How to Support Employees’ Learning Goals While Getting Day-to-Day Stuff Done

by Nick Gidwani
Republished from Harvard Business Review, August 1, 2017

Many of the most successful people had to fight tooth and nail for opportunities to learn new skills and advance up the corporate ladder. That’s often because what they wanted to learn and achieve wasn’t in sync with what their bosses wanted for them. You’re not a data scientist. You’re not cut out for engineering. Sales isn’t what you do. Lines like this are still used all too frequently when employees tell their managers that they want to move in a new direction.

But this is only half the story. Managers are under tremendous pressure to generate results. You have annual quotas, quarterly goals, and increasing competition. Who has time to let employees go learn skills that may not be relevant for years, or may not serve your unit at all?

I hear these challenges all the time as I work with managers at all levels, particularly in large corporations. I’ve also faced them myself with the companies I founded and scaled. It’s a tough balancing act. But I’ve learned key lessons to help managers turn lofty goals — such as making learning and development a central pillar of the workday — into real actions that mitigate damage to, and even help strengthen, the bottom line. Here’s how.

Get top-level guidance and metrics. This new reality, in which developing talent is a key business imperative, requires real buy-in from top brass in your company, all the way up to the CEO. Executives’ broad statements about the importance of learning are all well and good, but as a manager you need clear marching orders that include data and expectations.

Ask the bosses to tell you: How much time do they expect employees to spend learning during work hours? How will your unit’s monthly, quarterly, and annual goals change as a result? What metrics will be used to determine how well your unit is doing at embracing learning and development, and how will that in turn affect your review?

There will always be some tension. Part of your job will be to manage this uncertainty. Be confident that if you approach learning and development with the right mindset, the outcomes will be good.

Nearly every manager who has reported to me has questioned the wisdom of spending time building talent when there are immediate business goals. But those same managers have come to recognize that the ROI for enabling this development is enormous.

Hire to train. Here’s the good news: The new, bigger role of learning allows you to save money in hiring. When I launched my first company in 2008 (CarZen, acquired by Liberty Mutual), one of my first hires was a CTO. I chose an experienced developer who was in huge demand and was an expensive hire.

I also hired an entry-level employee who demonstrated enormous potential and ambition, although he had only rudimentary development skills. I made him the CTO’s protégé, and had the CTO spend time teaching and evaluating him. It meant giving up between one-quarter and one-third of the CTO’s productivity, but this time was being used as an investment in my future talent. Eventually, the CTO moved on and the protégé took over as the lead developer. Grateful for the opportunity and all we had done for him, he stayed for years, even though he could have made more money elsewhere.

I’ve used this system for hiring in general, including in the next company I founded, SkilledUp (which was acquired by the Apollo Education Group). I regularly hired people right out of college, as well as people who were looking to pivot from an existing career and, although they still needed to learn fundamentals, had a good base of core skills and the ambition to learn.

This idea of using on-the-job training to save money and build a workforce has also proven successful around the world, such as with Germany’s apprenticeship program.

Treat learning as a shared responsibility. The onus is not entirely on you. Learning and development are also a responsibility of the employee. Not all learning activities will take place on company time.

Just how much is a matter of the C-suite’s guidance. But what kind of learning each employee wants to do will play a role in figuring out this balance. If a worker wants to transition into a whole other department, there’s nothing wrong with you expecting some of that learning to take place on their own time.

The best way to handle all of this is through open communication. Discuss with your direct reports what kinds of learning they want to do and why. Perhaps they’ve spotted an edge skill that could transform how your unit operates. Perhaps they want to be able to present ideas more clearly in meetings. Or perhaps they want to jump from engineering to sales. Work out plans together. Discuss what there’s time for and what your expectations are. And listen with an open mind.

That brings us to the fourth lesson: how to talk about learning.

Speak at the skill level, not the role level. If an employee wants to explore a new role in the company, don’t even consider whether you think they would be “a good fit.” Instead, break down the skills necessary to do the role. For example, tell the employee: “You would need to develop expertise with Tableau,” or Excel, or giving presentations. As employees embark on learning paths, offer them honest feedback and suggestions on to how to improve.

By having these conversations at the skill level rather than the role level, you’ll alter the complexion of the work environment. People will feel freer to tell you that they’d like to learn new skills. And you’ll be able to offer positive, encouraging steps forward.

Even the most well-meaning managers sometimes aren’t equipped to identify whether an employee has the skills for a role not under their purview. A focus on skills helps to demystify the whole idea of transitions for both you and your direct reports. And perhaps more important, it helps keep great people in the company. When workers, particularly Millennials, feel that they aren’t given the chance to stretch their wings, they leave.

see this analogy in sports all the time. Basketball player Giannis Antetokounmpo, of the Milwaukee Bucks, is described as having “come out of nowhere” to become one of the league’s greats. But if anyone had broken down the individual skills (and perhaps genetic traits) it takes to be a great basketball player, they would have seen his enormous potential — and other teams could have snatched him up.

Inside your unit, you may have a future star — someone with the skills and the ability to learn, someone who can lead the company. By taking these steps to make learning real, practicable, and possible, you are giving yourself, the employee, and the entire company a stronger future.

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