HR Magazine, May 2001: Employee, Sculpt Thyself ... with a Little Help

By Carla Joinson May 1, 2001

HR Magazine, May 2001Vol. 46, No. 5

Helping employees carve out a future involves more than formal training--it also requiers guidance and input from managers.

A little more than a year ago, after Mary Anne Sendra was hired as the new human resource manager at Cimnet Systems Inc. in Downer’s Grove, Ill., she decided to start conducting exit interviews. The comments she received from departing employees revealed that the fast-growing company’s employee development efforts left much to be desired.

Employees told Sendra they were frustrated because they couldn’t get meaningful feedback from managers. "Managers never asked employees what they thought about the work they were doing," she says.

What’s more, employees weren’t encouraged to develop their skills by talking to each other. "Programmers who had been sitting next to each other for years never shared work issues," she says.

To address these concerns, Sendra arranged a management-training seminar—but she resolved most of her problems through coaching.

"I reminded managers that they got feedback from customers, but the developers didn’t," says Sendra. "When they put themselves in the employees’ shoes, they could better understand their need for feedback, praise and comments."

The company later implemented short meetings where employees could discuss work issues, split up tasks and make suggestions. After a rocky first meeting, Sendra has seen the program make tremendous strides. "Managers run the meeting and give opportunities for suggestions and questions," she says.

Helping employees develop their skills has resulted in better work distribution and a lot of informal cross-training, says Sendra. "No one person in the company knows the entire software system, but programmers now share ideas and observe other programming techniques. They’re getting a better picture of how each part of the system works as they discuss problems with their co-workers."

Sendra’s problem was not unusual. One-third of HR professionals are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their organizations’ overall performance management system, according to the 2000 Performance Management Survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and Personnel Decisions International (PDI). That dissatisfaction was linked largely to employee development components such as leadership development, coaching, 360-degree feedback and development planning.

Further, in a 1998 survey of IT workers by PDI, more than 80 percent of respondents said that receiving feedback, having individual development plans and having access to non-technical skills training would make them less likely to leave their companies.

But fewer than 27 percent of respondents had an individual development plan, and only 41.6 percent of companies had programs to help IT workers develop non-technical skills. And while 83.2 percent of respondents said they’d be more likely to stay with a company that offered 360-degree feedback, only 12.5 percent were currently receiving it.

More Than Classroom Work

A factor that can complicate employee development is that the term doesn’t mean the same thing to all people.

Michael Simpson, senior consultant in the organization practice at Watson Wyatt Worldwide in San Francisco, says that when most people hear the words "employee development," they think first of traditional classroom training. But that’s too narrow a view, he suggests. "The greatest employee development comes from managers taking time to develop employees through mentoring, assigning interesting projects and identifying improvement areas," he says.

David White, co-founder of Cambridge, Mass.-based Human Capital Technology (a software company making competency-based HR management and development systems) and product manager for that technology with William M. Mercer, sees a trend toward managers serving as coaches and mentors rather than taskmasters.

White explains that a manager and employee may decide together that the employee needs to gain a competency to be in line for the next promotion. "That employee can volunteer for an on-the-job project, the manager can add more responsibilities to the present job, mentor the employee or offer options like rotation or a lateral move," says White.

"It doesn’t always have to be 100 percent tuition reimbursement—there are lots of ways to deliver development."

Karyl Innis, CEO of Dallas-based The Innis Company, which manages employee development for client companies, points out that classroom training is a "one-time shot at content." Though she believes such training is essential to employee development, she says "the best development is on-the-job experience that creates additional competency and talent for the individual."

Innis explains that employee development often is neglected because it takes so much time. "Development should be a planned series of tasks and assignments that grows a person up. It has to be a long-range, long-term, highly defined program. Unfortunately," she says, "today’s marketplace says that managers don’t have time to do those things that don’t have immediate earning potential."

Managers typically don’t get negative repercussions from not developing employees, says Simpson, "but the reason this behavior is allowed to continue is because the organization allows it. If HR thinks investing in employee development is critical, they have to convince senior management."

He adds that if organizations don’t have a well-tuned employee development program, "people who are motivated to develop themselves will leave—and you retain those who aren’t affected by a lack of employee development."

And no company wants that. Case in point: Watson Wyatt’s survey of 1,000 senior executives for its 1999 Leadership in the Global Economy study cited leadership development as the single most important human resource issue facing their companies. The study also found a statistically significant relationship between leadership development and financial success in four areas: shareholder return, growth in market share, growth in net income and return on sales.

Managers Are Key Developers

John Madigan, vice president of HR for The Hartford’s 3,500 member IT group in Hartford, Conn., didn’t need national statistics to tell him how important employee development is. He got his own data.

