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Coaching and skill development that puts employees in the driver’s seat

Hope Gurion

Skill gaps—the ones that keep teams and individuals from accomplishing goals—need a critical eye. As a leader, your job is to decide which skills are most important to your business objectives and how best to develop them. That’s pretty obvious.

What may be less obvious is how to foster your employees’ intrinsic motivation to invest in improving. They may have different ideas about how to spend their time, resent being told how to work and either passively or actively avoid the deliberate practice required to develop the skills your company needs to succeed.

Guiding the strategic development of skills while supporting an employee’s own learning objectives is critical to your ability to lead well. Though it may seem convenient and efficient for a leader to develop prescriptive training experiences for the team, nothing works as well as empowering the employee to take the initiative and follow through. The more say an employee has in creating options for how to close the gap—for example, through on-the-job experiences or projects, courses or training, teaching others via a “lunch and learn,” etc.—the more invested they’ll be in fully committing to the upskilling effort. To that end, when discussing skills or knowledge gaps with your team, it helps to ask the question, “How can I help you become even more effective in this area?”

If they choose not to follow through despite having your support, you’ll know they’re not committed to improving in that area. The effort and discussion at that point will focus on finding a different approach to their development, a role that’s more suited to their current skills and knowledge or a path to a different role that aligns with their career goals.

Figuring out how to help employees grow isn’t always easy.

Address skills gaps without strong-arming your tech talent

Figuring out how to help employees grow isn’t always easy, but watching them gain confidence in their new skills and abilities is endlessly rewarding. Here are five practical tips to help you engage employees in their own skill development in ways that align to organizational goals.

1. Define and communicate the skills and roles you need to achieve your goals.

The first, most important step in a skill development program is outlining a clear path from junior to senior roles, from individual contributor to management or from beginning of project to intended outcome. Then, communicate what’s needed to the individuals on your team so everyone is aligned to a common goal.

2. Formalize skill development evaluation and conversation.

Your organization should have a way to measure and index skills on an ongoing basis. This is the foundation for your skill development strategy. Measuring and indexing the skills of each person on your team will give you a firm understanding of the skills they have and the ones they need. Use this information as the starting point for discussions with employees on how they’d like to approach their development going forward.

Review individuals’ skill progress throughout the year to identify where the perceived gaps were and decide how to create experiences over the next six months to improve upon those gaps. Doing so can surface disconnects between the employee and manager. It can show where an employee might perceive they are doing well and the manager wasn’t seeing it, or if the manager had a different perspective on what the employee could do to improve.

For teams and functional roles, identifying low skill proficiency or slow skill development progress for multiple people in a similar role can help leaders pinpoint where to invest to upskill members of the team.

Without this rigor, it’s easy to be blind to the deficiencies that exist within your team and have them linger too long, doing a disservice to the employee and the company—and the customers’ experience of the products.

3. Make continuous improvement a continuous expectation.

Too often, leaders conduct employee development conversations only during the annual review. Not only is that too infrequent but it can bring a lot of emotion and surprise into the evaluation and neglect the important teachable moments that happen all year long. Hold formal progress checks at least twice a year using a skill improvement report, and then add agreed-upon areas of development. Use this as the guide anytime you meet with the employee to check progress and identify where support is needed.

Encouraging feedback more often will help your employees feel like they play a bigger part in their own skill development.

4. Determine how you’ll measure success.

Enabling an employee to improve on a skill or knowledge gap that they’re motivated to address is only half the battle. Often the step that is skipped is determining whether the employee has developed the skill or sufficiently addressed the gap. Perhaps a certification or test for a technical skill will suffice. Better yet is seeing that the newly acquired ability is becoming a habit the employee practices. That’s where self-assessment and manager-assessment tools can help measure whether the employee has improved in a specific area of development over time.

Self and manager assessments can provide qualitative insights into skill development. When these insights are coupled with quantitative data, the picture becomes even clearer. Not only will you feel aligned, but you’ll also be able to measure those skills in practice.

5. Make feedback a two-way street.

Seek ongoing feedback from your team about your company’s skill development programs. Annual employee survey feedback isn’t frequent enough. Conduct quarterly exercises for a fast and simple way to get a clear, prioritized to-do list that incorporates everyone’s unmet needs. Encouraging feedback more often will help your employees feel like they play a bigger part in their own skill development and the company’s success as a whole, rather than if you steamroll them with a strictly top-down approach.

By building a clear path to successful development and using simple, effective tools to check in regularly on progress, leaders can be more effective at growing their teams. And, as workforce shortages continue to grow, employee development has never been more important.

Technologists having a discussion around a table

Hope Gurion has more than 20 years of product management and leadership experience, leading product, design and analytics teams. She founded Fearless Product LLC to serve companies seeking growth through product innovation. She specializes in coaching new product leaders, often from non-product disciplines, to accelerate their confidence and competence. Her “Fearless Product Leadership” series helps new product leaders learn from experienced peers how they tackle some of their toughest responsibilities. Hope has led and coached more than 50 B2B and B2C product teams in start-up, growth and mature stage companies. Prior to Fearless Product, Hope was CPO at CareerBuilder and SVP, Product Management at Beachbody.