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Developing people, Part II: Take the initiative


By Dr. Carol McCoy

Have you ever left a company because you felt that you were stagnating and not improving your skills? Have your employees left because your organization didn't help them to develop their skills?

Workers today count on learning new skills and knowledge that can help further their careers. What's the best way to help people grow?

Development of new skills and knowledge doesn't have to be complicated or expensive, but development really pays off when it's planned and aimed at something important. This involves creating a developmental plan. How do you do that?

The first step of a developmental plan is identifying learning goals. What do you want to learn? What are the important competencies needed for your current job? What are your strengths and improvement needs relating to your current job?

Do you want to learn new ways to use a strength or do you need to shore up your weakness? For example, can you use your strong analytical skills in new ways, such as managing a budget, reviewing contracts, diagnosing problems, or improving work flow?

If you're interested in moving to a different job, you need to find out what skills and knowledge are critical for you to succeed. Ask your manager if there's a natural career path in your company. See if you can take a look at different job descriptions or speak with other people about their jobs. Taking time to "job shadow" people in different roles can help you identify skills you need to learn.

Next, have a developmental discussion with your manager to fine-tune your plan and get your manager's support. Jean Whitney, Director of Education and Training for Banknorth Group Inc., recommends including specific developmental action plans as part of the annual performance planning process, and following up with quarterly meetings with your manager to check in on progress.

Your manager may be able to find funding for your learning or help you set up a flexible schedule to pursue your education. In any case he or she will need to plan for back-up support if you will be learning during regular work hours.

Your manager can be a rich source of ideas and encouragement as you develop new skills. He or she can help you target your development to areas that will make a difference to you and the company.

In meeting with your manager, set one or two learning goals, then select learning activities to help you achieve your goals. There are many different ways to learn.

Carol Ryan Ertz, Co-Director of UnumProvident Leadership Development gives this advice: "Don't let traditional learning approaches box you in as the only ways. It doesn't always have to be attending a class. Start by breaking down what needs to be learned -is it some knowledge or awareness versus mastery. Can you gain the knowledge by reading books or articles, doing a web search or attending a professional meeting? Perhaps you can learn by hooking up with someone in the know about a topic."

How do you learn best? Do you prefer a self-paced learning program through computer, video, audiotape, or reading? There are some excellent audio programs, which you can listen to as you drive to work. Do you learn best when interacting with other people? In this case, you may prefer some kind of classroom activity or coaching.

Fred Frohardt, Human Resource Director of Gates Formed-Fibre Products, Inc., describes some of the ways Gates associates can development themselves. "Informal on-the-job training goes on every day, including opportunities to take on a leadership role as project manager or to volunteer for project teams that are outside normal job responsibilities. There are also more formal ways to learn. Associates receive 50% tuition reimbursement for completing college courses leading to a degree. People can attend company-paid seminars and vendor-sponsored seminars as well as internal training programs and computer based tutorials at no cost."

Does your company provide tuition-reimbursement for attending college courses? Can you take advantage of structured training programs-either computer-based or class room-based-relating to skills you want to enhance?

Are there any conferences or workshops sponsored by associations or universities? Meeting people from outside your organization can enhance your perspective. Can you find a coach, either your manager, or someone else who has the skills you desire? Ask your coach to provide you with feedback when you try something new.

Perhaps the best way to learn is to take on a challenging assignment, which causes you to stretch your skills and knowledge. I never learned more than when I moved from being a trainer to managing a small training department for a new business within the same company.

In that job I learned about strategic planning, project management, budgeting, marketing, and a host of other skills. This assignment built the foundation for all my future work, and taught me skills I needed to succeed as a consultant.

In the words of Jean Whitney, "being on a project team to solve an important problem provides a great opportunity for people to develop new skills. Working on a real business scenario with a mentor or coach not only builds skills, but it also has an immediate pay-off for the organization as well."

Whether you learn by a completing a college course, listening to an audiotape, taking a computer-based program or learning from a colleague, building your skills and knowledge will have benefits for you as well as your organization.

Carol P. McCoy, Ph.D. is President of McCoy Training and Development Resources, a consulting firm in Falmouth, Maine. Her mission is to help organizations and individuals increase their effectiveness in a constantly changing world. She provides coaching, training and consulting to companies throughout the Northeast.

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