employees ride the wave of growth without putting them in situations that are simply too challenging for their current level or too risky for the enterprise. When we are “surfing the developmental edge,” as I like to call it, we ride in the zone just at the edge of our abilities, a rich environment for learning to handle new challenges while getting work done.
Here’s how you can help emerging leaders in your company find that edge. These three approaches allow you to facilitate growth in a targeted manner, with compassion for the process of developing in small steps, over time.
1. Show, Tell, and Ask
Explain what you are doing and why to emerging leaders.
During the course of your day, share your decision-making process. Don’t just announce your conclusions, but explain how you reached them and the alternatives you weighed. Listen to emerging leaders’ ideas about the situation and respond to their questions. This ongoing, intentional communication is contextualized leadership development — helping to build engagement, understanding, and good judgment among staff simply by sharing your process in tackling everyday decisions and issues.
Model team leadership.
Eyes are on executive leaders as exemplars of the real culture and practices that are endorsed by the company. Does your team operate the way you encourage your staff to? Team interactions are a source of significant professional development, whether it’s growing relationships, improving processes, or innovating solutions. Show emerging leaders how to work collaboratively by teaming up with them. Point out what makes teams work in your culture. Ask if they would like to improve their contribution to the team. This opens the door to direct development conversations.
2. Step Back So Others Can Step Forward
Break up your work into discrete projects and assign some to leaders ready for a next-level assignment.
Coach them as they take on these responsibilities, providing support as needed. Give them the opportunity to stretch, excel, and be appreciated. While it may take more time — at first — to delegate this way, the investment yields emerging leaders who “get it,” because they have been developed by senior leaders in their own organization.
Use the “coach approach” in meetings.
Ask team members to identify issues, make suggestions, and develop plans. Create space for others to contribute. Only mention your ideas and opinions after all other ideas have been put on the table. Asking effective questions and appreciating useful responses helps build engagement, uncovers new ideas, and encourages collaboration while getting the job done.
3. Take Training Further
Ask learners to lead application of their training.
Encourage staff to take part in trainings, conferences, and educational experiences. Upon their return, ask them to summarize what they learned for the rest of the team, lead discussions about implementation, and take charge of initiatives that come out of the trainings.
Have everyone read and discuss the same book.
Select a book that’s relevant to the opportunities and challenges your company faces. Assign chapters for all to read, and discuss them over several weeks. Then, decide where and how to apply what you’ve learned. Implement and revisit every few weeks to check effectiveness.
Create a “virtuous cycle” of education.
As emerging leaders grow their knowledge and skills, they gain respect among team members, which creates opportunities for more challenging assignments and teamwork, furthering their on-the-job education and learning. As needs for additional training emerge, implement a mutually agreed-upon individual development plan rooted in accomplishing important work for the organization.
Continuous Growth Takes a Culture of Learning
Organizations hungry to make a difference foster the continuous growth of their people and teams in order to retain the best talent and develop innovative solutions. In a fast-paced, growing organization, many people get promoted beyond their current level of competence. If they are smart, they grow into it, work at it, and learn from it as fast as they can so they can live up to their responsibilities. This includes developing the emerging leaders around them to help take the organization to the next level. A culture of deliberate development builds leadership at all levels while getting work done.
Before we are open to learning, we have to recognize that we don’t already know it all — which is especially important for established leaders. An organization’s culture can reinforce lessons learned in team meetings, be open about failures, create time for reflection, and promote the conversations and experiments needed for team members to keep growing themselves and the business. Organizations that develop a learning culture will not only see less turnover and an increase in shared leadership; they will also see employees amplify and accelerate their efforts toward accomplishing their mission.
Whatever your overall leadership development strategy, you can add real-time workplace learning to enhance implementation. Especially in a socially conscious company, it’s important to align these approaches with your company’s mission and culture.
Jessica G. Hartung is the founder and CEO of Integrated Work, a company that partners with mission-driven organizations to apply leadership development in everyday work experiences, accelerating impact and achieving measurable results. Building customized, real-time, applied leadership development systems for executive teams is their passion. They help clarify focus, co-design strategic options, provide tools and mentorship, and build leadership capacity to accelerate positive impact. For more resources for renewing yourself and avoiding burnout, visit integratedwork.com/resources and its sister site, workthatmatters.com.