Four Myths about Talent Development That May be Holding Your People Back

We frequently get questions from leaders about the challenges of developing their people. They aren’t sure what to make of a star performer who leaves after a couple of years to pursue career growth elsewhere when it appeared the individual was progressing nicely. They want to support individuals in developing their professional capabilities, but aren’t sure how to get started or how to make development a thriving part of the company culture. Often there are some misunderstandings and outright myths that stand in the way of making development happen. Let’s look at the most prevalent and what you can do about them:


Myth or Mistake #1: Confusing training with development. Training is often about skill building and it’s an essential part of development but only one part of it. Development actually occurs in the daily work experiences people have, especially when they are challenged to really perform in their roles. Examples would be the need to use good judgment in setting priorities in order to meet multiple deadlines, deal with complicated customer or supplier issues, solve a production problem, sort out an accounting discrepancy – all are situations that are developmental for people. So, if you provide skills-based training for your people, great, but that probably counts for only 10% of their development – the rest will come from real-time experience and learning from others. If people say there’s a lack of focus on their development, and you’re providing some training, or only sending people to conferences, you may be missing the mark. For more on this point, see our post “Does Your Company Really Have a Learning Culture”.


Myth or Mistake #2: Talent development means promotions and advancement up the corporate ladder. This is a more dated view of development, where there’s a hierarchy and we assume most everyone wants to get to the next rung on the ladder, the sooner the better. When most people are asked what they want from their careers or development opportunities, one of the number one responses is “to use my talents creatively”, to learn new tasks, get exposure to different people, take on projects never tackled before. And most of all, feedback on how they are doing. This means that most talent development is really about how people grow-in-place, or “bloom where they are planted”, which is essential as the hierarchy in most small to mid-market enterprises is pretty flat and the opportunities to advance may be few. But the opportunities to develop are many.


Myth or Mistake #3: Development is only for managers or aspiring leaders. This is actually a cop-out, and often turns development into management training or formal leadership development programs for the most promising emerging leaders. These individuals only make up about ten percent of your workforce, which means relegating everyone else to merely performing on the job without a clear line of sight on where the future may take them. It’s reality without hope. The massive – or even lean numbers – of people “in the middle” are where the best opportunities are for development. Providing real-time coaching as individuals master the challenges in their work, and providing feedback on strengths and areas that can be further developed, can increase engagement across the organization. This “coach approach” creates a motivational environment where people want to excel and continue to grow.


Myth or Mistake #4: We’re so busy there’s no time to focus on development. This is another abdication of responsibility as managers rationalize their way out of the development imperative. Often development planning or the very thought of it conjures up images of forms, complicated goal setting, checklists, documentation, and deadlines. And promises of promotions or the requirement to have an “answer” for where an individual’s future may be.


While some documentation is helpful to ensure agreement on goals and direction and facilitates timely follow up, the reality is most development planning happens in conversations. It’s the quality of a conversation that matters most to individuals – the opportunity to meet with their managers at least a couple of times a year to talk about their strengths, what’s working for them at work, what could be better, and what could be done to increase their value to the organization while supporting their professional interests. These conversations don’t have to be lengthy summits – several 20 minute conversations over a period of many months can have a lot more impact that one annual stress-filled event. You get more points for stimulating thinking than for how long the conversation is. The outcome – real development – can show up in small, subtle ways that over time create greater challenge, interest, and satisfaction at work.


If you’re daunted by the challenge of developing your people, consider reframing your understanding of what it means, how it works and what it takes to make it happen. The reality is development is a daily occurrence in your workplace whether you’re aware of it or not – the opportunities lie in conversations, a higher level of awareness, and the responsibility that both managers and team members have to chart the course to cut through the clutter and figure out what employees really need.