Developing Employees

Published by Scott Neilson on 25 Feb 2014

Skill Development – Decision-making

A key to making good decisions is having options.  Simple!  As I am fond of saying, leadership is not rocket science.

Unfortunately, the world moves so fast that we often feel the need to decide and act quickly, and we do so to our own detriment.

I encourage you to slow the decision-making process… take the time to vet your own decisions more carefully…cultivate multiple options.


Take the time to sleep on your decisions…literally, sleep on it…especially the big ones.  Fight the need (internal or external) to come to closure immediately.  When making a decision, get in the habit of saying to your team that you will get back to them and confirm the decision.  Do not feel compelled to tell them why…just that you will get back to them with confirmation.

Learn to think through the steps necessary to implement your decision.  Envision that process (of implementation) and what results each step might have.  How will those results impact successive steps?  Is it getting you to the endpoint you desire?

Cultivate multiple options.  I have found that the best way to make a decision is to have options.  As soon as you find one suitable solution, go out and find another.  By doing so, you will become less emotionally wed to your first solution.  This enables you to be more objective in negotiations.

One is NOT enough…

Published by Scott Neilson on 07 Jan 2014

Delegate this! :-)

Following on my last post, I have received numerous requests for ideas in building leadership skills.  In response, I have decided to dedicate one post per month to development ideas.  Stay tuned for more to come.


There are a couple of important things to keep in mind about skill development in the workplace.  First, and most important, is that you should never expect any help from anyone else in developing your skills, not even your employer.  I have seen very few organizations that are good at this.  I have seen HR organizations come up with great ideas, designs and materials for developing employees, but it is rare when they are well executed.  Line managers simply are not motivated to make it happen.  If you want to develop your skills, you better make it happen yourself!

Secondly, the best skill development comes from in-job opportunities…such as job swaps, special projects, etc.  There does not have to be any company or personal expense involved.  This is an important consideration to keep in mind when trying to make your own development happen.


So, to start, let’s talk about Delegation…since that was the subject of the last post.

I know that a lot of HRD organizations will tell you that to be better at delegation you must first understand your reluctance to delegate, and then address that in your own personal make-up.  While intellectually I agree with that notion, I kind of feel as if it is the long way around.  It reminds me of the Woody Allen movie Sleeper, when he awakens after being asleep for 200 years and remarks that he has missed 200 years worth of therapy, and that if he had gone to all those sessions he might ALMOST be cured by now.

Anyway, here is a more direct approach that I have suggested to several people and heard of good results.

  • For a couple of weeks keep a list of every activity in which you find yourself involved at the office…such as reading and replying to emails, attending meetings, sending out follow-up action lists from your weekly staff meeting, etc.
  • Rank the list of activities from highest to lowest in-terms of what requires your knowledge, experience, and/or professional qualifications to perform the tasks.
  • Take the one task at the very bottom of your list and assign it to someone else.
    • Meet with the person or people to whom you plan to assign this new responsibility and discuss it.
    • Be clear about what exactly needs to be done, what your expectations are, and what good results look like.
    • Encourage them to ask any question they have.
    • Work with them through a cycle or two of completing the task and clarify any aspect of it.
  • Once you have worked through this process and have gotten comfortable with it, try it again with another task.  Work through the same process as described above to be clear on what needs to be done.
  • Continue until you have handed off all the tasks that should be handled by others, and can be handled correctly.  Take it a little at a time and be careful not to over-delegate.

The benefits go far beyond those which you personally will realize.  You will get the most productivity out of your team, you will improve efficiency/profitability, and, finally, and perhaps most important, it will energize and motivate your team because they will see that they are growing and developing themselves.

Published by Scott Neilson on 21 May 2013

Hire smart…

I have been kind of surprised by some hiring decisions I have seen lately.  It makes me wonder how these decisions are being made and what processes are being used.

All too often we are so anxious to fill an opening that we start changing our perspective of what skills we are looking for.  We tend to view the pool of applicants in terms of who is the best among the candidates we are seeing .  As a result, we start to limit our perspective to what we see in front of us and we lose sight of what we are really looking for.  I have even seen cases in which hiring supervisors start to reconsider changing their organization structure based on a particular candidate and what that candidate can and cannot do.

The problem starts with a lack of clarity about what is needed, what tasks must be performed, and what skills it takes to perform those tasks. 

First, as a leader you must recognize that every vacancy is an opportunity to improve your business.  Do you really need to replace this position?  Can you change your work processes and the description of that position to be something different than it was before?  Can you absorb the responsibilities of this position into those of other existing positions?  Can you make this change an opportunity to provide development or advancement for another employee?

The quickest way to get these answers is to flow chart the activity of your operation and clarify what is needed in each position in that part of your organization.  By doing so you reassess the steps to deliver the product or service you provide, and you clarify the processes and activities to deliver them.  Chances are you will also identify opportunities for improvement in those processes.  It takes a little time but the result is a better idea about what is needed from each individual involved in the process, confidence about your need to fill the position, and clarity about what you need to fill it with.  By the way, that clarity will also be helpful for the other people in your organization as you go about hiring a new team member.  For them it will clarify and reiterate their own role, responsibilities, and value to the team.  During a time of change, that clarity is essential for maintaining stability in your organization.  Though you may not think that filling one position is a “time of change” in your organization…it is.

