Today’s workplace is famous for its rapid mobility and short tenures. Unlike workers a generation or so ago, who spent their entire careers in a job or two – an entry-level position followed by three or four decades with a single business exited only at retirement – today’s employees are always looking and frequently on the move. Nevertheless, HR is an investment companies make hoping there will be a significant ROI.

How long can we expect an employee to stay in place? More importantly, how do we invest in the development of people in a way that will encourage our valuable resources to stay longer? The key is change: new challenges, new problems to solve and new opportunities to learn. Ambitious, capable employees – the kind we most want to have on our team – are always on the lookout for promising avenues to augment their personal capital by acquiring new expertise. If there are meaningful pathways for them to do so in house, they are less likely to look for them elsewhere.

Every role has a life cycle; it follows a traditional S-curve and is characterized by a low end of approximately six months spent acquiring competence in a new position, followed by two to three years of hyper-growth confidence and high contribution as the back of the curve is scaled. Finally, mastery is achieved, the potential of the curve is maxed out, and the S flattens at the top and may even taper into decline. Boredom, stagnation and lower engagement result in diminished accomplishment.

Human brains are designed to learn, and they generate mood-elevating chemicals as a “thank you” when they are. When we are no longer learning, this happy biological process is thwarted, and dissatisfaction results. The annual Gallup data on employee engagement inevitably reveals that the more disengaged an employee is feeling, the more likely he or she is to be looking for a new job – and vice versa. Workplace loyalty may be dead, but it’s been replaced by the powerful connection generated by high engagement. A wise HR strategy dictates that we anticipate the need to offer meaningful change before a plateau – or precipice – is reached.

Underpinning this strategy is the acknowledgement that a particular employee in a particular role has about a four-year shelf life. Managers need to communicate openly with employees along their various S-curves and act quickly to forestall problems.

Here are some suggestions to help maximize the return on investment in HR through savvy talent development.

Evaluating Role Fit

The low end of the S curve usually is – and should be – somewhat challenging. We invest in recruitment, hiring and training; we shouldn’t be overly hasty to pull the plug on an employee if his or her curve appears to be flatlining. Sometimes, the employee is simply in the wrong role. That is a management issue.

Promising talent shouldn’t be let go without exploring the possibility that they haven’t been positioned to succeed. Have you deployed them to use their distinctive strengths? Even while mastering the skills associated with a new position, employees need to have opportunities to contribute in satisfying ways. They should be given some assignments that they can succeed at from the very beginning.

What Was Your “Why” When You Hired?

Like professional sports teams do, sometimes we take the most talented player, the one with the most potential, and then have to adjust assignments to maximize their skillset rather than pigeonholing them into a preconceived position. Sometimes, doing so requires pivots for other team members. Flexibility is key to talent development at this stage and throughout a job’s life cycle.

Unique Learning Curves

Making these kinds of talent shifts provides the optimal avenue to ensure that everyone has his or her own unique learning curve. Newer employees are especially disheartened when placed in competition with someone already doing the job they are trying to fill, but no one wants to try to carve out his or her own niche while constantly engaged in turf wars with team members. Individual contributors working together, collaboratively rather than competitively, make for happier, more productive employees.

Stretching Out the “S” in S-Curve

Hiring the most qualified candidate can result in an earlier plateau. Hiring for high potential rather than maximum qualifications can help lengthen the period of high employee satisfaction in a particular role as the individual enjoys a longer period of learning challenge.

Stretch assignments, new projects and reiterating teams all help employees stay fresh and engaged. New opportunities are as desirable to many employees as compensation increases, especially when they can acquire new and valuable skills or master domains.

Make certain that valued employees know there are additional roles available within the business, and use ongoing training to stimulate engagement. Don’t wait until an exit is threatening; train proactively for its own merit rather than to retain a bored employee already afflicted with wanderlust.

Change Is Always on the Horizon.

Remember the four-year “use-by” date. Employees without a new challenge within this timeframe are more likely to seek that challenge elsewhere.

Communication is never overrated. Ask employees how they feel: Do they feel that they have more to learn, or is their perception that the potential in their present role is almost exhausted? What would they like to do next? Ask early and ask regularly, before their performance is skating across a plateau and skirting the precipice. Recognizing that change is always on the horizon allows us to prepare proactively and continuously develop a pipeline of talent to meet both the business’ needs and those of the individual employees.

Use these tips to help develop talent throughout the employment lifecycle. When a valuable worker’s need for change cannot be accommodated in house, help broker an advantageous move for them somewhere else. A friend abroad in the working world is a profitable human resources investment as well.

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