At Aquila, it has always been one of our values that we have the Best Performers. There are several ways we ensure this occurs. One of the easiest is focusing on making sure we only hire the very best. The more difficult element lies in challenging our existing team to raise the performance bar on for themselves each year.
There are many different theories on how to best invest in developing your employees. Let me share a couple examples of what we have tried in the past and failed at – hopefully with the aim at of making your own approach better.
Lesson One: Make It Immediately Applicable
Years ago, we brought all our managers together and brainstormed what we would like to train our employees on. We hired some outside trainers and developed a custom class. Then, we put all our team members through a week-long training seminar on the selected topics.
During training, employees felt great to have the company invest in them and there was a general halo effect surrounding the process. Once training was complete, a honeymoon period ensued. In retrospect, looking back, we realized that something was happening. Unfortunately, it was not what we were hoping for.
When the employees were in positions where they could use the new knowledge they had just acquired, they benefited. But, the clear majority were not given opportunities to apply what they had just learned. All this newly acquired knowledge eventually atrophied and one year later, after all the internal efforts we put together, many of the employees were no longer confident to use what they learned. Most of the program’s efforts were effectively wasted – let alone the time and logistics taken to coordinate the program.
So, in moving forward, we considered these responses to reform our training approach and reinforce that the execution would be done in a more effective way. Our next training iteration concentrated on making sure employees had immediate opportunities in place for the application of these newly acquired skills and knowledge set within their everyday job duties.
During this learning period, where possible, we provided employees assignments to better internalize lessons. This changed the way we approached our training efforts; it steered away from the classic classroom lectures to hands-on, action-oriented group work.
While this created a more difficult program to oversee (and pushed much of the responsibility onto the direct supervisor), it was much better than the status quo – even with its flaws.
Lesson Two: Bring the Employee’s Personal Goals Into It
As we tried to apply this second approach, we were still getting mixed results – albeit better than the classroom style training. We compared what was working to what was not working to see where the pattern finally emerged.
The second lesson we learned was that when an employee was not mentally engaged, they almost always did not learn – even if they had an available job opportunity. We realized we needed to align to the personal development goals of the employee and do our best to find opportunities where we could pull everything together.
One of the best discussions for alignment is our quarterly performance discussions. While we have found that our structured quarterly discussions have greatly increased the additional conversations between managers and employees, it still leaves much to be desired when it comes to structured development discussions between our teams.
Typically, employees come into these meetings with no notes and react to what is shared and unfortunately, some managers go through the motions. While this is often due to time constraints and other responsibilities, it greatly reduces the impact of the meeting. If the discussion is positive, it ends on time and often early. Only if there is a disagreement around the manager’s performance feedback compared to an individual’s expectations are there any extended discussion – and that discussion is almost always backward looking.
These discussions need to be more about getting better moving forward, what skills, how to apply them and most importantly, how to create a safe environment to learn, and hopefully learn fast. I continue to encourage managers to prepare for these conversations and hope our staff prepares to share their personal goals more openly as well.
Lesson Three: Self-Driven Development (Also Applicable to Managers)
In addition, the dominant tone in our feedback meetings is still top down; it is more of a discussion about the manager’s expectations. For most employees, this provides structure to the conversation, but still, leaves the employee reacting.
I enjoy when an employee is prepared for those meeting and has objectives they want to accomplish. These are quarterly reviews; they don’t have to solely be downward, they should also be upward. Specifically, as managers, we can all get better. We need to ask for the feedback and create the environment for an engaging discussion so people feel open to sharing elements of what makes the team better – and the performance of the manager is a significant part of that.
At Emphasys, we believe in self-driven development. This means that if you want to get better, we should provide the feedback and the opportunities especially if our clients benefit from it. This applies to managers as well; we are all learning, and as managers, we often do not get quality feedback. We need to make sure that everyone is not only constantly learning but also contributing all the time.
We Can Always Get Better
As managers, we owe it to our clients and our teams to provide timely feedback and opportunities to learn as it is the only way to help us meet our goals. We need to engage our employees to learn what they want to develop into so that we can harness that passion.
As employees, we need to provide feedback to our teammates, including our managers. This feedback is the fastest way team to perform better and ensuring that everyone has the right timely information will help everyone get better.
Employee development will always be done individually. It is a complex formula that is often different for every employee. As an organization we need to keep adapting our approach to ensure that we are doing more of the things that work, and less of the things that no longer do. Although it is never perfect, it is the best way to meet that rising bar that we know our clients expect of us.