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Leadership Development I 37 tips to improve any skills development program!

Jeroen de Flander
art of performance by Jeroen De Flander

A solid skills development program is crucial to strategy success. Why? Because we all know that developing new skills can be quite a challenge.

Developing new skills demand:

  1. Tough choices (you can’t be good at everything)
  2. Long-term commitment (skills development takes time)
  3. Motivated people (people need to commit to a skills development program)

This skills development program guide helps you to build a best-in-class skills development program for your company.

In other words, the tips in this guide will help you to set up a learning platform in your company to develop those skills your people need to succeed.

Skills Development Program - 37 tips to improve any skills development program [incl definition, plan, ....]

Skills development program: 37 practical tips 

The key to a successful skills development program demands six solid foundations. They are the pillars of any professional skills development plan.

  1. Skills development program #1: Define the skills you want and how you are going to get them
  2. Skills development program #2: Manage your skills development portfolio
  3. Skills development program #3: Design world-class learning interventions
  4. Skills development program #4: Execute flawlessly
  5. Skills development program #5: Set skills development objectives
  6. Skills development program #6: Measure success

In total, you will find 37 skills development tips.

I suggest to evaluate your current skills development program and select 1 or 2 improvements areas.

Four-to-six months after that period, you should repeat the exercise to evaluate progress and define new actions.

Skills Development #1: Define the skills you want and how you are going to get them

You defined your high-level strategy. Your next step is to concretize the skills you need to win the competitive battle within your industry. And define a long-term skills development plan to achieve them.

Tip 1: Link skills development and strategy

I often see a disconnection between the strategy exercise on one hand and the skills development program on the other.

I hear senior management talk (a lot) about leadership skills development and they often do spend quite a lot of money on corporate training courses.

But they don’t actively work on connecting skills development with strategy.

Be different. Make sure your strategy drives your skills development plan and not the latest market trends, individual preferences or even job requirements.

Anchor all your skills development into your strategy. Don’t let them drift.

Tip 2: Think ahead.

Developing new skills takes time – usually much more than you expect as you aim for excellence. Therefore, you need to identify today the skills you will need in three year’s time.

Tip 3: Let go of your old skills

While your strategy demands the development of new skills, it also requires skill divestments. Some part of your company’s current skill set will become redundant or less important in supporting or acquiring competitive advantage.

Act on these competences either by outsourcing or via the reallocation of resources. Take action to redeploy… and be honest about it.

Don’t put your head in the sand hoping it will go away – because it won’t. People need the chance and enough time to reorient themselves. So don’t hang onto your old skills and look for possible solutions early in the game.

Tip 4: Keep the right flight level.

When you run a competency exercise, it’s easy to drown in too much detail. You know what I’m talking about – those mapping exercises with over 150 competences.

Focus instead on those competences that will make or break your competitive position. Once you’ve discussed those competences (two-to-four in number), identify the key roles that will be most affected.

Finally, look at it from a management perspective and the impact on how it is managed at different levels of the organization.

Tip 5: Discuss skills developmen content AND process

Don’t limit your discussion exclusively to content. Make sure you also discuss how those crucial capabilities will be developed.

Tip 6: Involve development executives (HRD) in the strategic planning process

It will help you perform better on Tip 5. Ask your executives to prepare an up-to-date view into where your company stands today in terms of skills development.

Tip 7: Create excitement

You need to promote those new skills that people will need to develop over the next few years.

Prepare a solid explanation as to why people need new skills and identify the actions that the organization can take to promote their development.

Skills development #2: Manage your skills development plan [portfolio]

Your development portfolio is a collection of all your skills development initiatives that should be managed like any other portfolio.

The training programs, coaching, formal on-the-job training and internships, all need to fit seamlessly together to create a combination that manages to close the skills gap.

Manage your portfolio well to avoid duplication. This avoids costs and confusion. Here are some tips:

Tip 8: Make the CEO a member of the Learning Advisory Board

Such as at Motorola. If you don’t have an advisory board to guide learning in your organization, consider creating one. It needn’t be too formal or heavy; a quarterly meeting will do just fine.

The important part is to discuss the skills development program on a company-wide scale, across departments, with the big boss in the room.

Tip 9: Review and update overall skills development plan [goals and processes]

Review your company-wide skills development plan [goals and processes] regularly – at least once a year. The best time would be after a strategic review and before the start of the strategy cascade.

If there is a big strategy shift, there should be a long list of changes. If the list remains short, they probably haven’t done their homework.

Tip 10: Develop an impact map

Don’t stop once you’ve connected the overall skills development plan with your strategy.

Make sure all learning intervention can also be tracked back to the overall strategy. It’s a great way to challenge the need for a certain program and, once confirmed, a great way to communicate that program.

Here are the four questions you need to answer for each learning intervention:

  1. What skills, knowledge and attitude will participants adopt?
  2. How will they transfer these to their jobs?
  3. With what results?
  4. To what strategic goal does this contribute?

