A Simple Question…

In my years as a consultant and working with leaders to develop training I’ve asked a lot of questions: “what is the audience’s previous knowledge level? When and where are you looking to hold the event? Who are the stakeholders?”, etc. But I am always surprised that one simple question stumps most leaders I talk with. And it is this one question that, if left unanswered (or worse, unasked), can hobble an organizations performance improvement efforts. And if you have never asked it, chances are you feel like a hamster running on a big wheel. The Question?

What will people be doing or saying differently as a result of this intervention?

Seems simple enough but each time I ask it, the person across the table sits back and cocks their head to the side and lets out a nice, “hmph.” Usually followed by “that’s a good question” and then a long pause. Some people have even asked if they could get back to me. What surprises me is not so much that they cannot come right back with an answer but that the question itself seems novel. As if a change in behavior was never really even a consideration when picking an intervention.

Now, I won’t lie. Each time I ask this question, I feel particularly brilliant. Not because it is an especially brilliant question but because it reminds me how often people do not begin with the end in mind when it comes to change intervention.¬† They just want something to change without really considering “into what”. Often times it comes out as – “make the pain go away.” Which is really vague and hard to measure. So I considered how to change the dynamic of the conversation.

As a consultant, I have a money-back guarantee in my contracts. That’s right. If I fail to meet your outcome, I will repay you all of my professional fees. And I have had that in my contracts since I started. After all, if you buy a product and it does not work, you expect your money back – why should a professional service be any different. When I first created this clause, my wife was aghast, “What! Are you crazy?! Don’t put that in there!” I believe was her verbatim response. And I have received similar feedback from other consultants. But it is still there.

Why, you might ask, would I provide such a guarantee in the challenging world of organizational development? Because it allows me to have a more realistic conversation about outcomes, accountability, expectations, and responsibility. The clause stipulates that we (the client and I) must both establish the desired outcomes and measurements ahead of time and agree on them as expected outcomes. It allows me to set realistic expectations based on the level of intervention they are choosing. I have had some people ask for the moon and plan for the budgetary and work equivalent of a slingshot to get there. This evens the conversation because now they are accountable for something if they desire real change.

Most importantly it makes organizational leaders really consider what changes they actually want and forces them to realize that changing behavior is not the same as educating someone. Changing behaviors may require incentives, milestones, performance management, managerial practice changes, organizational structure changes, personnel decisions, etc. Behavior change happens over time, and I am not talking about a 45-minute lunch and learn.

Asking the simple question of “what behaviors do you want to be different?” leads you to the beginning of your gap analysis. It also helps you determine how you will judge success or failure. If you do not know what you want to be different or if you are not willing to be accountable to help make that happen, then save your money and figure out how to tolerate things being the same. If you want change, start with the end in mind so at least you know in which direction to go.

BTW: To date, I have not had to pay any client back for my services. Something my wife is incredibly grateful for. ūüôā


Irony of Annual Performance Reviews

The workplace is wrought with contradictions – “we trust and empower you to make decisions, but make sure you send me updates every day to tell me what you are doing and bring your ideas to me to approve”; or, “productivity is really important so let’s have another 2 hour meeting about how we can be more productive”; or, “we really appreciate internal talent and promote from within but I’m afraid you don’t have the outside experience we are looking for to promote you to the next level.” ¬†All frustrating no doubt. But one thing stands out as the bane of a manager’s year as well as a soul crushing experience for an employee – annual performance reviews.

Ugh. Everyone hates them. It is always something people “gear up for” as if they were headed into battle. And it is with that mindset that often sets the stage for conflict in a most unnatural and aggravating resolution-proof way. And what is the purpose of them? Depending on who you ask, you can get different answers. If you ask the employee, it’s to figure out how all their effort over the past year will be rationalized away into a sub-cost of living “performance” increase in their salary. If you ask the manager it is to help the employee develop and see areas for growth. If you ask HR it is to provide legal documentation of performance problems and “fairly” distribute the company-wide 2.6% payroll increase.¬† If you ask senior leadership, they may stare at you blankly and say “HR made me do it”. For most companies, it is considered a necessary evil.

