If I’m listing the top five (maybe the top three) responsibilities of a leader, creating an environment that fosters growth absolutely makes the cut. An organization will most likely never grow beyond the person who leads it and individual divisions and departments will most likely never grow beyond the people who lead them. Unfortunately, we human being are wired for stasis. We run smack dab into Newton’s first law of motion, “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an external force.” As a leader, it’s your job to be that external force.
During this week’s One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge exercise, I want to you to craft a framework that inspires and enables growth in your organization. The growth you want spans personal and professional, individual and team.
Use the ideas below like tools for your toolbox. Some of them I’d consider mandatory (like the first one) and others might or might not work in your organization. Pick and choose, add your own, then execute. Make lifelong learning part of your organizational culture (learning orientation is in my list of cultural imperatives. If you want to see my full list of culture imperatives, you can find it here).
Set the Example for Personal and Professional Growth – You should be hearing phrases like this come out of your mouth frequently, “I was just reading…”, “In the past, I would have…, but with what I’ve learned now, I’d…”, “I had to apologize for…, because I found out I was wrong”, “My gut feel was…, but when I examined the data…”, “Swing by my office because I’d like to get your thoughts on…”. Spend time reading, taking a class, listening to a TED talk, journaling, and writing.
Embrace and Communicate that “Ego is the Enemy” – I’ve probably co-opted the title from Ryan Holiday’s excellent book a thousand times as I’ve talked and written. However, the real issue is whether or not I’ve embraced the message. We must never succumb to the temptation of thinking we know all there is to know about our job, our company, our customers, our people, or our processes. The minute we think we’ve arrived, the clock counting down our personal and professional destruction starts ticking. Advocate for personal and corporate humility. I often think about the encouragement from Gary Keller in his book, The One Thing. We don’t want to do our job the “best we can do it” (implying that our present capacity is the pinnacle). Instead, we want to do our job the “best it can be done” (implying that there’s more to learn and we’re going to drink it all in and apply it in our work).
Create a Mentorship Program – Pair mentees with mentors who will talk with them about professional growth, career paths, navigating office politics, balancing work and family responsibilities, moving from staff to supervisory roles and more. The mentor will learn just as much as the mentee. And you’ll automatically be building a couple of the factors that employees identified as indicative of solid management (see First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham). If potential mentors feel like this is outside their comfort zone, help them by creating a curriculum with discussion topics and resources.
Create an Environment where Good Risk is Embraced and Subsequent Failure after Good Risk is OK – If you never fail, you’re more than likely never doing anything that’s a stretch. People and organizations should do hard things. When the uncertainties surrounding hard things are pondered, good decision-making skills should be employed. Good decisions frequently result in bad outcomes (the batter frequently swings unsuccessfully at pitches that are low and away, but this time he hit a double). If your good risk appears to end in failure, you’ve at least learned some things (faulty product development, faulty delivery, faulting messaging). It’s never a bad thing to get an education.
Encourage Independent Work and Collaboration – Current research in productivity shows that neither bullpens nor private offices are optimal for the best outcomes. We need both. Employees need uninterrupted spans of time and privacy to do deep work (achieving flow). They also need engaging conversation with people who can challenge and sharpen the ideas they crafted working alone. Design workspaces and work schedules where both can happen.
Cross Discipline Knowledge is Golden – We have erroneously equated deep subject matter expertise with greater problem-solving ability in that discipline. For the sake of time, let me cut to the chase and say that thinking is wrong. In his book Range, David Epstein tells the story of two labs working on the same problem at the same time (proteins they wanted to measure would get stuck to a filter, which made them hard to analyze). One lab, staffed by only E. Coli experts, took weeks to solve the problem – experimenting with multiple methodologies. The other lab, staffed by scientists with chemistry, physics, biology, and genetics backgrounds, plus medical students, figured out the problem in their initial meeting. Deep subject matter expertise should be celebrated and leveraged, but to maximize peer-to-peer learning in an organization, utilize cross-disciplinary teams.
Make It Not All About Work – I know people who will come into an organization and do a Lunch-and-Learn on – Understanding Mortgages for First-time Homebuyers, Dog Training, Personal Finances, and Sleep. When your environment for growth includes growth opportunities for the whole person, you demonstrate another level of commitment to your team members.
Do the Traditional Stuff – Down through the years, employers have sent team member to seminars, enrolled them in online classes and paid for college degrees. Some of these might make less sense now, but there’s no reason to dismiss them entirely.
This is only a starter list, but it should get you on your way to creating a strong environment for growth in your organization.