I don’t recall the specific verbiage that was used, but that was the gist of the question as I remember it. It came in a Q & A session following a talk Andy Janning and I gave about employee development, during which I advocated for employee development to be thought of differently than it often is.
Some version of that question was probably running through the minds of others in the audience after I was fairly direct about some managers’ general apathy toward developing their employees. I had suggested that organizations stop acting like the training department alone owns employee development. On a related note I opined that organizations need to stop holding Training more accountable for employee development than those employees’ managers. I said that we, in organizations, need to stop making it OK if managers aren’t developing their employees, and stop thinking that a manager sending an employee to a training session counts as them developing them that employee. And then, to top it off, I argued that organizations need to stop promoting people into management if they don’t develop people; just being a technical expert isn’t good enough anymore.
I was essentially suggesting that employee development needs to evolve into something more than an effort to create human pegs to stick into organizational holes. It has to become more about creating an environment that it is about creating a program. Employee development has to be a community effort, an organizational way of life that’s owned by everyone.
It was as the dust settled from that talk that the question mentioned above was posed. How much of the responsibility for employee development lies with the employee? I’m inferring—and this is admittedly an assumption—that this thought was perhaps in response to me placing so much emphasis on managers’ responsibility to lead and develop people well. The way I took the question was basically this: You’re hitting managers pretty hard about doing their part to develop employees. But what about the employees? Don’t they bear some burden here too? Again, in fairness, the questioner did not take any sort of unkind tone or adversarial stance. It was a good and fair question. I just think I may have bungled the answer.
I don’t remember exactly how I phrased my response (those bright lights get to you every once in a while, you know?), but I said something along the lines of “both the manager and employee own 100% of the responsibility.” My point of course was that both parties have to be entirely committed to the developmental process.
In retrospect though, and as pointed out by a buddy of mine, maybe I should have responded to that question differently. Maybe I should have reframed both the question and my answer.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gone as politically-correct as I did. Maybe I should have just said something more like “Why don’t we act like all of the responsibility is on us as leaders? Why spend time trying to figure out just how much of this thing is on us and how much is on that employee?”
As my friend said, of course there’s some sort of unspoken assumption that some of the responsibility falls on employees, but think about it this way: If you’re the manager of a business unit with a capable and engaged leader above you, would that leader allow you to blame your staff for their lack of development? After all, who’s responsible for the staff you’re managing? Technically speaking, you are, right? You’re who that leader holds accountable for your team’s performance.
So what if we changed our mindset? Why wouldn’t we act like all of the responsibility lies with us as leaders? If people really look at themselves as leaders, wouldn’t they be challenging themselves to continue to develop their team well, regardless of what percentage of their employees’ development is assigned to those employees?
Perhaps a case could be made that as long as managers are allowed to place any of the blame on their teams, they’ll assume they’re not the problem. Let me rephrase that. As long as you and I are allowed to place any of the blame on our teams, we tend to assume we’re not the problem. I had never thought of it exactly like that, but how many times have you heard some version of that? Probably lots.
Honestly, some managers aren’t the problem, and that’s fine; but why shouldn’t we feel the weight of that responsibility whether we think it lies totally with us or not? Wouldn’t that be a good thing? We’re usually quick (often too quick) to take credit for the good stuff our teams do, so why not take ownership of the not-so-good as well?
Why don’t we, as leaders, start asking ourselves where our responsibility is in all this? Not the employees’—ours. It’s our responsibility to lead and develop our employees. We signed up for the gig when we accepted a leadership position. Now we need to own it.