We live in a high-tech, high-speed age in which virtually everything we want is available in no time at all. Bills due today? Just whip out your phone and pay online. Want in on that hot new investment opportunity? There’s a trading app for that. Need the latest gizmo everyone is talking about? Swing by the store that never closes or surf to that online site with the lightning fast distribution channel that works around the clock to ensure you get the desire of your heart overnight and with free shipping!
Let’s be honest. We want what we want when we want it, and we have been conditioned to expect immediate gratification. So it’s no wonder some people think talent development works that way, too.
But helping employees develop is not a quick or simple proposition because talent development is not transactional – it is transformational. Knowledge, skills, and abilities cannot be synthetically manufactured or acquired overnight, they must grow naturally over time. So if you want to help employees develop you must think like a farmer. You must cultivate a fertile learning environment, irrigate employees with new knowledge and ideas, expose them to the elements, and nurture them as they strive to grow.
Cultivating Fertile Soil
If your work environment is toxic, no one will grow in it. So whether you are conducting formal training in a physical classroom or online, or providing informal on-the-job training or coaching, your first step should be to cultivate fertile “soil.”
Is your formal learning environment a safe, nurturing atmosphere where employees are able to open their minds, interact with others, consider new ideas, share thoughts and opinions, and experiment with newly learned skills? Are the offices and operations where employees receive informal on-the-job training conducive to learning? Are employees able to experiment with new skills and practice new techniques without fear of being criticized or embarrassed? Is coaching delivered in a way that builds employees up while encouraging them to improve? The environment in which training and coaching occurs greatly influences whether or not learners experience growth there.
Just as farmers add fertilizer and nutrients to their soil based on the specific crop they seek to grow, leaders must ensure their learning environments contain precisely what employees need to succeed. What is it you want employees to do, or do better, as a result of your training? Specify precisely which performance issues you want to address. Clearly identify the skills you want employees to master and give individualized consideration to the unique experiences, competencies, and needs of each one.
Once the soil of your learning environment is ready, you may begin irrigating the employees who are planted in it with thought-provoking and innovative ideas that stimulate critical thinking and creativity.
Does your training allow enough time for employees to respond to new ideas and information? Does it expose them to inclement situations in order to test their ability to perform well in the midst of adversity? Do you pause periodically so they can reflect, share what they have learned, and ask questions? Do you allow enough time for skill practice? Do you spread training over multiple sessions and allow learners to move on only after they demonstrate mastery?
Unlike factory workers who can crank up production and work around the clock to increase output, farmers operate within the laws of nature. Farmers may only plant so many seeds per acre, they have little control over how fast their crop grows, they can only reap what they sow, and they can only harvest a crop after it has reached maturity. Like farmers, leaders and talent developers must plan well and exercise patience.
A one-size-fits-all approach may work in manufacturing, but farming is much more conditional. Factory workers repeatedly use the same ingredients and processes to produce identical results. But farmers must constantly monitor environmental conditions and the impact of those conditions on the health and growth of their crops. The same is true of talent development.
Just as farmers pay close attention to the weather and adjust their strategies accordingly, leaders and other talent developers must discern what employees need. Are they thirsty for more information or have they reached a point of saturation? Do their non-verbal cues indicate they have questions or need a break? Do you take employees off-line periodically, away from the busyness of the operation, to discuss what they have learned lately? Do you provide frequent and ongoing feedback that inspires them to grow continually? Sure, helping employees develop takes time. Just like farming.
Accepting the Laws of Nature
Talent development is like farming, the product of which is not produced or acquired overnight, but grown over time. So if you want to help employees develop, think like a farmer.