Once you have established clarity about what is needed in the position to support your processes, the challenge becomes finding the person who has the skills to deliver on those needs.  This means identifying the skills needed to do the job.  Check this with others who interact with that position.  Discuss the position with others in similar positions.  Clarify the skills needed.

Finally, create a set of interview questions which enable you to determine if your candidates have those skills.  Use probing open-ended questions in which the candidates must describe specific responsibilities they have had, situations in which they have had to handle those responsibilities, what they did and what were the results.  This is referred to as behavioral interviewing…interviewing in which you are probing for information about observable behaviors in the candidate. *

Take the time to select the right person who can do the whole job.  Do not simply settle for whomever is available at the time.    It will be a source of endless frustration for you…and them.


* For your reference, in the event you feel you need help in this area, I have worked with several organizations who specialize in this technology.  The best I can recommend is DDI…Development Dimensions International, Inc. located in Pittsburgh, PA USA.


Published by Scott Neilson on 09 Apr 2013

Performance mis-management…

In the atrium of the new building.  Very nice facility!

Prague University of Economics. Very nice facility!

Had a great program in Prague…photo attached. Spent a lot of time talking about employee development, among other things.  My feelings on this are not all that positive, I am sorry to say.  This is an absolute shame.

In my opinion, and in my observation, the problem is not in the systems, it is in the application.

Most organizations I have worked with have very good systems of performance appraisal, succession planning, and employee development.  However, they are not well used.  This is a leadership issue.

You have to make it a priority.  Performance feedback and development is critically important for achieving goals and objectives.  It makes your employees, and therefore, your organization, stronger.  It is one of the most powerful and effective motivators you have at your disposal

…if used correctly and done well.

Therein lies the problem.  Those systems and processes are generally NOT used well.  They are generally very well designed, but the application is weak, at best.  Performance appraisals are not completed…they are not done objectively and fairly…there is inadequate follow-through.  They become a de-motivator.

At one time I was in an organization that had never done performance appraisals.  People had been working there for years and never gotten any feedback on how they were doing.  That is unimaginable to me. 

I made a mandate to our leadership team that they would all write performance appraisals of each of their direct reports, and then sit and review every one of them with me and the new head of Human Resources.  We would critique them, help them clean them up, and use that process as a way of improving the feedback they were giving employees. 

They would then discuss those appraisals with their employees in the presence of the HR director, so he could coach them on how to deliver feedback (and to make sure it was getting done!).  This was a start.  Then the process was to trickle down to all levels.

Sometimes you have to get that much into the detail to be sure that things are getting done the way you want.

An equally big issue is that the employee development part of that process rarely happens.  I have never seen an organization that does a good job of developing their employees.  That is an enormous failure on the part of all levels.

Employee development and career opportunity is the best motivational tool you have at your disposal.  Here are some of the problems I see with it.

  • Supervisors do not see it as a priority so they “do not have the time” for it.
  • Supervisors worry that if they develop their employees they will move on to other jobs (better jobs)…and they will then have to replace them (which of course requires re-justifying the position and that worries them).  This is a serious losing attitude.
  • Supervisors do not know how to develop employees.  Well, I guess you can say that…but, I really feel that they are not trying.  It is not that difficult.
  • Supervisors feel that they do not have the money in the budget to do it.  Well, it can be free if you put some effort into thinking about it.  Job swaps; temporary assignments when someone is on vacation or leave; special project assignments.
  • Employees do not recognize that job swaps, temporary assignments, and special project assignments are some of the best development opportunities out there.  The research shows that in-job development is the most powerful in developing true skills.

As a leader you should recognize that this is a big missed opportunity, and an easy one to correct.

Employee development makes your organization stronger in terms of better skills…

Employee development increases organization stability in terms of internal promotion and employee satisfaction, motivation and commitment…

Employee development reduces your overall operating costs in terms of better performance as well as not having to replace employees who leave the company for a better opportunity.

The benefits far outweigh the costs!  Problem is you have to require it.  You have to be a part of the process.  Make it a priority…track it and measure it…assess the performance of your direct reports in terms of how well they are doing it.

Published by Scott Neilson on 02 Apr 2013

Leaders – Born or Bred?

Glowny Building at Warsaw University

Glowny Building at Warsaw University

Warsaw University of Economics, Warsaw, Poland

Great programme in Warsaw last week….active participation and challenges…good ideas…high energy and interest.  My thanks to Grzegorz Augustyniak for making all the arrangements.

Have a look at the Participant Feedback tab (above) to see the results.

This is a picture of the main building of the business school at Warsaw University of Economics.


As is often the case, last week the question was asked about whether or not leadership skills are born or bred.  There seems to be this fundamental belief that leadership is a talent with which you are born.

I could not disagree more.  In my opinion, everything you need to know to be a good leader can be learned.  Though I would say that there are personal characteristics that can make one person more effective than another, I would also argue that any one of those attributes can also be learned, or at least imitated.

