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The secrets behind effective development

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Joanna Yeo, head of human resources at Bayer Healthcare Asia Pacific, shares her personal insights on how to best develop and groom employees in order to build a strong talent pipeline.

As an HR practitioner, I have asked myself many times what my personal key learnings on the topic of effective development are, and I realised they boiled down to these few key ones, which I would like to share:

Employees are responsible for their own development

This advice still comes as a surprise to some candidates, but the learning here is solid.

There are the occasional candidates whom I meet during interviews, who struggle to give a clear response when asked about their career aspirations.

In this fast changing world we operate in, every employee is ultimately responsible for charting his or her career, and be able to tweak and make adjustments as the situation calls for it. As HR practitioners, we need to put this message out clearly to the employee groups we have a responsibility for.

Development must take place within the context of performance and potential

I am not sure about you, but too many times I have encountered a manager who prescribes training repeatedly for his team, but without a clear focus or developmental goal. Given the reality that we all operate in with limited development budgets, developmental efforts need to take place within the context of an integrated view of performance and potential.

At Bayer, we have a globally defined 9-box Potential-Performance grid that allows managers and HR a clear view on our people, whom we consider one of our most important assets. This enables us to focus appropriately across the various groups and, at the same time, give needed focus to our identified “high potentials” whom we would like to groom systematically for future leadership positions.

Development is a partnership between the manager, employee and HR

At Bayer, we have also rolled out the concept of the ‘Development Dialogue’ – a two-way discussion between a manager and employee – to discuss career aspirations, strengths, development areas and identify possible next step(s) within the organisation.

We commonly see different manager-employee pairings result in different discussion content and quality due to various reasons, such as employee reticence, lack of career direction, inexperienced managers, comfort level in having such an open or candid discussion, even cross-cultural considerations.

Here, I see the value HR can add to this partnership. It is our responsibility to know our people well as partners to the business. We should be able to bring our personal insights of employees into the discussion and offer meaningful developmental solutions to address identified gaps. We should also know the business(es) that we support well, as it translates into understanding the business needs, challenges, organisation set-up, different career structures and correspondingly the various roles that the employee can be considered for.

Succession planning is another critical topic. A lot of succession plans remain in a drawer until the following year’s succession planning discussion. To be effective, a lot of work needs to go into actualising those plans. Depending on the readiness of potential succession candidates, work could actually start years before the employee is considered a “top rank and ready” candidate.

Don’t undervalue “on the job” experiences

We have all heard the saying “learning is a lifelong journey”. Unfortunately, some managers and employees have taken this too literally – I’ve seen some employees being sent (sometimes repeatedly) for training programmes without a clear development focus.

I actively promote the 70-20-10 rule developed by The Center for Creative Leadership, simply because it makes absolute sense.

This rule suggests successful leaders learn within three clusters of experience: challenging assignments (70%), developmental relationships (20%), and coursework and training (10%). Most organisations acknowledge formal training alone can be limited in impact, yet they continue to invest a large part of their development budget in classroom training and eLearning assets. Training offers unique opportunities for skills building, peer learning, assessment, experiential activities, coaching, and critical reflection time, all in a safe and confidential environment.

Nevertheless, we should not overlook the remaining 90% which comes from on-the-job experiences. These could range from the valuable input which an employee gains from a 360-feedback, networking through participation in regional or global meetings, to having increased job scope, taking on a short term assignment or project work or even an overseas work stint to build international exposure.

Development 101: The best advice I have personally received

Ten years ago when I was working at Nokia, I had the opportunity for a one-on-one session with the global head of HR during his visit to Singapore. The discussion veered toward my personal development and aspirations, and he asked me these three simple questions:

  • What is your career aspiration, and what target position would you like to aspire to?
  • How old are you today and what age do you see yourself assuming your target position?
  • What are the most critical career steps (interim steps) that would best develop you, and help you get to your target role?

You could say it was a rather simplistic discussion, but the questions were pertinent and set me thinking. Of course, the discussion could be further fleshed out, but it was pragmatic enough for me.

To this day, I still remember that conversation vividly and ask myself these questions whenever I reflect on my career. Sometimes I find myself using these very same pointers when sitting with managers and employees at development dialogues sessions.

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