Necessary evil? The CIA is a necessary evil, Guantanamo Bay was a necessary evil, Satan is a necessary evil. Annual performance reviews are just evil and there is nothing necessary about them.¬† I worked in an organization that was proof of that – I worked there for 4 years and NEVER saw a performance review, either one I needed to fill out, or one I had to receive.¬† And you know what? Everyone on that team was awesome and did awesome work. How did we distribute raises – we all got the same percentage raise. And it was not called a “merit” or “performance” increase, it was called exactly what it was – a salary adjustment.¬† And no one was unhappy about it or argued or plead for more – it was fair.

So why are they so ubiquitous? Because they are easy and there is no real accountability. Sure they take a long time, but the feedback is reduced to numbers or some other likert-scale rating of “meets expectations” And ultimately, they are a “review” a look backwards that does nothing to develop behaviors or talent to better performance.

Doing it differently

People are intrinsically motivated to get better, to be better at something. (Pink, 2011) We desire improvement and mastery. And it that single piece of research proven data that can shift how you improve performance. People want to do a good job, they want to meet expectations. Providing them with your expectations AFTER the year has wrapped up (the essence of an annual performance review) isn’t helping anyone. And letting them know they have not met them for a year is frustrating at best.

Set the expectations early

This is the key. And being clear about your expectations is tough, especially when it comes to making it behavioral. Giving people a list of qualities and traits that you expect puts a great deal of reliance on the assumption they share the same meaning of those words – and this is typically where things fall down. I’ve worked with hundreds of groups in different trainings to come up with a common meaning for “team player” and “passionate” and do you know how many times I have gotten exact matches across groups or classes? Zero. Everyone has their own small spin or one more things that they include in their definition.¬† The same goes for “hard worker”, “quality”, “attention to detail”, “organized”, and so on. The good thing about doing these exercises with groups is the lists are not that far off, there is typically about an 80% match. All you have to do it clarify the other 20%.

So setting behavioral expectations is not like talking with a 5-year-old about cleaning his/her room. Start by asking your employee (or manager for that matter) what “organized” looks like to them, then work off their meaning to add the 20% that you also expect. This activity may seem a little pedantic, but then again, so are performance reviews. And the likelihood of better performance is much greater once people know what you are looking for.

Don’t ignore the small misses

I’m not talking about mistakes, I am talking about the small departures from your expectations – where people “kind of” got the outcome you re looking for. Catching mistakes is about watching what people DO, I’m talking about what people PRODUCE. The outcome of their activity, the result. Mistakes happen, we all mess up, it is how we recover from those mistakes (or fail to) that matters. And where it matters is in the outcome. For instance, if you give me a task of tying a certain type of knot and you tell me I have 20 minutes to produce the end product, and after 20 minutes I have tied the knot successfully, does it matter how many times I tried and failed? Results matter.

That is why it is important to give feedback when the result is slightly off from your expectation. The judgement of the result is how we know whether or not we are doing well. THIS is the time for feedback, and not about their activity (please see above), about the result. What are you looking for that you did not see? Was this an error in your communication when you set expectations? If you did not set expectations, then take accountability for never telling them what you wanted – that is YOUR fault, not theirs. Start over in that case. If you had set expectations, maybe there were a couple of points you did not realize you were looking for until you saw the final product – again, YOUR fault, not theirs. Feedback is an opportunity to clarify expectations, not just point out mistakes.

And people want feedback. If you were doing something in your job that was holding your success back, would you want someone to tell you? Of course you would. Everyone wants feedback. It is HOW we manifest our desire to get better. If we do not know what we are doing well, we won’t continue it – if we do not know what we need to improve, we cannot change it. Change starts with awareness.

Done and Done.

That’s really it. Set expectations and give feedback. If you do those two things, performance reviews become superfluous. And what is more, if you write what you plan to discuss before hand, you now have documentation. Which is really all a performance review is, documentation that at some point in the year you gave feedback about someone’s performance. It is a way to force feedback into the system, that’s it. Regardless of how your company justifies it, performance reviews start for that reason alone – to provide documentation that feedback has been given. If you are giving feedback and documenting along the way, filling out a performance review just becomes paperwork…and hopefully, paperwork that goes away.

Why your leadership development efforts are not netting you more internal promotions…

Paradox Triangle

When perception creates a paradox

There are a number of paradoxes in the modern workplace but one that seems to plague a lot of organizations is leadership development and succession planning not leading to better internal talent or higher retention. And it befuddles HR professionals, senior executives, recruiters, and all employees.

