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As organizations have become metric-crazy over these past years, HR processes have been forced to fall in line.  That means that the systems and processes for developing talent have become ridiculously over engineered and many struggle to find the true value in the activity.  This is a shame because if you ask any decent HR person they would loudly proclaim, “Just have some meaningful conversations with your people!”

So let me cut through the crap and make this simple.

  1. Managing performance and developing talent is a two way street.  We’ve established that this is an ongoing dialogue.  That means it takes two.  If you are a direct report, put yourself on your boss’ schedule.  If you are the boss, work with your assistant to routinely schedule informal meetings with your folks.  Let your staff know that if they feel neglected it is not intentional; that you won’t always know what and when they need something.  Let them know it is okay for them to flag you down.
  1. Explore aspirations.  This one is a bit tricky.  As a good manager you ask, “Where do you see yourself in two years?” and your staff member says, “In your job”.  Ambition is wonderful but it can sometimes be blind.  If you are seriously grooming this person to take over, phew!  But many times employees overshoot their capabilities or readiness.  Then you are in the position of being a total killjoy.

It is important to keep these future oriented conversations honest.  You want to support growth but in the context of your assessment of someone’s potential.  If you don’t see this person as ready any time soon for a more senior role or, worse, you just don’t see them as leadership material you need to deliver a clear message.  You aren’t doing someone a favor if you unrealistically support a pipedream.  But you don’t want to demoralize either.  In these cases, the questions you ask can steer the conversation down a more helpful path.  “Tell me what you believe are the capabilities for my job.  Talk to me about how you have demonstrated these skills.  Did you know that this position also requires someone to do X, Y, Z?  Where do you think you are in your development on those dimensions?”  As the person describes himself in ways that are too rosy or fall far short of what is needed in your position you can offer feedback.  Together you will conclude that he needs some good assignments to help him develop or that the gap is quite wide and you need to explore different career paths.  Whichever way it goes, your job is to maintain a helpful and positive tone.

We all need aspirations.  But if we are reaching for the impossible, a well-timed and respectful redirection from a good boss can have a lasting impact on our careers.  Conversely, if your hopes are realistic most bosses love to help you get there.

  1. Have a balanced discussion.  Another pop quiz.  In your last formal review, how much time did you spend on the good stuff?  How much time on the tough stuff?  A funny thing happens in these conversations.  The praise fills about 15% percent of the time while the “opportunities for improvement” takes up most of the time.  And it’s not just bosses who make this happen.  Employees focus on the negative way more than the positive.  “Yeah, yeah, I know all that.  I’ve heard it my entire career.  Tell me what I can do better.”  I can safely say that I have heard people complain more frequently about getting a glowing review than a crappy one.  Make no mistake, however.  Everyone wants a very high numerical rating no matter how the conversation went.  There’s just something about human nature in this.  We tend to focus on the negative, discount the positive but ultimately we want the affirmations.  Go figure.

That said, a good balance is a more accurate assessment most of the time.  In the real world, there are very few people who do absolutely everything to “exceed expectations”.  Just like there are very few people who suck at everything.  It is important to highlight in very specific terms the actions that you want someone to keep doing.  Clearly stating how someone did not measure up and what he needs to do differently is the coaching opportunity.  At the end of the discussion a person should feel like he knows what is praiseworthy and what needs attention.

If it really is lopsided you need to do something quickly.  If someone walks on water you better promote him immediately or else he’s outta there.  If someone is a total loser, make that call to HR.

  1. Create a plan.  In reality those lovely five-paged “Development Plans” that you and your direct reports fill out together rarely get implemented.  So don’t waste your time.  Instead select one project or assignment or course that she has her eye on.  Sponsor this activity as her major development opportunity for the year.  If it gets completed by mid-year, have her pick another one and so on.  It’s more of a pay as you go plan versus a major blueprint.  Remember, it’s the small bites that get done.  You are both more likely to commit to one thing at a time.  Taking this approach, that puts the employee in the driver’s seat, makes you feel way less guilty for all those dusty unrealized career plans sitting on your shelf.
  1. Assign a mentor and become a mentor.  Even if your company doesn’t have a formal mentoring program, make it happen for your key players.  This is one of the most high impact and low cost ways of developing talent and getting senior management to nurture the future leaders.  Telling someone that you have selected a mentor for her speaks volumes about your investment in her.  Taking the time to be a mentor is one of those feel-good activities.

Mentoring benefits the individuals and the company.  Senior leaders rarely have the opportunity to interact with a cross section of rising stars in the course of ordinary business.  High performers don’t see much action outside of their own function.  This cross-pollination expands the employees’ knowledge of how things work and the leadership’s knowledge of the up and coming talent.  These programs always get high praise from everyone.  If you don’t have a formal mentoring program, talk to HR.

For many of you, developing your people comes very naturally and you make consistent investments.  But for others, managing performance and finding great opportunities for your staff feels like just one more in a long list of responsibilities.  It’s not that you aren’t interested; it’s just that you haven’t found a way to make it an ordinary part of your day instead of an annual event.  Break it down.  And make it a joint responsibility.  This can be much easier…and more rewarding…than it is for you today.

Besides, wouldn’t you rather have chats than fill out forms?

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