This is a transcript of Episode 2 – developing and growing talent. You can also listen to episode 2.
If I think about where someone has just absolutely shined, they’ve got the motivation to do it. They’ve come looking for it and they’ve said “I want to do that.”
I always look back at that particular moment in time and go “that was really the start of our learning culture there.”
Miraculous things can happen. We shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of people to change and to learn.
Welcome to Feel – a podcast about leadership and building the next generation of engaging and empathetic organisations. My name’s Andy Kelk. Last time we looked at organisational culture – what is it, how to build it and how to preserve it. If you’ve not heard it already, you can get it from iTunes or FeelPodcast.org.
In this episode, the focus is on developing people and growing talent in your organisation.
The American poet Mark van Doren is credited with the words “The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” The meaning being that people learn through their own efforts and that a leader or teacher’s role is to nurture the natural talent for learning.
I spoke with a number of forward-thinking leaders about how they assist discovery amongst the people they lead. Alex Stokes, consultant and founder of agily.com.au has had experience of grooming people to take on new challenges:
There’s a guy who wasn’t on my team at a particular company I was working on and he made a little pitch for something. And I was in a position where I was able to hire some leadership roles. And my boss at the time was like “Hmm… well, you want the a-team, you’ve got this opportunity to go and hire some stars” and all of us love that opportunity and we want to go and get our friends, go to the market, we want to see for my money what am I going to get here. Because we know that hiring the a-team is the best thing you have the opportunity to do.
But this guy had worked there for a long time. And you have these preconceived notions of what that means: he’s worked here for a long time, he’s seen all the bad stuff, he’s still here. Is he a rockstar? Not sure about that? Was he able to change stuff? Not sure about that.
Anyway, he made a little pitch and I said to my boss “oh, this guy’s going to apply for this role, what do you reckon?” and my boss did something really clever and didn’t tell me what to do. And he let this guy wow me with his enthusiasm.
I said “look, here are all the roles; can’t say what’s going to happen at the moment; but there’s going to be a restructure; there’s going to be some roles here, here and here. But is that really what you want to do? There’ll be some tech lead roles here, and there’ll be this leadership role here.” And he was like “That role. I want that role. I can do it, let me do it.” And I was like “OK, I’m sold, you want it so bad, you can do it”.
So I think it’s really taking the leap and trusting people with the big hard things but I think you also have to see that they’ve got some kind of motivation to do it.
Motivation is an important factor in people’s learning. We’ll be talking more about motivation in the next episode of this podcast.
Em Campbell-Pretty is an enterprise agile consultant. She was working at a large telecoms company in Australia when she was hiring for new people to join her team:
So we needed to hire people who were willing to learn. I can remember one of our hiring questions was always “what are you reading? What meetups do you go to? What blogs do you follow?” and we wanted people who were self-motivated to learn.
So, self-motivated people will often take care of their own learning. But sometimes that just isn’t enough. Alex Stokes:
Even, I’ve worked with people; so called agile people, agile friendlies; who wouldn’t pick up a book. They saw what they saw because coaches came into the workplace and did stuff and that’s where it started and finished. They wouldn’t go to a website.
We used to interview people all the time and recruiters would send them to us as “this place is an agile shop. They’re going to want to know what you know about this, that and the other.” And you’d say “what blogs do you read?” or “what’s your favourite website?” and… nothing. It’s really disappointing sometimes.
In order to solve this problem, Em Campbell-Pretty took a pretty radical approach. She was setting up an Agile Release Train – a concept written about by Dean Leffingwell. She’d asked her team to read the book so they could implement the concept. But, at their management meeting, she found that self-motivation hadn’t worked:
I’ve asked the guys “you know we talked about what the release train was and I sent you the link to buy Dean’s book so that you could get more detail about what we were talking about. Who’s read the book? Just a show of hands.” I got two hands.
I actually took my two hands, I asked a second question: “who’s finished the book?” and that actually got me down to one hand so it really wasn’t going very well at that point.
