The best way to develop employees is one-on-one coaching, yet too few executives seem interested in making the effort.
If you want to dramatically improve the performance of your team, get to know them as individuals. Effective leadership, in the words of emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman, requires that you understand people's "perspectives, their hopes and dreams" - and that you present them with "a challenge that leads them in the direction where they want to be moving anyway".
Although most leaders talk the talk about the importance of developing others, their actions demonstrate that they are mostly interested in developing themselves. When I challenge executives to tell me about the people they depend on to make them successful, I get little insight and a lot of guilt. Leaders have to know more than the names of spouses and ages of kids; they need to understand the employees who are entrusted to their care - their dreams, disappointments, goals, motivations, fears and the activities that build (and drain) their energy.
If leaders benefit by developing others, and developing others requires insights into what motivates them, then why don't more executives take the time to understand individuals' interests and link them to the enterprise's interests? Goleman says one-on-one coaching is the least used tool in the managerial toolkit because most executives think a conversation about an individual - rather than about a shared task - "doesn't look like leadership".
In my executive coaching work, I find that few people conduct effective, one-on-one development conversations with their direct reports. Many feel ill-equipped to conduct these conversations or don't believe that soft insights will lead to hard results. For those who say that it is each individual's responsibility to manage his or her career, I would respond that it is unrealistic to expect employees who are less experienced, less powerful and less self-aware to initiate "meeting of the minds" conversations.
Without productive one-on-one conversations, the organization suffers. Succession planning efforts break down because leadership development plans for "high potentials" are driven from a top-down assessment of the needs of the enterprise. In effect, these plans assume the individual wishes to be developed in whatever direction the organization deems necessary.
I believe that leaders are made, not born, and that managers are responsible for creating challenges that motivate and experiences that teach their employees. There's a great book titled Leader as Coach: Strategies for Coaching & Developing Others, published by HR consultancy Personnel Decisions International. It outlines the steps necessary to form a development partnership: First, help the individual identify his or her "motivational gap" (defined as an "important difference between where you are and would like to be"); second, create a plan to guide the development process.
The motivational gap is identified from information on an employee's abilities (from his own point of view and others', typically gathered in a 360-degree assessment), his goals and values, and the success factors of others (including the enterprise). For many of my clients, their motivational gap is the difference between the abilities they have and the ones they need to attain their goals. For others, it is the change necessary to move them into a role more consistent with their values or more strategic to the enterprise. The science of the motivational gap is less important than the art of what happens during one-on-one conversations in which the leader gets to know the employee and seeks to understand rather than to be heard.
Leader as Coach outlines the respective roles of the development partnership. The supervisor agrees to act as a coach by working one-on-one, orchestrating resources and learning opportunities, and providing encouragement for learning and focus. The direct report agrees to assume primary responsibility for his or her development by setting priorities, accepting new challenges, testing new behaviours, reflecting and extracting learning, and seeking feedback and support.
If this sounds like a big-time commitment, it is. It takes work to create relationships in which direct reports are willing to be vulnerable and insights can be jointly formulated. In organizations that churn and burn people, it's unlikely that leaders will benefit directly from these efforts. But for those CIOs who take the long view and understand that great leadership can enhance the lives of those they lead, I encourage you to take a deep breath and sit down one-on-one with the top 20 percent (to start with) of your leadership team.
On the business side, the relationships formed will enhance your ability to create strategic visions, build loyalty and foster commitment. On the personal side, these relationships will enhance your own life and outlast the impact of any other priority currently on your desk.
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