Here are three simple steps you can take to hold on to, and grow, the next generation of your company’s emerging leaders. The first is to Talk One-on-One About the Next Opportunity on This Person’s Horizon. Too many managers fail to discuss the career path that will take a given sales rep (we’ll call her Karen) from point A to point B. Sometimes this is because of our desire to hold on to a strong performer who we decide is “doing fine right where she is.” Sometimes it’s because we simply don’t bother to take the initiative to find out what Karen wants to see happen next in her career, or because longer-term career questions simply aren’t on the radar screen. Such scenarios put your team and your organization at risk of losing precious talent. Today’s salespeople – and this is particularly true of younger team members – want to know what the next promotion looks like, what the career track is, what they need to know and do to move forward. If you don’t include a discussion about the next opportunity as part of your one-on-one coaching routine, Karen and other team members are apt to go through three easy-to-predict phases: restlessness, frustration, and departure for greener pastures – the same greener pastures you painted pictures of during the recruiting/interview discussions.
Whether or not you think they’re doing fine where they are now, you need to ask each team member, in private, where he or she would like to be able to make a professional contribution within your company in the next two to three years. Schedule that conversation, and use it to get a sense of what Karen’s optimal career path looks like. Start with where Karen is heading… you can fill in the blanks on the how and what as you go along.
Second, Train and Coach to the Gap. That career path discussion you just had with Karen probably pointed you toward a specific position that represents just a bit of a stretch for her. Now it’s your job as manager to figure out exactly how far away she is from being able to do that job, in terms of both skills and experience. It’s also your job to share that information in a way that motivates Karen to gain the necessary skills and experience. This is another important conversation waiting to happen in your one-on-one coaching session: “Here’s where you want to go, Karen, and let’s look at where you are right now. Here’s the gap we will need to fill if you’re going to get where you want to go. And here are the people within the organization who can help you along.” None of that should be a secret. So, for instance, if Karen tells you that she wants to manage the marketing department, but she has no experience with developing a budget and has never been trained in using a spreadsheet, you’re going to identify that as part of the gap, and work together to find people and resources that will help her close that gap. You might suggest some online courses that will get Karen up and running with the budgeting process. You might even offer her some kind of supervisory training, even though her current job doesn’t require her to supervise anyone.
In short, you want to create a personalized training and development plan that supports Karen’s career objective, and that reflects your best assessment of her potential. If Karen looks at the skill gap and the steps necessary to close it and decides, for whatever reason, to opt out of the advancement track, that’s fine. But if you want to hold on to her, you should provide the option to learn and grow within the organization.
Finally, Delegate to the Gap. Many managers delegate based on whether they feel like doing a given task, or perhaps whether they have left themselves enough time to complete the task. All too often, this kind of “hot-potato” delegation sets everyone up for failure. (“I am doing several other important projects, so I need you to do this for me…”) Actually, your goal should be to delegate taking a completely different approach: “Karen, I know you want to go into managing the marketing department. Why don’t we get you involved over there by offering Carol, the VP of Marketing, a few hours of your time each week? You can provide some administrative support for her budgeting process with the national branding campaign, and you’d learn a lot. How would you feel about doing that?” If Karen takes you up on that offer, she is contributing, she’s learning new skills, and she’s accumulating valuable experience – all without the risk of any formal responsibility for the budget, which is as it should be.
Why follow these three steps? Because you’ve invested significant time, effort, energy, and money to bring Karen to a point where she can contribute at her current level, and grow into the next one. Human capital is and always will be the critical competitive advantage for any company. Wouldn’t you rather build your organization’s “bench strength” – and not the competition’s?