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Every good leader thinks about growing his or her business. We develop long-term visions, assess strengths and weaknesses, and set specific goals. However, many leaders fail to place the same focus on helping employees grow: understanding what their employees want to achieve, identifying what the business needs out of its employees, and putting plans in place to meet those goals. In truth, growing your employees is a part of successful business growth.  And, if you ascribe to Conscious Capitalism principles, your employees are one of your “stakeholders,” so you actually have a responsibility to their wellbeing. But growing employees can be challenging. It takes commitment and focus. Here is a five-step process leaders can use to ensure that employees grow to their fullest potential.

Step 1: Recognize that change is hard and give it focus and commitment

Change is always hard; for example, 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned by mid-February. That’s why employee growth — which is ultimately about change — can often take a back seat to seemingly more pressing business concerns. The key to successful growth is to support the needed change with the same type of planning, commitment, and accountability you would use for any other important business goal.

A great way to establish focus is by having an open conversation with each of your employees about their professional ambitions. For some employees, it might just be to earn more money to support their families; others might want to become a CEO. Having this conversation is also a great way to demonstrate your commitment to your employees’ best interests.

Step 2: Look for synergies between business needs and employee ambitions

Once you understand your employees’ professional ambitions, look for synergies with the company’s goals — in other words, ways that you might create win-wins. For example, a line-worker who wants to better support his family might do so by rising to a supervisory level. An employee who wants to become CEO might build skills by stepping up to increasingly challenging assignments. In both cases, there’s a synergy with the business needs, because the employee’s growth means that they also become more valuable to the company.

Of course, you may discover that an employee’s long-term ambitions are out of alignment with business needs. These conversations are valuable as well, because they help you and the employee understand where there might not be a good fit, and to plan accordingly.

Step 3: Set specific goals

After you identify the synergies, set specific “development” goals for growth. Identify specific tasks the employee can accomplish to move towards their ambitions that will also support company needs. In the case of the employee who wants to become a line supervisor, the goal might be to get additional training, or perhaps to cover for a supervisor who is out. For an employee who wants to rise to CEO, the goal might be taking on extra projects to broaden her exposure and knowledge.

I typically recommend establishing three to five development goals; they should be documented, and they should be what’s called “S.M.A.R.T” goals—meaning that they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Step 4: Agree on an action plan and measurement

For each goal, agree on an action plan with rough dates. For example, you might agree that the line employee will take a class in supervisory skills by the end of second quarter. With the aspiring CEO, you might identify the specific projects she’s going to take on, and when she will deliver them. The action plan only needs to be high-level, but it should be specific enough so that both you and the employee know what needs to be done in order to achieve the goal. It should also include some key milestones for tracking progress.

It’s also important to agree on how you will measure (i.e. assess) the employee’s success in achieving the goal. Identify what specific outcomes will be visible to both you and the employee that will let you know he or she has achieved the goal.

Step 5: Commit to regular follow-up and feedback

The most important part of any professional development is follow-up and feedback, so make a commitment to check-in on development goals at regular intervals.  For example, if you have routine status meetings with your employees, you might dedicate a certain amount of time once a month to check-in on development goals. The objective is to make sure you and the employee maintain focus on his or her development, to address any issues that may arise, and to provide the employee with the feedback necessary for success.

A mutually rewarding experience

When done right, development planning can be a highly rewarding experience for the employee, the company, and the manager. I often think back to a direct report I had many years ago named Mary. Mary was an extremely talented manager, and one of the hardest working people on my team. But as a single mother she’d never found the time to complete her college degree, and it was holding her career back. We crafted a development plan that included completing her degree, allocated time for her studies, and recognized the business benefits she’d deliver. After completing her degree Mary went on to some very significant roles within the company; she delivered some very impressive results, and she ultimately left to take a C-suite position.  We’ve stayed in touch, and I’ve always been very proud of her accomplishments.

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