Stewarding Professional Development
In a world where the pace of business is increasing and the shelf life of hard skills is decreasing, providing quality professional development for your team makes good sense. It’s not a perk or add-on anymore; as LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report showed, it’s expected and is a key factor in your team members’ choices to engage and persist. Simply put, great professional development helps you attract the best, expect the best and keep the best.
You play a vital role in their journey to discover their God-given potential...
However, providing quality professional development is more than a matter of good sense; it’s also good stewardship, and this ups the ante for Christian leaders and their teams. The investment you make in your people is indicative of your commitment to steward the most precious resources God has given you to manage. You play a vital role in their journey to discover their God-given potential and inhabit it fully. So, it’s your job to make the most of them, to maximize their impact as a team and to facilitate their growth as individuals. This powerfully recasts the conventional notion of professional development to include divine implications, and reminds Christian leaders that anemic investments in their people aren’t any more acceptable for them than burying the talents was for the rebuked servant in Matthew 25.
I would like to offer four provocative strategies to help you and your organization step up to the challenge of developing your team members. I characterize them as “provocative” because they confront conventional wisdom that can sabotage your efforts and because I hope they will prove good food for thought and provoke deeper consideration in the future.
1. Make it personal.
In many organizations, professional development gets a bad rap– it’s viewed as an
interruption or distraction and team members aren’t as excited about it as we’d hope – but it’s not development they are disinterested in per se. Research such as a Degreed debrief “How the Workforce Learns in 2016” has indicated people want to learn, but with their time and attention already maxed out, they are decidedly self-centered about what they learn. They aren’t interested in investing their minutes and mental energy in anything that doesn't promise to change their actual experience or advance their personal interests. They’re hungry for instruction that will help them solve real-world problems or rise to real opportunities, but they have little patience for “thought-provoking” or popular topics that seem disconnected from their real experience.
For this reason, relevance is prerequisite to the engagement, retention, and professional growth you hope to achieve with your development programs. Think of it this way: the pertinence of your learning outcomes is more important than how popular or provocative they might be. So, you’re better served by planning development engagements around the actual challenges or opportunities team members face than around what is hip in the popular culture or the latest leadership book. The more personal the focus gets, the more potent the experience becomes.
To this end, consider incentivizing team members’ efforts to learn on their own. The Degreed research affirmed that employees often pursue their own development using the abundance of resources and just-in-time training available online and would spend even more time doing this if they received some kind of professional credit. Self-directed development is inherently personal, and it's wise to harness it for your organization’s benefit.
It’s also wise to get personal about where development occurs because it gains traction when it takes place in relationships as well as in seminars and training rooms. The close one-on-one experience of a relationship prompts unusually personal application and reflection. This is why coaching and mentoring relationships are such potent contexts for personal and professional growth and strong contributors to employee retention and engagement, as noted in a Deloitte article “Talent 2020: Surveying the Talent Paradox from the Employee Perspective” by Jeff Schwartz and Bill Pelster.
A May – June 2018 Harvard Business Review article “Managers Can’t Be Great Coaches All by Themselves” encourages you to take advantage of this by teaching your managers to coach effectively and providing the space and support they need to connect meaningfully and personally with individual team members.
2. Cultivate a culture of insufficiency and imperfection.
Ironically, one of the biggest barriers to personal and professional development is our abiding penchant for perfection. Our society operates on the broadly remediating theory that a person’s best opportunity for success and fulfillment lies in identifying and systematically eliminating his or her weaknesses. So, our educational models, performance management systems, and personal aspirations are all directed this way. Think about your last performance review– It’s likely your supervisor identified some of your strengths, but then set them aside and spent the majority of the interaction focusing on your weaknesses, your so-called “opportunities for improvement”.
This remediating mindset works against effective development in two ways. First, it marginalizes a person’s strengths and leaves the best of them untapped and unleveraged. Second, it fosters that penchant for perfection that sabotages personal growth. The preoccupation with eliminating weaknesses breeds an unrealistic perfectionism in which people try hard to appear as if they actually have none. This inoculates them against learning. The pressure to have all the answers, prevents them from entertaining any of the important questions and they approach learning opportunities with a defensive posture that virtually guarantees no growth will occur.
Paradoxically, improvement begins only when perfection is set aside, and your development efforts are most effective when team members acknowledge their insufficiency and stop pretending to be weakness-free. So, cultivate a culture of insufficiency in which people accept their abiding imperfection and commit to lifelong learning. Acknowledge that your organization is populated by imperfect, insufficient people from top to bottom, and clarify that your goal is not to eliminate weakness or insufficiency as much as to equip the team to outperform it through learning and collaboration.