A story (* = fictionalized…kinda)

Ryan* is a 28 yr old IT Jr. Project Specialist and has worked at Vector Resources* for 4 years. Starting as a departmental admin, Ryan proved her ability and moved into the coordinator role after 2 yrs. Since becoming a project coordinator, Ryan has received multiple recognitions from various stakeholders and completed a number of successful projects. She has also taken a few leadership courses and professional development courses as a part of her Individual Development Plan. Now Ryan is looking for her next career step which is to a Project Manager that would include up to two direct reports. ¬†The regional office in New Mexico has an opening for exactly that position. Ryan has long-standing good relationships with the people she would be supervising and they are supportive of her promotion. Ryan’s direct manager feels Ryan would be great in her new role and has acted as an advocate for her promotion as well.

Sounds good, right? She’s got a great track record, recommendations from her boss, colleagues, and recognition from other stakeholders proving her ability to successfully lead projects. Additionally, she knows the company, already has established relationships, understands the strategic vision of Vector Resources, she’s willing to relocate at her own expense, and love’s the company. Seems like a no brainer.

But here is what happens. The position posts internally and Ryan goes through the process and everyone seems to like her…but rather than offer her the job, they decide to post it externally to get some comparisons. EVEN THOUGH SHE IS THE PERFECT CANDIDATE! And here is the kicker, the salary range they are targeting for an external is MORE than they would offer Ryan.

So here is where Ryan sits Рcapable, recommended, ready, internally knowledgable, and accepting of a lower than external market salary because she loves the company.  Yet, here is the message she is getting Рexternal candidates are worth more AND might be more suitable for a role she is already doing. So regardless of the outcome, Ryan is starting to feel unappreciated leading to disengagement and cynicism towards a company she loved.  Not to mention, the time to fill this valuable position is just getting longer and longer with two direct reports having no manager.

Despite all the things going for her, Ryan is subject to two contributing factors that are roadblocks to internal promotions Рher longevity in her position and a concept of internal equity.  Lets look at these individually because they are acting against internal promotions is different ways. One is leadership failure and the other is a cultural failure.

The Paradox of Longevity

Despite the high praise and desire for employee loyalty, it is¬†harmful to your career progression. The culprit to this conundrum is a component of gestalt psychology known as “figure-ground.” ¬†It is a concept of how we perceive things.

Faces or a vase?

Largely illustrated in visual form by optical illusions that show two or more objects depending on how you look at them, the concept of figure ground states that once something emerges from the background as a distinct image, it can no longer be unseen. So while you may see the vase first and then the profiles, you cannot “unsee” the vase.

Old woman or young woman?

How this works against an employee when it comes to longevity in a certain company, and more specifically in a certain position, is people sometimes have difficulty seeing someone as capable of doing something beyond their current position.

Take Ryan’s example, Ryan has been in a non-management role for an extended period of time and as such, the leaders around her (the hiring managers in particular), and unable to see her as a manager. In fact, she may even be told she is not qualified because she does not have management experience, which she will NEVER get in her current non-managerial role.

It is a Catch-22. You aren’t qualified to manage people until you manage people. And if she is not given the position for that reason, what leads her to believe she will ever attain her career goals at her current company. They are in fact sending a message that quitting is the only way for her to further her career.

Seemingly, some organizational leaders are more appreciative of the unknown potential with an external candidate, than with the known capabilities and internal knowledge of an internal candidate. ¬†That is the leadership failure, failure to see your own employees’ potential.

The Cultural Issue

This one is more a fault of systems being designed independent of one another but it becomes a blind spot for many organizations. They pay internal candidates less than external hires. And while the basis of this might be rooted in good financial theory, the human message it sends is, internal experience is worth less than external experience.

The underlying principles at work on this one is from a financial standpoint this practice makes good fiscal sense. An internal will generally accept less for a promotion than an external might demand. But beyond the messages it sends to an internal here is something to consider. The reason an internal would take less is because there is less stress of learning a new organization. It is easier to stay with a company I know for less money, than have to re-establish myself and learn a new role at the same time. The inverse of that is where irony sits. For the external hire, they fully anticipate the stress of learning a new organization and establishing themselves. So in essence, you are paying MORE for someone to learn your organization before they can even bring benefit. You are paying MORE for an external hire’s learning curve before productivity kicks in.

