A manager who doesn’t appreciate the value of something or simply doesn’t want to do it will always find an excuse not to. And, when it comes to employee development, one doesn’t have to look far for a legitimate one! Organizations unwittingly create impediments to growing people—something that’s recognized as a competitive advantage and requirement for sustainable success.

Which barriers have you witnessed or experienced?

  • A corporate schedule requiring that hours and hours of development planning and conversations be forced into a short window—frequently in the same time frame as budgeting or other mission-critical activities.
  • Unnatural performance management systems and restrictions that result in good people receiving mediocre ratings.
  • Bottlenecks in the organizational chart that result in little opportunity for promotion—and even less for raises or merit pay.

These barriers are real. They’re frustrating. They aren’t likely to go anywhere in the foreseeable future. And they aren’t deal breakers for leaders who are genuinely committed to helping others grow. The best people developers I know live in this same world and grapple with these same limitations. And yet their people thrive.

Exceptional people developers beat bad systems by recognizing that genuine, sustainable, career-driving growth rarely results from formal processes but rather in spite of them. They do what they must to comply and provide the data demanded by the organization; then they get to the real work of development—work that is about people not processes, relationships not remuneration, and opportunity not necessarily organizational moves.

Exceptional people developers embrace four hallmarks that allow them and the people they support to thrive despite conditions that others experience as constraining.

Keep talking

Exceptional people developers keep the lines of communication open all year long, not just when the organization instructs them to. Career development is not a “one and done” activity. It requires ongoing attention throughout the year because employees are changing and transforming every day. Exceptional developers engage in short conversations that tease out evolving interests, strengths and motivators. They find ways to infuse a development focus in routine occurrences and interactions. They keep development alive well beyond the formal conversations that support organizational process.

Build accountability

Leaders who are most effective at helping others learn and grow do less—not more—than others. They appreciate that employees must own their own development; and they help others internalize this idea. They refuse to do the heavy lifting; instead they help others own their goals, actions and results. They insist that employees take the lead (with their support). They might make a networking introduction but then encourage the other persons to take it from there. When confronted with a problem, they help others come to their own solutions versus providing answers. Holding others accountable for their development and related commitments builds ownership and reinforces the employee’s pivotal role in their growth.

Highlight progress

The work of Teresa Amabile, Steven Kramer and others illuminates another key hallmark of “systems-beating” development: progress is a powerful motivator. Small wins and modest steps forward can boost creativity, productivity, engagement and persistence. Exceptional people developers continuously scan the environment for hints of progress. They “catch” people taking action to support their goals and development plans. Simply drawing attention back to development reminds staff members of their intentions and invites them to recommit to them.

Optimize learning

Too frequently development reflects the sentiment of this T.S. Eliot quote: “We had the experience but missed the meaning.” A nearly infinite number of development actions can drive growth objectives and, in the process, offer tremendous opportunities for learning and insights. But for many, these insights will pass unnoticed without help and encouragement. Exceptional people developers support others in extracting maximum benefit from each developmental action or activity by deliberately debriefing it, forcing reflection, and asking a few key questions to unpack the learning it afforded.

When leaders redefine development, they change the rules of the game. When they make it personal, they create connections and motivation that transcend perceived organizational limitations. And when development becomes pervasive rather than periodic, the challenges of organizational processes fade in the light of opportunity and growth. And in this way, bad systems are no match for exceptional people developers.