When I first became a new manager within the IT department, there was a lot to be done. I had spent over 10 years working with this particular software—but, my direct reports had not. In fact, most of them were new to IT. The consultants were gone, and it was now my responsibility to make sure my team not only had the proper skills to support our day-to-day operations, but that they also had clear direction in their new career paths.
So, with a little help from my own supervisor, as well as some leadership training, I set out to create development plans for my team. And whether or not you’re going through a major transition like I was, this exercise is immensely valuable—whether you’re coming on board as a new manager, holding performance reviews, or even just looking to improve your team’s current job performance.
This five-step plan will help you pinpoint the right goals for your employees, develop a plan to achieve them, and help your team as a whole take their careers to the next level.
1. Discuss Goals
The first step is to sit down with each team member and discuss her desired career goals. It’s a good idea to keep an open mind here—people’s goals might not be what you expect. I like to ask the question, “What did you want to be when you grew up?” which often results in surprises. For example, you just might find out that someone has a creative side that’s underutilized in her current job.
Really listen and get to know each employee, and discuss any gaps in skills or experience between where he or she is today and where he or she wants to go. At this point, you can decide together what specific things might help each individual down his or her desired path.
2. Identify Your Team’s Development Gaps
You’ll also want to be thinking about the areas in which each of your employees could improve or grow. Sometimes they’re easy to spot—it could be inexperience with particular software, or perhaps you’ve noticed that someone’s emails are lacking professionalism. However, if it’s difficult to pinpoint someone’s weak spots, the simplest thing you can often do is to ask. It may be best to ask this when you’re already discussing goals, so she’s not caught off guard. Try, “Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn?”
Chances are, each employee will have an idea of how she could improve, but if not, give her some time to think about it and get back to you.
3. Establish Specific Training Objectives
Once you’ve identified where someone can grow, it’s not enough to tell her to “learn how to do this task better.” You’ll get the best results if you create very specific training objectives (and put them on paper!). These objectives should include the action desired, a deadline, and the method of evaluation, which clearly shows how an employee can be successful at a particular task. For example, the objective could be to complete a certain number of transactions in a given time, or to correctly process a complicated report without a co-worker’s help. When you’re writing these down, it’s also helpful to include why each task is important, which will help keep your team members motivated and feel like they are working toward something worthwhile.
4. Create the Right Training Plan
Once you’ve identified the specific skills needed for each person’s career path and laid out some objectives, you can create a training plan. Everyone learns differently, so these are going to vary by person.
Again, I suggest the direct approach. Ask your employees how they learn best. Do they do their best learning on their own, or do they prefer the conference environment? Before you start suggesting a bunch of online classes, find out what’s worked for them in the past, then decide together on the best steps.
After you have the plan in place, it’s imperative to provide feedback and consistently check in on their progress and learning, even if you know your employee is already doing a task well. Don’t wait until performance evaluation time to do this, either. Schedule a chat when each employee has had enough time to learn and practice her new skill, and see how it’s going. And if your team member is still in the development stage, remember to informally check in more often and offer encouragement.
5. Celebrate and Make it Fun
Finally, remember that not all employee development activities need to be structured. Some of the best learning can be gained through team meetings or informal chats across the cubicle wall. I like to hold “Munch ‘n Learns” with my own employees. Once a month or so, I bring in scones from a favorite bakery and someone does an informal presentation on something she learned recently. It’s a great way to make learning and training a part of the team culture.
I also keep something called a “Snap Cup” (an idea that I stole from Legally Blonde). Whenever someone does something noteworthy or reaches a particular goal, I write it down on a Post-It and throw it into the Snap Cup. I then read all of the “snaps” out loud during team meetings. It’s silly, but it’s also fun to look back and celebrate all of our accomplishments.
If this sounds like a lot of work—well, that’s because it is. It’s definitely easy to shove employee development to the back burner while you’re occupied with getting your day-to-day tasks done. But don’t underestimate the benefits of this win-win activity. If done right, employee development rewards you with an autonomous team that’s happy and motivated—and that makes your job easier.