There is also the concept of internal equity that many HR professionals cite saying they do not want to create an expectation of a high raise percentage for internals as they move up. But this tends to be a fallacious argument. It may make sense when it comes to performance or cost of living raises, but it should not apply when the nature of someone’s job changes in accordance to a promotion. The role is worth a certain range and¬†adjusting it simply because someone is an internal candidate is creating a negative culture for internal promotions.

Ultimately, here is the message and culture this practice of basing salary on the internal status and current salary creates: quit and work somewhere else, then come back and we will not only be more eager to hire you, we will pay you more than if you had just been promoted. It encourages the exact thing you are working to prevent. And what is more, you have now taken a sincerely engaged employee and turned them into a cynical job-hopper.

Straighten Things Out

Much of what I encounter in organizational roadblocks to performance are a result of misalignment. Everyone to detours around the roadblock to continue moving forward. In this case, the roadblock is a misaligned compensation philosophy and leadership perception. The detour is exiting people out of your organization only to pay them more to come back.

A major argument I hear from many senior executives is “if we develop people into leaders, they just take that experience to another company.” To which I respond, if that happens more than 50% of the time then you are either not looking at your people with fresh eyes when it comes to potential promotions or your compensation philosophy tells them they would be worth more if they quit.

When leaders start bemoaning the talent shortage and worrying about leadership gaps (such as in this article from Inc.com) it is usually a good idea to start looking at your efforts. If you are not developing your talent, start. But make sure you look the environment you plan to grow them in. You might create great seedling leaders but if you don’t replant them when they need more room or water them as much they deserve…you could find your leadership crop dying off.

Training, Development, and Learning

In this time where talent is getting easier and harder to find (lots of people, hard to find the right ones – ie. the paradox of choice) the need for talent management continues to grow. However, something I see from many organizations and HR leaders is the confusion and the interchangeable use of the words “training”, “development”, and “learning”. One is an event, another is a strategic process, and the latter is an individual experience. Yet many senior level leaders continue to ask for training to answer their development problems…the fly by night training and instructional design contractors (and pretty much EVERY eLearning developer) is all to happy to provide training for a price. And after thousands and sometimes 10s to 100s of thousands of dollars of training design and expensive Learning Management Systems, organizational leaders are not seeing a direct return on their investment in terms of development. And it is killing the credibility of talent management professionals.

Training is like building a house Рyou start and you finish within a pretty narrow timeframe when you think about the larger span it takes to build a city.  Good training relies on a number of qualified people: contractors, architects, sub-contrators, etc. And if you do it right, it is a great addition to your company. But just as building a house does not create an entire community, training does not develop your pool of talent. It is a piece to the puzzle but it is not development. Development of talent is closer to the development of a community. It takes a greater vision to see how all the pieces fit together. You have the houses, sure, but you also want roads, common areas, sanitation, sales and marketing, regulatory affairs, and landscaping.

The “roads” of your organization is how people navigate. If your organization is clogged with politics (think narrow roads with too many cars), misaligned communication structures (roads to nowhere), or broken systems (potholes and ruts); you can’t channel talent and effort in the right direction. People either get lost, frustrated, or just stop. Either way, if the pathways for people to develop are hard to navigate (just like a neighborhood that is confusing) people start to looking to live elsewhere.

The “common areas” of your organization is the culture and how people interact with each other. Without whitespace and freedom for people to move around without constantly bumping into each other, bad things can start to happen in even the prettiest of places. Most employees seek some level of autonomy and room to move independently to some degree. When you ask people to think “outside of the box” for a solution and the only place they can go is into someone else’s “box”, you’re not likely to see a ton of creativity.

Sanitation is your performance management system. How are you getting rid of the stuff your organization doesn’t want and would be better without? Poor performance management, just like bad sanitation, can make a community sick. Even people who are otherwise healthy become infected by toxic and underperforming employees. You have to execute your performance management plan. Holding people accountable is in many ways its own sense of feedback. People want feedback, they want to give feedback, and most of all, they want the employees who are not pulling their weight to either get the feedback they need and adjust their performance, or be shown the door. Poorly executed performance management, similar to missed trash pickup for months, can create a pretty apathetic environment. People stop doing what they should simply because they see that it doesn’t matter.

Sales and Marketing is how you get new people into your community. You have to have a talent acquisition strategy and you need¬†a brand or at least a concept of what you are selling that is bigger than just the location of your community. Without a talented and aligned recruiting team, you’re getting the wrong residents to your company. With the wrong people in your group you risk turning what could be a great place to live into a culture rife with challenges and conflict, not to mention poor performance.