Tip 11: Use zero-based budgeting

You can reduce your overall development budget by 15 percent AND increase quality at the same time. Sounds pretty interesting, right?

Most companies manage their skills development budget as a closed envelope discussed once a year during the budget review. The budget owners, often HR together with line managers, are measured according to whether they stay within the global budget or not.

There is, however, a much better way. Review the effectiveness and efficiency of each program. Define a few simple metrics and make a ranking of all your programs each year. And say goodbye to those at the bottom on the list.

Tip 12: Use your leadership and competence dictionary correctly

A dictionary categorizes and describes behavior attributes that potentially can be very valuable – but you need to be careful. Here are three things to watch out for:

  • Don’t spend too much time developing one. Don’t let a consultant convince you that it would be worth developing your one dictionary from scratch. It’s a waste.

Save yourself the time and money and use a tried and tested framework. With some fine-tuning, your dictionary should be ready within a week.

  • Stick to it. Once you have decided on a dictionary, make sure you stick to it. As often happens, you don’t want several in circulation.
  • Don’t try to teach the dictionary to everyone. A competency dictionary offers great value for recruiters and training designers. The added value for managers however is limited as it is often too technical and not directly beneficial to their jobs. I suggest you offer it to interested managers as a nice to have, but little more.

Tip 13: Ensure integration with other HR processes

A mentioned there is a strong link between skills development and strategy. But also, the  skills development process needs to interact with other human resource processes such as talent management, career counselling, assessment and recruitment.

Tip 14: Keep up-to-date

This is a rapidly evolving area with a constant flow of new developments to keep up with. There will be opportunities on the learning and the technology side. Make sure you are equipped with the knowledge to separate the good from the bad.

Skills development #3: Design world-class learning interventions

You know which skills you want to develop. They fit into both your strategy and your global skills development plan. Now it’s time to design, or ‘engineer’, the actual learning intervention.

In short, it’s time to define who is going to learn what and in what way.

Tip 15: Adapt your approach to the needs of your target group

Even if you want to teach everyone the same thing, don’t assume that the same teaching approach is the best. For example, a two-day program for junior executives can be summarized into a two-hour session for senior executives. Same content, different delivery, better results.

Tip 16: skills development program: involve your stakeholders during development

This is a great way to fine-tune your learning approach, promote your program and create commitment. You can use different techniques ranging from interviews, questionnaires, workshops or even seminars to test content.

Tip 17: Take the learners’ points-of-view: provide relevance and context

Participants are likely to suffer from information overload in the form of classroom training, intranet, video, product documentation, job aids, online courses, how-to guides and so on.

So it’s not enough to build a great training course or have an easy-to-use learning management system. Your need to offer individuals a relevant learning experience.

This requires a focus on information architecture, not just ease of use, so you will need to consider how the learner will track, use and apply the content.

Tip 18: Limit classroom time

It’s expensive and the effects are limited. Make sure you mix/combine it with other methods such as coaching, on-the-job learning and informal learning communities.

If you do take the classroom approach, try to make the experience as interactive and useful as possible by including best-practice sharing, practical exercises and open discussions.

For most of the master classes I teach, for example, I organize an hour-long lecture two weeks in advance for the whole group (using video conference if locations are dispersed), and provide additional information on the intranet. Combined with individual telephone coaching for those who want, it reduces classroom time by 65 percent.

Performance tip. Employ an action learning approach. Put managers from different disciplines in a team. Provide them with an actual business problem that keeps the company’s senior management awake at night. Give them three months and some support from external facilitators and/or academics to develop a solution.

I’m a big fan of this approach as it offers many benefits. The ‘student managers’ discover other areas of expertise, develop new skills, learn to work effectively with colleagues, find the necessary information within the organisation, take decisions and gain senior management exposure.

Tip 19: Facilitate informal learning

 In today’s environment, informal learning can flourish. People can access and share information via blogs, wikis, video, rapid e-learning tools, RSS feeds, Twitter and other social networking sites. Use them wisely and they will transform any formal teaching environment into a modern informal learning experience.

Tip 20: The learning ladder

Learning is like climbing a ladder; taking one step at a time, each time building on the previous one. The four steps of the learning ladder are:

  • Step 1. Acquire the knowledge.
  • Step 2. Applying the knowledge to obtain better results.
  • Step 3. Build expertise by regular practice.
  • Step 4. Teach and coach others.  

Tip 21: Manage your content on a global scale

Look beyond the skills development program you are engineering. Take a company-wide view. Here are six concrete suggestions:

  • Use existing content as the foundations and build on those foundations.
  • Limit the number of models. Avoid the temptation to add a new one each time you launch a new program.
  • Organize a clean up. Do an inventory. Categorize your models according to these three categories: ‘essentials’, ‘nice to haves’, ‘not to haves’ and take action accordingly.
  • Steal with pride. If you don’t have it, look elsewhere. Don’t re-invent the wheel just for the sake of it.
  • Use the same models and techniques on all hierarchical levels.
  • Use the same vocabulary. Make a list, validate it and most importantly, stick to it.