And I took a change of tack. I said “OK. Who doesn’t own the book?” That got me the rest of the hands. And at that point, I did something I very rarely do. So it’s not really in my style to apply mandates. “Everybody is going to go home and buy the book. If you can’t afford the book, you’re going to let me know and I’m going to buy the book for you. And then we’re going to read the book. Together. And we’re going to read a chapter at a time and each week we’ll come together and we’ll talk about one or two chapters and really look at what it is that Dean was trying to get across, whether it made sense for us to just take that practice and apply it, whether it made sense for us just to disregard it or do we perhaps adapt it to our context.”
And I set that up as a mandatory management meeting, once a month for about three months.
By demonstrating the value of reading, Em sparked a fire:
Out of that spun up other bookclubs. So I always look back at that particular moment in time and go “well, that was really the start of our learning culture there.” Because, out of that, other people started running bookclubs.
In the end, I actually bought a library. So I went to my management and said “I’m going to spend $1000 on books” and they said “OK” which is kind of unusual but books were seen as a very cheap way to help people. So we ended up buying a library which was very actively used by the team. So it became part of the way we did things.
Em’s bookclubs covered all sorts of topics; from technical subjects that her team were working on through to project management and leadership. Having people self-learn and improve their skills is a great initiative. But far too many companies still see leadership as something that doesn’t need to be taught. People will either do it… or not.
It’s quite common to see people in their careers hit a bit of a glass ceiling when they have developed in their functional area and can’t become any more senior. They struggle to work out what to do next. There’s a common conception that to “advance” or “move up the ladder”, people need to move away from what made them successful in the first place and turn into a manager. But not everyone thinks that way. Steve Hardisty, a senior engineering manager at Etsy in New York:
One big thing at Etsy, which I’m a huge fan of, is that management isn’t a step up from programming. It’s considered a parallel track. And with that, we’re really careful not to say “congratulations” when someone moves from being an engineer to being a manager. Because we want people to understand, when they’re programming, they can be really successful programming, that they can continue doing that as a career, and they can get passionate and be good at it. It means they don’t have to then take on management skills.
And I’m sure we’ve all seen it in the past, people who’ve been really good programmers and they want their careers to progress. And that’s usually meant they’ve stopped doing the thing they’re really good at and start doing a thing they’re not necessarily so good at which is managing people without really understanding that actually, they’re two very different skillsets.
So what if you do see someone who’s taken a wrong turn and become a bad manager or a bad team player. Alex Stokes:
I’ve had some performers that I’ve had to be pretty straight with. And here’s the thing: the longer you delay having that conversation with someone, they’re not going to turn themselves around for you. Essentially, as a leader or manager your role is to give them feedback and not pussyfoot around it. But constructive feedback. Not the “you’re not just right, think about your future” but very specific feedback on why this particular performance is not good or you’ve been this way in the past and this is the kind of stuff I need to see.
Steve Hardisty also believes in the power of early, constructive feedback:
I’m frequently surprised by how effective feedback is. We’ve had people join our group and struggled, you give them some feedback and give them some assistance, you put them with the right people and miraculous things can happen. We shouldn’t underestimate the capacity of people to change and to learn.
And whenever that doesn’t work out, I always feel like it’s my responsibility or the responsibility of their manager. If someone’s career hasn’t panned out how they wanted it to, it’s not just on that person. It’s on the environment in which they’ve been placed. And there’s a whole multitude of things that could have gone wrong there. We almost kind of debug it when someone leaves as well and try and work out what happened, what were the factors that affected that person’s happiness and enjoyment of working at Etsy. And we often learn quite a lot from doing that.
We’re not too flippant about it when someone leaves. Even when it’s someone who leaves that we’re OK with, we still want to understand how that whole thing unfolded in order to prevent it happening again.
