Developing the Team

 Developing the Team


By Debbie Johnson

When we think of growth in business terms we usually think of increasing either revenue or profit. Financials are certainly the lifeblood of business but so are the people who make them happen. Surely the growth of our personnel is equally vital to our companies’ sustainability.

To most effectively grow our human resources, a creative approach is called for, thinking beyond more traditional methods of growth such as training, executive education, certifications or conferences. Not to say these methods don’t have their place but we can do more and possibly with less financial investment.

1) Board of Director Service

Service as a board director, whether for a nonprofit organization or a commercial concern, provides an excellent training ground for big picture thinking and executive decision making. As either a board member or as an officer, the position has much to teach about effective governance and leadership.

Specifically, by participating in year-to-year governance, board directors come to appreciate appropriate oversight and how to juggle all elements of a successful organization. Most boards participate in strategic planning which teaches the value of broad-based analysis followed by focusing on a few ‘right’ things which then guides the energies of the organization. Likewise invaluable lessons in financial control including the importance of diversifying funding sources are learned at the board level.

Serving in different officer positions and on various distinct boards, provides yet more skills – financial skills while treasurer, organizational while secretary, how to govern effectively while chair, how to be a team player while vice president, how to get publicity for free while marketing chair, and so on.

At its core, board service provides invaluable experience with governance issues and in running an organization, critical skills for any executive.

2) Reading

Many people love reading – for pleasure, for self-improvement, to stay current on community issues, for entertainment and for business. There are books on every subject imaginable and therefore likely one available to help your employees grow too. For example, here is a tiny sampling of books which teach new management skills:

  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – on overall emotional intelligence (EQ)
  • Fish Tails – on stimulating creativity
  • Blue Ocean Strategy – on changing paradigms and thinking strategically
  • Stewardship – on serving others including your own staff
  • Good to Great – on excellence
  • One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey – on delegation
  • Meaningful Marketing – on practical marketing methods
  • Consultative Selling – on how to solve customer problems vs. sell

Each one of these books will give the reader either an enhanced skill set or a new way of thinking. For almost any issue needing development, a book can provide a great starting place for substantial progress.

3) Industry Involvement

A great broadening assignment is involvement with an industry association. For example, for marketing professionals, volunteering for the American Marketing Association provides enhanced marketing knowledge and perspective. Various committees, many times staffed with volunteers, operate to conduct the business of the association and the team members marketing professionals from around the country with all different backgrounds, from varied companies and job titles. So in just a few hours each month, one can learn about many different marketing approaches and unique ideas, many of which would be applicable to redeploy into one’s business. In addition, working with industry groups can significantly enhance a participant’s network, both sphere of influence and opportunity for leverage.

Most businesses are in industries which have associations that welcome volunteers and understand that the motivation for involvement is partially self-serving. And engagement by their members helps them by not only getting valuable work done by volunteers but also increases their membership retention. A true win-win for all.

4) Loaned Expertise

Loaning employee expertise to other organizations is a great way for them to enhance their skills in another setting, different from their day-to-day job. The United Way routinely uses ‘loaned executives’ for their annual fundraising campaign, which can measurably improve speaking skills and confidence. Another example is Procter and Gamble who loaned an executive to start-up the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a newly formed nonprofit organization celebrating freedom, and to guide it for a few years until it was ready to become a free-standing nonprofit organization on its own.

In a similar vein, a darling of the tech community, eBay, lets teams of volunteers partner with chosen nonprofits to use their expertise to bring technical solutions to improve the nonprofits’ operations. Using skills in a new and different way will further refine and strengthen them so the employee is even more effective back on the job.

5) Special Projects

With most businesses, there is an unending supply of projects that need to get done which do not necessarily fall squarely within anyone’s job description. Each of these projects has learning opportunities buried within, both for leadership and for possible team members. Assigning these tasks strategically to employees for the specific purpose of development is a great way to kill two birds with one stone – getting the project done while improving staff capabilities.

AT&T routinely used special projects not only to develop employees but also to let them prove themselves. One such project was to hire a couple dozen employees for a new initiative within a six week timeframe. This timeline was a significant challenge, given normal hiring practices and bureaucracy, but it was critical that it get done both with excellence and fast. This type of project would naturally teach many management skills:

  • Creating a clear job description
  • Interviewing
  • Project management
  • Resourcefulness
  • How to produce under pressure, and many others.

The project’s success would also allow the employee to show they could get the desired results, possibly providing ammunition for their eventual promotion.

One last point on employee growth: THEY should own it. Says a recent SmartBlog on Leadership by Julie Winkle Guilioni, “Leaders who are most effective at helping others learn and grow do less — not more — than others … They insist that employees take the lead (with their support).”

Enlist the inventiveness of employees to come up with their own plan for what might work best to improve their skills and they will not only have more ownership in the outcome but likely be way more innovative than either the boss or the human resource department.

Get creative in growing your most important asset!

Debbie Johnson brings her business expertise as an ex-vice president for AT&T/Lucent Technologies and now consultant since 2002. Debbie has extensive nonprofit volunteering and board service to help clients be strategic with philanthropy.


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