Tip 22: Start early

While it takes time to develop a new skill on a company-wide scale, it also requires a significant amount of time to develop a high-quality learning experience. This makes your total timeline even longer. Start as early as possible to engineer a new learning intervention.

Skills development #4: Execute flawlessly

The fourth fundamental is the actual learning intervention. It’s all about producing effective learning outcomes and includes possible pilots, the première, the roll-out and all related activities.

Here are some tips:

Tip 23: Don’t start to train skills before the process is understood

If your managers don’t understand the process, it will be very difficult to teach them how to successfully operate that process, even with the best skills training in the world.

Let me clarify with an example: if you plan to teach managers how to use a Balanced Scorecard, make sure you first communicate how the BSC is, or will be used.

Tip 24: Always test 

Make sure you test everything before you implement. Run several pilots. This isn’t the time to get complacent. You can’t predict the outcome of a learning experience in the engineering phase, even with the best preparation in the world.

Therefore, you should always organize a dry run. And even if you had one successful dry run, you might want to consider repeating the process with a different target group or setting.

Tip 25: Motivate individuals to take responsibility for their own development

You can’t force someone to learn – it’s their responsibility. Communicate and institutionalize the fact that it is the individual manager’s responsibility to seek out and capitalize on skills development opportunities.

Tip 26: Inform their managers

Familiarize participants’ managers via written or video reports summarizing the content of direct reports’ development and ask for suggestions to reinforce learning.

Tip 27: Involve managers in the program delivery

Although this might not be possible or desirable for all programs, it’s probably worthwhile checking for opportunities. Other organisations found the following useful:

  • Whenever executive committee members are close to your development campus, invite them to teach. It works for Procter & Gamble.
  • Use line managers as the primary deliverers of development as Target does.
  • Consider a top-down roll-out such as that institutionalised by Xerox. That way, everybody receives the development twice, once as a trainee and once as a trainer to his/her direct reports or peers.

Tip 28: Watch out for scope creep

Trainers tend to use their last training experiences as reference, adapting those that follow accordingly. If a certain model or exercise worked well, it will probably be highlighted in the next session. When working with different trainers and after an extensive roll-out, your final sessions might be unrecognisable to those at the beginning.

Tip 29: Debrief regularly

With every training or coaching, the experience increases. Make sure all trainers and coaches share these experiences. Decide together if the programme is going to be adapted according to these learnings or not. Once decided, everyone has to stick to it.

Tip 30: Quality versus quantity

All too often, companies choose trainers or coaches based on their daily rates instead of their performance. But good trainers and coaches are hard to find. Don’t compromise on delivery quality; it will cost you much more than the money you save.

If you do run into budget problems, reduce the classroom time instead.

Skills developemnt #5: Set development objectives

This fundamental is about anchoring your development initiatives by tying them into the individual objectives. It’s a great way to improve development performance. For more information of the benefits and how to do it, see Chapter 3. In summary, here are four crucial elements:

Tip 31: Each individual should have development goals

A simple but effective way to boost individual development efforts.

Tip 32: Provide a framework for development goals

Most people find it difficult to express their development objectives. Make sure you provide a ‘how to’ with examples.

Tip 33: No skills development, no career move

This approach is very popular in consulting organizations. If you don’t demonstrate that you have mastered a certain skill, you won’t progress. It’s very effective, but the evaluation should be carried out by more than one individual to keep the process fair.

Tip 34: Choose the right objectives for the L&D department

The Human Resources department – and more specifically the Learning and Development department – play a leading role in transforming the development vision into reality.

Make sure the right objectives are in place. Build a solid annual business plan and organize quarterly reviews with the leadership team.

Skills development #6: Measure success

Measure the success of a skills development program, define the current capability level of the organization, determine the individual skill levels, provide self-assessment instruments… it’s a world unto itself.

Here are three things to watch out for:

Tip 35: Be careful with ROI

You won’t be surprised if I tell you that you should evaluate the success of your development efforts. But I might surprise you by saying that the ROI (Return on Investment) approach might not be the way to do it.

Yes, it sounds great and it might seem strange to go against the hype, but while many providers promise the holy grail of ROI measurement, up until now I haven’t seen one that delivered on that promise. If you have, please let me know.

I would suggest spending the necessary time BEFORE your skills development program starts, evaluating the need, importance, added value and cost. This way you make your investment count.

Tip 36: Avoid analysis paralysis

Don’t make ‘analysing’ the core of your project, whether it’s about identifying talents, selecting the right people, or assessing the current individual skills level. You can get side-tracked very quickly. Remember: analysis is important but it needs to serve the overall goal.

Tip 37: Don’t go overboard on the IT side

I don’t have to tell you that there’s a lot of software available today, including that which helps with development measurement. But it’s very easy to exaggerate. I’ve seen several companies where the automation part became the focus for the strategy execution process.

IT can help with certain elements of the process, but ultimately, strategy execution remains a people-driven process.

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