This is the essence of Paul’s admonition for the Corinthians to behave as members of one body (1 Cor. 12:12-27). When team members recognize they are each essential but insufficient, they are more inclined to partner with one another in pursuit of common goals and to invest themselves fully in the experience. A culture of insufficiency prepares participants to desire and make the most of their opportunities for development.
3. Give your best stuff to the people who want it.
Another manifestation of a remediating mindset is the tendency to direct our best development efforts at the people who most clearly need it. This seems to make sense; after all this is where we most vividly recognize the need for improvement. Unfortunately, it’s also a trap that can cause an organization to squander its best resources. Instead of working so hard to engage the disengaged and spur growth in those that seem least inclined to grow, give your best efforts and development opportunities to the people who want them most.
If this seems unfair to you, let me suggest that it’s not really a matter of fairness as much as it is of stewardship (Matt. 25:29). If it’s your responsibility to invest your development resources where there is the greatest prospect of return, you’ll need to aim at the best and brightest in your organization rather than the begrudging and disengaged. I’m not suggesting that you stop making development opportunities available to everyone; I’m encouraging you to be strategic and devote more to the best bets.
Jesus seems to model this principle in his development of the disciples. It’s clear that he was active and consistently engaged with all 12 of them, but it’s also apparent that he made special, more personal investments in Peter, James and John. He mentored each of them and drew them closer into key experiences like the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33-41) and the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8). I don’t think this choice was incidental or simply out of his fondness for them. It was strategic, an extra investment in recognition of this inner circle’s elevated level of commitment and pivotal role to play in the growth of his church.
Organizations often make participation in training and development mandatory in recognition of the topic’s importance or the investment they’ve made in it, but this may not be wise. Remember, high attendance at development activities is not the truest measure of their success; it’s the increase in participants’ competence or capacity you’re after. For this reason, consider making participation in some development activities optional. This changes the cultural perception of training from “something I have to do” to “something I get to do” and makes a team member’s choice to participate meaningful. This makes individual development engagements more effective and gives you insight into who may be the best investments of your time, budget and attention.
4. Serve more snacks than feasts.
When time and money are tight, organizations’ development efforts are often singular and substantial experiences: a special speaker, a conference, an offsite retreat, etc. Efficiency matters to the organization, and it seems like it will get more bang for its bucks if it directs its limited resources at fewer, more-significant engagements. (Efficiency matters to leaders too and when professional development is just one of the many priorities you’re advancing, it feels good to set a single date and check it off.) The danger in this is that personal and professional growth doesn't happen best in isolated or one-and-done engagements, and organizations that deliver it this way may be spending their precious resources on only the appearance of development.
The main goal of professional development is to elevate your team’s practice.
The main goal of professional development is to elevate your team’s practice. You may want to cultivate members’ understanding or insight, but you’re ultimately looking for those new ideas to be demonstrated in new behaviors, and that takes more than a profound moment or two. The kind of singular experience that turned Saul into Paul on his way to Damascus (Acts 9:1-17) is undeniably transformational, but it’s ultimately a poor model for professional development because the change you want depends more on application and repetition than epiphany. In fact, growth in the so-called “soft skills” that are emerging as most critical in today’s knowledge economy and collaborative work environments doesn’t happen during the lesson, it happens in the application and the time between the lessons. That shifts the priority from delivering a single powerful punch to orchestrating the combined impact of multiple touches. See a Jan. 29, 2019 article by Josh Bersin entitled “LinkedIn 2019 Talent Trends: Soft Skills, Transparency and Trust” that explores what LinkedIn research has discovered on the importance of soft skills development.
Effectively developing your staff is largely a battle for their attention, a protracted campaign to keep them tuned-in, mindful of new principles and employing new practices in the whirlwind of their regular work over time. Think of your team’s ability to process new insights into new practices as a sort of “metabolism of learning.” Like your body’s, this metabolism is best stoked by frequent, smaller bites than by sporadic feasts. So, offering ongoing development “snacks” rather than feasts will keep your team’s appetite for learning high. You’ll see more traction if you engage a topic for one hour each of the next eight months than if you engage it for eight hours all at once. There’s still a place for that flashy speaker or annual offsite, but it is in the context of a broader cadence. Use it to initiate or energize less-momentous-but-equally-deliberate development experiences that surround it.
In the end, the quality of your professional development not only contributes to the quality of your team members’ contributions and persistence, it also reveals your commitment to them and to your role as a steward of their God-given potential. I trust these four strategies will fuel your consideration and serve you well as you tune up your development opportunities and equip your team.
Dr. Andrew Johnston makes a life out of helping leaders and teams discover their potential and inhabit it fully. He is a sought-after consultant, professor, and coach, and the former Director of Learning & Development for The Gideons International. Learn more at: DrAndrewJohnston.com or check out his latest book: Fired Up: Kindling & Keeping the Spark in Creative Teams (SALT Conferences, Nov., 2017)