Human Resource Management is your regulatory affairs group. You need to make sure all the permits are filed, all the taxes paid, all the nuts and bolt of invoicing, etc. Human Resource Management is a huge part of your organization and without all the daily transactions taking place (payroll, time tracking, benefits, etc.) you can’t have employees. Keep in mind, however, that human resource management is not the same as human resource development.

The landscaping is exactly what you might think it is; it is the physical climate of your workplace. Do you have art? plants? carpet? tile? etc. Are there drinks in the refrigerator? Do you have a¬†refrigerator? etc. It is the physical appeal of your exterior and interior. It helps create the vibe. While different from the culture, climate can still influence people’s moods so it is something to pay attention to. Does your company look like a nice place to work?

Oh, and learning. That is something individuals do, not something companies do. I cannot make someone learn, I can create an environment that encourages and rewards learning, I can give tools and resources to help people learn, but ultimately, whether someone learns or not is an individual process. I see many employees who are sent to training to correct behavior and they are resistant, combative, cynical, and sometimes toxic to others who want to learn. Learning is not under your control, just as you cannot make someone like where they live. You can create an environment that is makes learning easier and supports it, but it something each individual goes through at their own pace.

And now to my point. Development is how all of these things come together to build a community. And while my analogy is somewhat simplistic, it ¬†illustrates that development is a long-term and continuing process. Training is an event, and usually has a very specific design for a very specific purpose. You build a training class, people come, they leave. Training is a tool in the development process. What are you doing to create a culture that encourages people¬†to do more, try new things, recruit new talent, keep the landscape nice, and keep their “common areas” clean. How are you translating a development strategy into something more than just going to more trainings? ¬†One of the worst things you can do is expect people to be better simply because of training. No matter how great the training is, if people are not allowed and encouraged to do anything different when they get back, then the training was just something they went to and will NEVER translate into different behavior. (read¬†“Dumping the Water Back in the Pond”). How are you creating an environment where people CAN learn, change, and grow?

Daniel Pink’s book “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” highlights Mastery, or an innate desire to ¬†get better at whatever we are doing, as one of three drivers of human behavior (the other two being Autonomy and Purpose). People want to get better, they want to develop. Good talent professionals create communities and houses and cultures that help people do what they instinctively want to¬†do anyway – develop, grow, learn, and expand. So the question is: are you simply building houses or do you want to develop a community?

Work is not a “place”

The office set for Jacques Tati's Play Time an...

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There is “work” and then there is the “workplace.” Many people think they are the same or that one necessarily must occur at the other yet more and more studies are showing that the traditional office environment¬†stifles¬†creativity, reduces productivity, increases group-think, and can even¬†deteriorate personal health. And while you may read some of my posts and think I advocate abolishing the workplace all together, that is not my stance. I think going to work, at times, is very necessary to getting the results you need. But equally required to achieve results is time somewhere else. Sometimes it is going for a walk, sometimes it is a hike, maybe the gym, maybe a coffee shop, maybe it’s at home.

My stance is: allow people to work where and when they are most productive. It is a sign of trust in your employees, true delegation on your part, and is empowering to you employee. ¬†Not to mention, as this article in Psychology Science suggests, the metaphor “think outside of the box” has real physical significance. Sitting in your cube, office, or office building can constrain your thinking and narrow your perspectives.

I am not necessarily anti-office, I am pro-productivity. Don’t assume presence implies action. ¬†Give people clear expectations, provide access to resources and tools to do their jobs, give them directional feedback, then leave them alone so they can do their jobs. ¬†Your attendance policy may just be hurting your company in more ways than you realize.

Missing the Point

Work is NOT a place...it is an activity

There has been a buzz in the past few months about unlimited PTO, unlimited vacation policies, 4-day work weeks, flexible hours, etc. Companies including NetFlix, Best Buy, SpinWeb, RedFrog Events, WeddingWire, and yes, even the US government  get it: mainstream media and by extension the majority of the American public does not. This is NOT a policy, it is the absence of policy.

The Arguments Against

The primary arguments I hear are these:

  • how will we know people are getting their work done
  • won’t people abuse it
  • how is this impacted by FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act), and lastly,
  • how does that work if someone quits or gets terminated

My responses in their simplest form are:

  • “attendance does imply performance”;
  • “no – and please refer back to answer 1”;
  • “it really isn’t”; and,
  • “it works just fine, probably easier (and cheaper) than it does now”

How will you know people are getting their work done?