Kerri Rusnak, formerly of the REA Group, remembers someone joining her team who didn’t seem like he’d work out and might need a little debugging:
We hired in a young member to our team, fresh out of university, a bit edgy, very mouthy, not really well polished with work behaviour. And probably, just a bit of his attitude as well, coming from a development background, being quite ambitious but very hard-working, very focused, but also very headstrong. And we had a number of clashes in the beginning to the point where we actually were thinking “this is going to be performance management. We’ll probably have to ask him to go.” And that was a real surprise to us.
Now, that said, we were actually then able to turn him around. Because at that point we thought “this guy. He sets a bad example, he comes in late, backtalks all the time, but he’s smart and he seems pretty switched on so what do you do? We’d like to keep him. It’s a great skill that he has.”
And we ended up just having a set of really strong conversations with him but from a place of respect and honour. So just explaining to him “listen. Your behaviours. Not you, but your behaviours have this effect on other people. The reputation it creates for you is this. You might be OK with that reputation but I can tell you other people are not. So it’s up to you to decide. At the end of the day, it’s your life, it’s your personality and you’re the only one who has the right and responsibility to manage your life.” And this is pretty much exactly what we said to him.
“However, it means that you won’t be able to have a job here and my suggestion from years of experience”, me and his manager, “is that you will probably also have problems in other organisations. That’s not to say that there isn’t an organisation out there that would value that, but you need to make the call. Because all we’re saying is that, here, is that that’s our expectation and that won’t work for us if this continues.”
And also coming from a place of “you’ve got a very big future ahead of you. If you can or if you desire to change this now, the world is your oyster because we also see all these amazing aspects behind you but this one big thing is holding you back. So, these are the behaviours that we need to see, here are some examples, we’ll work with you. We’re going to give you some time but you also then need to make the call. The responsibility is yours. It’s your life and definition of who you want to be. I’m not judging you, that’s your decision.”
I think when you take out the judgment aspect so “this is bad”, it’s just “this is the culture, this is the form and norms of expectations here, but it’s ok. You can be whomever you wish to be and we totally value you anyway. We’ll respect your choice no matter what. But for working here, this is what we need to see.”
And that completely transformed it because it wasn’t about him. It was just about “hey, here’s a plate of fruit in the middle of the table and take from it what you want. All I’m saying is these are the types of fruit we offer here. And you can choose what you like and it also includes choosing nothing, it’s completely your choice.”
And I think when you play it that way, it allows them to attack it in a much more objective and meaningful way versus saying “you. You’re not working out. It’s something about you and your personality. You somehow have something wrong with you in your life and I’m in a privileged position of being able to determine that and judging you for it.”
If you can move away from that and into something much more powerful which is “you have the right to choose whatever you want and I value and respect and honour that choice
people will always rise to that and it becomes very clear that you always have the choice about your work relationship, your personal relationship, your family relationships, that there’s certain agreements and it’s OK. Whichever way you choose. But this is what I’m asking and this is what you’re asking. Do they meet or not? Yes, they meet, great let’s carry on; if they don’t, part our ways and you’ll find what you want.”
And so, he turned around, and he’s quirky as and still a little bit edgy but he knows his limitations and when the team and the overall organisation feels like he’s overstepping them, it’s just a matter of “hey, that’s a bit painful, it’s not really respectful, I don’t feel respected or valued the way that I would like to.” And he gets it and he’s very very switched on. So he’s really developed his emotional intelligence in the workplace and we expect great things from him throughout his entire career, never mind just at REA.
Emotional Intelligence. Such an important part of anyone’s success. Whether it’s encouraging people to read, giving them honest feedback or giving them a leg up with their next challenge, when you develop your own emotional intelligence, you can be the leader that everyone wants to work with.
Next time on Feel; motivation and influence – how do you get people pointing in the right direction?
And if you have a story to tell about leadership and organisations, I’m looking for more people to talk to for upcoming episodes. Get in touch on twitter – @feelpodcast, or contact me via the website – FeelPodcast.org
I’m Andy Kelk, this has been Feel. A big thank you to Alex Stokes, Em Campbell-Pretty, Kerri Rusnak and Steve Hardisty. The show’s music is by audionautix.com and our website is FeelPodcast.org