Madigan conducted a retention study that surveyed, among others, people who left the organization voluntarily. "Ninety percent of people who left voluntarily talked about career and professional development and the level of support their managers gave them in this area," says Madigan.

Although the company made courses available to employees, it found that wasn’t enough: Workers wanted their managers to help guide them. "What employees wanted," says Madigan, "were managers who were really interested in their development, and in mentoring and coaching them. Instead, employees ended up feeling that their managers weren’t putting as much effort into developing them as they could."

Madigan believes that better tools for managers have since alleviated much of the problem. "We now have a Corporate University web site that allows both managers and employees to search by competency, subject, course title, vendor and so on," he says. "Managers used to have to spend hours searching through education catalogues and other material to get the same results, which was a disincentive to do it."

Madigan says that because employees can access the Corporate University, they end up doing a lot of the background research themselves and come to managers more prepared. "The managers are happier when it happens this way—the process of coaching and providing guidance has become much less onerous."

Madigan also is enthusiastic about a pilot career development platform that was slated to roll out in April 2001. "It’s an online system where people can look at ‘job families,’ see what advancement is out there and then look at what the differences are in expectations, responsibilities and competencies from what they’re currently doing," he explains. "This platform allows managers to better articulate why people are at specific levels and what they need to develop to progress within or across job families."

In addition, managers are more willing to get involved with employee development, says Madigan, because the company’s study "showed a clear link between managers’ active involvement in employee development and the retention of talented individuals. The link was always a bit speculative until we did this."

At The Hartford, IT managers also are appraised on employee development as "a defined part of the ‘results expected’ that reflects part of their bonus eligibility," Madigan adds. "We believe this communicates how important we think it is."

Madigan says managers can show their success in this area by demonstrating the following:

  • How many people have gone through development per quarter or year.

  • The number of employees who have developmental objectives in their appraisal/review documents.

  • The amount of money spent per employee on development and training.

  • Positive changes in employee survey responses regarding development and the manager’s role in it.

The Gift of Time

At Sears Credit in Hoffman Estates, Ill., employee development has become such a priority that the organization was identified as a training investment leader in the 2000 "State of the Industry" report by the American Society of Training and Development.

But employee development didn’t always top the organization’s to-do list, says Bob O’Neal, SPHR, director of human resource development. "At one time, front-line managers were so involved with project work that they didn’t pay much attention to employee development," he says.

Three years ago, Sears Credit went through a reorganization that restructured team managers’ jobs. "The reorganization was driven by the president of Credit and the vice presidents who ran the call centers, so we enjoyed a great amount of senior-level support," he says.

O’Neal says the company realigned its incentive system to recognize excellent people management as the most significant factor in promotions. It also created specialized project management positions to do high value work and developed career paths for both team managers and project managers. Now, the team managers’ goal (measured by their managers on associate development logs) is to spend 80 percent of their contact time with associates developing them, primarily through coaching.

Over the last three years, Sears Credit has seen a 30 percent improvement in terms of the effectiveness of our associates’ ability to do the job," says O’Neal. "We track this through operational measures and by sales results. Our changes also resulted in reduced associate attrition and improved opinion surveys," he adds.

"And though it wasn’t the goal of the initiative, the restructure actually reduced expense."

Encouraging Employees

Professional designations help maintain a competitive edge for USAA, a San Antonio-based insurance and financial services company that has occupied a place on Fortune’s list of the "100 Best Companies to Work For in America" for four years in a row. So the company became concerned when participation in professional designation programs dropped off over the past few years, says Jan Collins, manager of USAA’s workforce development services. "We heard a recurring sentiment from employees that ‘Management doesn’t think it’s important, so why should I?’"

Though USAA already had a special recognition breakfast in place for employees who had completed important developmental milestones, Collins says the company brought back an incentive that allowed employees to travel to an association’s national conference to receive their professional designation. "This is industrywide recognition for the employee and shows that our management—from the CEO on down—feels the accomplishment is important," she says.

One designation in particular—the chartered property casualty underwriter (CPCU) designation—was giving the company concern, says Collins. "We weren’t satisfied with pass rates and felt that one-on-one mentoring would help. Now we’re matching individuals who hold designations with students. They can talk about the subject matter together, and students get that pat on the back they need." Collins says the company also has decided to pick up the expense of an online review program employees can use.

So far, the company is seeing results for the CPCU program: February figures show that enrollment is 120 percent higher than for the same time last year. "We think this is due mainly to higher management involvement and more communication from the lines of business to employees, as well as the return of conferment travel," says Collins. "Our mentoring program is so new that we probably haven’t felt its impact yet."

Carla Joinson, a contributing editor to HR Magazine, is based in San Antonio. She specializes in writing about business and management issues.

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