If you are using attendance to judge people’s performance then I would say you need to focus on your performance management system. ¬†I knew a lot of kids in grade school, middle-school, and high school that got a “perfect attendance award” and had crappy GPAs. Simply because someone if present does not mean they are performing. Furthermore, if you think watching over your employees increases productivity than I would say you either hired the wrong people or you are creating a negative environment for anyone who works for you. ¬†In addition, control breeds counter-control so if people feel monitored heavily, they tend to look for ways to slack when you are not looking.

Won’t people abuse it

Numerous practical applications of this type of work environment show when people are given the freedom of when and where to work, they end up actually working more. The question itself also assumes that having control of your schedule is a perk or a benefit Рthat is not the point.  The point is focusing on what people accomplish or how they meet performance expectations, deadlines, etc. So when you think about it that way, the question is actually irrelevant because it focuses on the wrong thing.  It, again (similar to the 1st question,) assumes that people will not be in their office and therefore not working, which is a false assumption. The problem worth analyzing is not whether or not they are present, but whether or not they are getting their jobs done.

How is this impacted by FLSA?

It isn’t. There is NOTHING in the Fair Labor Standards Act that mentions vacation or time NOT spent in the working. ¬†Here is the major misunderstanding of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as it relates to time and the modern workplace. The FLSA, along with establishing a minimum wage, ¬†outlines which employees are “exempt” from overtime pay after 40 hours/week, and which are “non-exempt” from being paid over-time. The easy piece is for exempt employees, or more commonly referred to as ‘salaried’ or ‘non-hourly.’ For this group of workers, there is zero legal ramifications for this person regardless of time spent working or ‘at work.’ They are paid a fixed amount regardless of whether they work 30 hours per week or 60. For non-exempt, or ‘hourly’ employees, the FLSA say nothing about paying people for time they DO NOT work. The ONLY legal ramifications are when people work OVER 40 hours per week. So the FLSA has nothing to do with vacation or time off, nothing – unless of course you have an earned PTO system where time off is considered an earned benefit…which ends up costing you when an employee leaves…because you still owe them the payment they earned.

How does this work if someone quits or gets terminated?

Here is a wonderful part of this shift. You owe them nothing in terms of earned or granted vacation. If you negotiate a severance package, that is totally different and has nothing to do with PTO or vacation. ¬†According to Hotwire.com, the majority of Americans workers left 6.2 days of vacation unused last year. If you use the median income of a full-time worker of $39,416¬†– that translates into a savings of over $900 for every employee who quits or is terminated, on average. When you have no vacation or PTO policy, no one gets paid for unused vacation or PTO…there is no such thing.

The Point

This is not like bottom-less wings where when your basket gets low, someone gives you a finite number more. This is more like air. Rather than living under a scuba tank where you measure your breath and have a finite amount, you get to breathe normally. In the environments like I mentioned above, the point is there is no basket, or bucket, of PTO or vacation therefore, no concept of unused, owed, or earned time. And more importantly, there is no guilt, judgement, or criticism around how people use their time as long as they are doing their jobs. When you are judged on what you get done rather than how much time you spend in the office, people tend to find efficiencies, work faster, and be more productive.

Don’t try to rewrite the policy, that misses the point. ¬†Eliminate it, shift your employees to focus on what people accomplish as opposed to just being present (see Presenteeism). Simply having people limited to the time they take will not make them produce more, in fact, as has been proven in all the aforementioned companies, productivity increased when they eliminated the vacation calendar and work-day clock. Stop talking about trust as if is something you have no control over – the more policies you have, the lower the trust you have in your employees (convince me otherwise if you disagree – and I am not talking about Quality procedures). Your vacation policy is one you can get rid of. Pay attention to what your employees do, not where they are.

The Mid-level Gap

No, I’m not talking retail, I’m talking about the development gap that exists somewhere around Middle Management and Director level professionals. Most Executive-level employees will tell you that there just doesn’t seem to be enough good leaders out there to take over executive functions yet there seems to be a void in development activity for the next level of leaders. And I think the problem is two-fold.

