5 Keys to People Development

The most important role of any leader is to build a high performing team. This means helping others develop in their ability to lead themselves (self-leadership), lead others (formal or informal leadership), and lead with others (in alignment with a team of leaders).

But what does it mean to develop others? What is development?

Development is a process of making small changes to how you think about yourself and how the world works. These changes impact who you are in the world. In other words, the goal of development is to change our cognitive construction of reality — to change how we think about ourselves and the world, over time. As our thinking changes, we rebuild our sense of reality with less ego, as less self-centered, less distorted, less reactive, and more expansive. Development is growth in our mindsets and meaning making logic.

Who we are in the world changes as a natural part of life, through life experiences — some that we choose, others that choose us. But development is on purpose. It’s intentional. We choose to work on a skill, develop knowledge, change a habit or shift an attitude. And in that decision, we initiate a change in how we think.

Change (and development) happens from the inside – out.

Managers tend to think about development as about “size” — size of job, amount of responsibility or authority, etc, related to the career of a person. But the kind of development people really need is development of the PERSON who is having the career. Career progression is a consequence of the person development, as is organization growth.

When you limit your definition of development to job improvement, development becomes a touchy subject. Why? Because we can’t guarantee a promotion. Or we fear that we will do the work of preparing the employee for the next level and then they’ll leave. It feels like a wasted effort. Not to mention, talking about “soft topics” like character or emotional intelligence is harder than teaching concrete tasks or imparting knowledge. Participation can be a path to development. That said, it doesn’t usually bring the kind of personal improvement an organization needs for growth.

Development matters because you can never perform beyond your self-image. Organizations grow beyond their limits when people do.

There are five essential keys to a successful development process:

1. A Trustworthy Environment – one that accepts that all people have weaknesses, and encourages colleagues to support others in overcoming them.

In most organizations, employees often feel like they have two jobs: (1) doing the tasks on their job description, and (2) hiding their imperfections or weaknesses. The truth is that we all have something we can work on. Leaders can promote growth by making it psychologically safe to be human, and to have imperfections and weaknesses, as well as strengths.

2. Growth mindset – a willingness to take responsibility for your own mind. You have a lot of thoughts — or rather, you are having some, but some are having you. Thoughts drive behavior. If you want different results, you have to think differently. Same old thinking? Same old results.

3. A way to learn & practice – this can look like structured projects, goals, classes, reading — anything that provides an opportunity to stretch, tweak, or reorganize our thinking.

Most organizations are not designed for practice; they are designed for performance: look good, be an expert, minimize mistakes, show what you know and can do well. We don’t tend to think of work as an opportunity to practice, but rather, as an opportunity to perform. We measure performance & results. When we talk about ‘performance’, we tend to equate that with perfection or expertise. But that’s not what practice is about.

Think about kids practicing a sport. No one expects “perfection” from them. The purpose of practice is to do something over and over with the intention of getting better. It’s trying something on, working at improving, allowing experimentation, and seeing what happens — so we can use that ‘feedback’ (whatever results we are getting) to help us learn and improve. Over time, we build muscle memory — which is basically moving your thinking process from the conscious to the subconscious level. The part that can be frustrating is that with character development, you never reach completion. There is always room for improvement.

4. Reflection – through discussion, writing, data collection, analyzing feedback, finding patterns, etc. We need the space to figure out what parts of what we are learning have meaning for us right now.

When I worked a regular full time job, I used my commute as time for reflection, as well as for planning my days & weeks. I developed more robust reflection skills & practices by working with a coach. Reflection is essential — and often over-looked, skipped, or put-off for later when we have more time. Leaders have a unique opportunity to build reflection into their 1:1 conversations and team meetings.

5. Reinforcement of new chosen habits of thinking — to make lasting, conscious shifts in beliefs about yourself and the world. Through reinforcement & repetition, changes in how we think take root in our subconscious and the new becomes natural.

I can not emphasize enough the importance of a trustworthy environment. People need to feel psychologically safe to explore, practice, fail, seek & received feedback, reflect, and go again.

Development is a process. And like any other process, you have to practice if you want to get better. Yes, YOU. If you are committed to “developing others” and “leading by example”, then you have to practice the process yourself.

When you think of development in these terms, any experience can be used as material for personal growth. In coach training, we explored creating from self, other, nothing and everything. Something as simple as driving to work could be an experience that brings a life lesson with it — but only if you reflect on & claim it, and even better when we do that out loud. When we share our experiences & lessons learned, we help our employees claim those lessons, too.

Development matters because you can never perform beyond your self-image. Organizations grow beyond their limits when people do. Change happens from the inside — out, through shifts in our habits of thinking about ourselves & the world. Developing your team is your job as a leader. Developing yourself is how you start.

Picture of Susan LaCasse

Susan LaCasse

Susan brings 25 years experience in driving change in a variety of project and leadership roles. Common to these roles were leadership development, process improvement and change management.

Susan is a student of human behavior, constantly seeking the latest in theories and tools. She also understands how organizations work. Together, she uses this combination to help her clients create positive, lasting change. Susan is a unique combination of coach, catalyst and trusted adviser.


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