After more than 30 years in corporate human resources (HR) and talent development, you see a lot of things. Some decisions that – in retrospect – seemed small at the time were – in fact – meaningful, important and ultimately had impacts on company culture. In many cases, these decisions changed the trajectory of the careers and, in some cases, the lives of the employees within the organization. Looking back, it is clear that mistakes were made and unrealistic solutions were agreed to. To be clear, these were not malicious decisions with immediate impacts but rather a string of seemingly small events that shaped the culture around talent development and succession planning.

This article shares lessons learned as an HR professional to illuminate leadership’s role in decisions regarding employee development and future-proofing workforces for both present and future generations.

Learning to Develop Your Workforce Effectively

How many leaders and managers receive elementary training? Many talent development professionals haven’t received the relevant training to keep up with the needs and wants of a rapidly expanding workforce. So, how are frontline managers expected to develop their employees efficiently? More often than not, employees don’t leave a “bad company”; they leave a bad manager. Managers should understand the job, the business constraints and their employees. Therefore, managers should be involved in developing their people’s skills. You could even say that managers are your organization’s secret, skills-building weapon. The business and learning and development (L&D) need to ensure that managers have the necessary tools to develop their teams.

Consider the proverb, “Experience is the greatest teacher.” How much time do managers spend planning new experiences to engage employees in their development? Or – considering much of what we learn, we learn from others – how much time does a typical manager spend strategically thinking about upskilling employees while neglecting giving feedback on performance?

While many organizations opt for annual performance reviews, this is often too infrequent and ineffective. Have weekly or monthly meetings with employees where you make lists of their must, should and could do’s; prioritize the items in those lists; and offer feedback on employees’ prioritization and execution of their tasks. One-on-one meetings can be done in five to 10 minutes and will make more sense than the traditional performance review that comes just once a year. In the new world of work, employees need more feedback and not just from one person. Meaningful feedback paired with meaningful career conversations with leaders across business functions allow employees to learn new skills and aspire to other roles within the organization.

The Leadership Gap

We live in a world where the majority of people under the age of 30 grew up using a computer. Yet, five years ago, an executive leadership team told me that their employees wouldn’t do “computer learning,” because they didn’t have computers or the internet. Really? The reality is that, by 2028, Gen Z and Millennials will make up 58% of the workforce. Therefore, it is essential that L&D leaders evolve to meet the needs of those employees.

As we have seen in recent years, but especially in 2020 and 2021, online learning is invaluable in order for organizations to adapt to the future of work. As many of us know, poorly constructed employee resource portals and learning content will sink an L&D function. In our learning department, we had a joke many years ago that – no matter what the question was – you could find the answer on the portal. What made it funny (and sad) was that you would spend hours (if not days) trying to find it amid other poorly organized and redundant job aids. This is not acceptable in today’s world. L&D is here to help learners find their purpose. Give employees space for self-directed learning and help them connect their learning to their development, so they feel engaged and excited in their learning journey.

After upskilling and reskilling, one major priority for L&D in 2021 is collaborative learning. After being forced into the online environment last year, L&D leaders understand the need for social learning where learners can work together and stay connected. This can be achieved by integrating learning tools with dedicated collaborative workspaces, customized content playlists and forums.

Checking in Before They Check Out 

Back in the day, we would spend days at succession planning summits to discuss “future moves” of top-tier talent. We would talk about developing our talent and the “next moves” for them. We would record it and put it in fancy binders that would gather dust on the shelves as the year unfolded in before us. Looking back, it all seems pretty surreal. There’s internal pressure to have a stockpile of high-potential candidates, so many times the talent isn’t as prepared as promised.

Considering your current and future employees as part of your development strategy and providing consistent feedback enables employees to take control of their career trajectories, reference other internal roles, and clearly map the skills and competencies necessary to move into new roles within the company. The learning and talent discussion will continue to evolve over the coming years, so HR and learning leaders must leverage technologies that take a people-centric approach and support a modern talent journey.