Earning Acclaim for “Stealth” Development

Annual performance reviews are getting a lot of bad press — and for good reason.

The Wall Street Journal and other business news outlets regularly spotlight the shortcomings of this time-honored system of appraising employees once a year through a face-to-face meeting, with unproductive and arbitrary ratings dominating the process.

Meanwhile, many high-profile companies like Adobe Systems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. have finally decided the system is useless and infertile. Others have followed. What these companies have adopted is a system of more iterative and frequent conversations about performance, achievement and results.

What took so long? The performance review’s second cousin — the career development conversation — has been the subject of a similar focus over the past several years. Countless organizations have come to understand that career development cannot be treated as another initiative or annual program. Many have been working for some time to abandon the formal yearly process or supplement it with more regular, embedded development.

Many managers are becoming more adept at weaving career development into the work flow, making it more casual, conversational and part of the day-to-day cadence. What’s more, these companies are realizing a powerful result in the process: authentic and sustainable career development.

But some organizations may be reaching an inflection point. Those that have mastered this new approach are beginning to wonder if their efforts to extend career development beyond the clear confines of the annual individual development plan meeting have taken it too far. They’re asking themselves if their “nanocoaching efforts,” spontaneous on-the-spot interactions and embedded development have become too seamless.

They worry that these stealth approaches may not translate. Employees may not notice the significant investment that’s being made in career development. They may not recognize that career development is even happening.

The good news is organizations increasingly are getting the message about what employees want and need as well as how to move the needle relative to development and employee engagement. Many human resources departments are leading the charge and taking meaningful steps to move career development to something that’s organic, fluid and woven right into the work flow.

Meanwhile, managers are learning to help others grow through an ongoing dialogue that deepens rapport and understanding while uncovering creative ways to use employees’ talents. Formal systems and form-driven processes are giving way to less structured, more personalized ad-hoc approaches. Career development is being transformed in ways that support the employee, manager, other stakeholders and the organization as a whole.

The bad news is busy employees may not recognize what’s happening because, in their minds, these good leadership behaviors and actions don’t fly under the banner of career development. This comfortable, casual, conversational system may feel so natural and normal that employees are not connecting the dots back to career development.

Moreover, organizations and managers committed to doing career development right may not get credit for it because “right” happens quietly, regularly, iteratively and without the fanfare of programs and initiatives.

The truth is you don’t likely have this problem— at least not yet. The vast majority of organizations and managers haven’t become so adept at embedding career development that their ongoing interactions would be characterized as “stealth.”

There are some organizations struggling with this, and there are steps they can take to ensure that the efforts of their leaders, managers and supervisors resonate as career development with the employees they are so committed to developing.

Informal to Invisible

A large East Coast-based financial institution made an organizationwide effort to address career development over a two-year period (Editor’s Note: The authors declined to identify the organization). The forms, systems and administrative artifacts of career development were de-emphasized. The focus was on putting the “human” back into their human resources processes.

Managers went through extensive training to conduct meaningful career conversations that focused on employees’ skills, interests, preferences and goals. They learned how to engage others in dialogue around the big picture, evolving business landscape, industry changes and the needs of the organization.

They became skilled at helping employees put their talents and strengths to work in new ways that challenged the individual and supported the organization. Although the organization didn’t have a lot of promotions or lateral moves to offer, job enrichment and expansion exploded, and employees were pleased.

When the next employee opinion survey came, there were high hopes that career development would finally find its way to the top quartile. When the results were published, leadership could not believe that not one single career-development-related item had improved; one had even dropped further.

They tried to understand how they could have so completely missed the mark, despite the many focus groups and interviews with employees conducted.

The source of the problem eventually revealed itself: Employees simply didn’t make the connection that the conversations, opportunities and development they were receiving — and genuinely appreciating — were career development. Career development had become so embedded and seemingly effortless, that it was invisible. It was stealth.

As a talent manager, if you’re considering a less formal, more pervasive and conversational approach to career development but are concerned that your efforts will go unnoticed, no worries. There are several nongratuitous, organic and value-adding strategies that leaders can implement to ensure that employees recognize the undercurrent of development within the organization and appreciate it as part of your culture and commitment to them.

Flag It

Just because it’s part of a daily cadence rather than an annual process doesn’t mean the conversations about career development can’t be overt. Use language to your advantage.

Start by getting to know what each person’s career goals are. Refer to them frequently, explicitly using the term “career goals”: “How do you see that project supporting your career goal of … ?”

Don’t hesitate to label discussions you’re having as “development conversations”: “Do you have a minute for a quick career development conversation? I got some great client feedback that demonstrate show you’re doing against your goals.”

Use the word “development” liberally, reframing progress and learning in these terms: “How do you think that workshop helped you develop and move toward your career goals of … ?”

Focus It

An individual’s career goals can be a powerful anchor point in a variety of different contexts. When launching projects, delegating tasks or assigning work, focus on the connection to the employee’s career goals.

When people struggle with challenges, stumble or fail, it’s the ideal time to frame the need to learn and cast lessons forward in terms of development.

When wrapping up projects or initiatives, a simple question — such as “How will what you’ve learned support your career development?” — can consciously shift focus and raise awareness around your commitment to the individual’s growth.

Foster It

In today’s fast-paced business environment, it’s easy for busy employees to put their heads down, do what’s before them, and miss the connection between their actions and development.

Carve out time routinely to check in with employees, creating the time and space to consider how their work, new skills and insights are furthering their career objectives.

Recognize and celebrate concrete progress toward career goals and milestones, as well as efforts that may not yet have yielded results.

Make sure the employees understand that formal training programs aren’t the exclusive domains of development. On-the-job experiences, activities, job shadowing, coaching, networking and volunteer opportunities are all part of a well-rounded development plan. Ask, “What kinds of stretch assignments would you like to explore in support of your career objectives?”

Flaunt It

Just because career development is no longer rolled out on the annual organizational red carpet, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get a little fanfare. The more casual nature of ongoing, embedded development demands that leaders really highlight the value and success of everyone’s efforts.

Include the word “development” on every agenda and facilitate a conversation about how each team member is growing, learning and developing. Then loop back to individuals to connect these insights to their career goals.

Then, celebrate. When someone acquires new competencies, changes roles, gets a promotion internally or even takes a position externally, it’s an opportunity to shine the light on career development.

Pat the organization on the back. Leverage the old sales technique of letting the customer know what you did for them: “We’re delighted to have been able to give you an opportunity to further your career by …”

Use newsletters, message boards and social media to publicize how people are learning, growing and succeeding, linking it all to career development.

More and more organizations are seeing the wisdom of taking career development off the annual calendar and transforming it into an everyday leadership responsibility. But successfully doing so requires that employees don’t overlook the commitment, support and effort invested on their behalf.

When it comes to this more organic and ongoing approach to development, integrated doesn’t have to mean invisible. Ad hoc doesn’t have to be interpreted as absent. Embedded doesn’t have to feel imperceptible.

 If leaders consciously and verbally bring greater attention to their commitment and actions, making development a little less stealthy may be the secret to making it a lot more satisfying to employees and successful for organizations.