The Content Problem

Entry level managers have access to all sorts of developmental opportunities Рmanagement classes, project management classes, priority management classes, meeting management classes, decision-making classes, problem solving classes, the list goes on.  And relatively, the developmental classes are fairly inexpensive for the gains received.

Executives, too, have a fair share of options. Most of which focus on coaching and specific developmental mentors or business strategy driven development. There are Executive MBA programs and senior leadership retreats reaching into the tens of thousands of dollars. Typically, a good executive coach will cost you close to or over $10k as it is.

Mid-level managers (MLMs) or Director level employees, however, seem to experience a gap in the availability of options. While some (and I mean, very few) have already taken some of the entry-level classes (some need to go back in my opinion) most of the training that MLMs or Directors are aware of target towards those entry-level employees. Or at least that is the perception, which brings me to the next hurdle.

The Perception Problem

Most MLMs and Directors think they are doing a good job, but most of their employees don’t. A number of studies have shown this perception gap in management performance and yet, many MLMs and Directors hold fast to the belief that training is something for their employees, not them. ¬†Oddly enough, this is the group many 360 assessment instruments are designed towards…yet, very few are used. ¬†It is complete ignorance, or is it fear of the answer? ¬†I suppose that answer depends on the person but one thing is true, the more classes I teach of supervisory basics, the more I hear people say “my bosses should take this class.”

The Incentive Problem

At most organizations, there is just no incentive for people to develop themselves. And this is a universal once you get past individual contributor level. While companies profess the value of promoting internally, it happens less than 50% of the time. So the odds are actually against you getting promoted over an external hire. While many companies will make a training course or two mandatory, taking more does not gain you favor or increase your bonus or raise at the end of the year. With the stress of doing more with less in today’s workplace, most managers (unless there is some direct¬†corollary¬†to their status or pay) will opt to not spend half a day or longer learning to do their jobs better. The benefit of doing so is just too far off of people’s radar to make it a priority.

The Budget Control Problem

The point at which most managers become aware and responsible for their total annual budgets is right around MLM or Director level. This is often the first time employees are also judged on whether they come under budget or go over. And easy thing to always cut is self-development, especially given the reasons above. And most upper level development interventions such as coaching 360 assessments, conferences, retreats, are fairly expensive, sometimes $10k and up. ¬†Which is often 10% or more of a MLMs/Director’s salary. So the developmental dollars are spent developing others (if at all.)

The Cost of the Gap

The ultimate cost of all these factors is a serious talent gap that companies are experiencing…and paying through the nose for. Not only in soft costs but in recruiting effort and hiring bonuses for people with specific experience. It also is a contributing factor to paradox of high unemployment but a talent shortage.¬† So while millions are out of work, most companies have positions that are nearly impossible to fill (despite the hundred of applicants).¬† And part of that problem goes back to the budget issue, most companies are not actively developing people at middle levels. In the past few companies I have worked with I would estimate 80% of talent development budget is spent on entry-level and individual contributor level roles, 10% on line-supervisor roles, and perhaps another 5-9% on senior leadership.¬† And I may actually be generous to say that 2% is being spent on mid-level development. In fact, the last few companies I worked with had none, nothing, ZERO focus on mid-level development. And they were losing talent left and right, though sadly, no one seemed to attribute the reasons to their own doing (see Attrition and the Fundamental Attribution Error)

Though it would be easy to point to the content gap, the larger problems are the self-perception and budget issues. No one is assuming responsibility for the active development of mid-level managers or directors and, left to their own initiative, most will never seek development as a priority. The budget issue comes into play when searching for content. Sadly, while there is content out there, most mid-level managers or directors, do not think they are worth the cost. More troubling still is that many executives do not see the value either. When a talented mid-level manager desires a $10 development plan for the year, it is received with a great deal of scrutiny. However, when an outside recruitment firm is paid a $10k commission for a replacement hire, no one seems to give it more than a shrug.


Directors and mid-level managers need to get rid of the notion that they don’t need developing and that it is not a priority. Senior leadership needs to take a more active role in development and succession planning and not expect people will seek out their own development. Companies need to face the reality that they are the cause for the talent gap and stop investing in an external hires potential, and instead, redirect that effort and money to develop the internal potential and talent. Far too many good people are leaving organizations simply because the company chooses to pay for someone’s stellar resume and fast talking during interviews, rather than developing the talent within. Integrating talent development, succession planning, and employee engagement can save organizations much more money than buying talent is costing them…both short-term and long-term.