It is generally at this point that someone mentions “charisma” as a key leadership skill that some have and some do not…and, it certainly CANNOT be learned.  I always love this discussion!

A few points about charisma…

I have never heard a person say that charisma was the main skill they relied upon to successfully lead a company…EVER!

  • First, I have worked for people who had little, if any, “charisma” and yet were superb leaders.
  • Second, I have worked for people who had tremendous “charisma” but were terrible leaders.
  • Finally, if you look at the definition of “charisma”, you will see that most of the elements which define it are skills that can be learned or developed…or even simply imitated.  The dictionary describes charisma as “a trait found in persons with a facile personality, characterized by powerfully sophisticated abilities of interpersonal communication and persuasion. One who is charismatic is said to be capable of using their personal being, rather than just speech or logic alone, to interface with other human beings in a personal and direct manner, and effectively communicate an argument or concept to them.”

Look at the “skills” listed in that definition…communication, persuasion, speech, logic, direct manner, empathy.  All can be learned.  Even the phrase “their personal being”, which seems to imply an innate style or personality, can be argued to be a learnable skill.  For my detailed discussion on charisma have a look at this post…

Bottom line…I see “charisma” as a “nice to have”…not an “essential”.

  • I think that it is one element of many that CAN help make a person an effective leader.
  • I think it can make a good leader a great leader, but it is not a requirement to be either.
  • I think that without any other skills, “charisma” alone will not make a person a successful leader.

So, back to the original question…are leaders born or bred?  If you look through the literature on leadership you will find that most of the books are listings of skills which have worked for someone at some point in time or some situation.  Any one of those skills can be learned or developed.

As an example, in various data gathering activities which I have conducted over the years, the lists of skills generated seem to be very much the same from one group to the next.  They include such things as …

  • Listening
  • Communications (spoken and written)
  • Decision-making
  • Strategic Thinking
  • Humility
  • Being responsible
  • Being reliable
  • Being flexible
  • Being able to integrate (synthesize)
  • Being adaptable
  • Being organized
  • Being analytical
  • Being creative
  • Being collaborative
  • Being empathetic
  • Having self-confidence
  • Having integrity
  • Having drive and determination
  • Time management
  • Setting priorities
  • Handling pressure
  • Coaching
  • Honesty

There is nothing in these list of skills or personal attributes that cannot be learned or accomplished through good process.

To my way of thinking, the bigger issue is Why are companies not good at developing leadership skills in their people?  Subject for next week…


Published by Scott Neilson on 14 Nov 2011


Gotcha…thought that was something else didn’t ya?  Smith & Wesson? 


Hello all.  Please forgive my prolonged absence.  It has been one year since I last put a post on the blog.  In that time I have relocated twice…once to Chicago, and once to France.  Needless to say, I have been up to my eyeballs with adjustments.  I am still up to my eyeballs, but I am intent on getting back to my blog.   I am glad to be writing again. 


I had one reader write me the other day asking about the choice between improving on your weaknesses versus building on your strengths…which is better?  Interesting question.  In my opinion, as with many other areas, it is a question of balance.  It depends on which skill areas are weak and which are strong.  It also depends on how weak you are in those areas.  Finally, it depends on the current needs of your organization and how those align with your strengths and weaknesses.   


However, the question also took my thinking down another path…now there’s a surprise. 


The real key to managing your strengths and weaknesses is knowing what they are.  Most people do not.  To make matters worse, I have found few people with internal fortitude to ask for feedback about their strengths and weaknesses, and to listen to the answer. 


If you are in denial about your own areas for development…your individual weaknesses become organizational weaknesses, and your problems get bigger fast!

To take the dilemma one step further, I have found few people that are skilled or feel comfortable giving “constructive feedback”.  They seem to feel that it is going to be a confrontational or combative situation, so they either do not give any feedback at all, or they “shine it up” so that it is easier to deliver.  As a result, the recipient is not getting real feedback, or it is shallow in content. 


Now, to make matters even worse, in those rare cases in which people do get feedback, they often do not believe it.  They go through a period of denial followed by anger.  Sometimes they make it through to acceptance and correction.  Unfortunately, research shows that acceptance and correction are not the usual response.


The final pitfall, though, is the worst.  As you know, we tend to hire in our own image.  If you are in denial about your own areas for development and are hiring in your own image, then you are hiring people with the same weaknesses as your own.   Your individual weaknesses become organizational weaknesses.  The problem gets bigger quickly!


FYI…this is why Performance Management Systems are generally ineffective.  The design is usually good.  The execution is the problem.  Supervisors rarely do an adequate job of providing feedback.


Back in the early uh…well…a long time ago, I had the opportunity to design the leadership development program for one of the top pharmaceutical companies in the world.  During that time I sampled many 360 degree programs and assessment centers.  The first 360 program I used really shocked me because it pointed out an area of relative weakness which I had previously felt was a strength…developing people.  I was stunned.  Yes, I went through the denial phase and discounted the validity of the whole process.  Fortunately, I came around and listened to the feedback.  The upside of all this was that I paid attention to it, worked on it, and two years later it had improved to a clear strength. 


The point here is, get feedback…take a 360.  You need facts and data…real information.  Often people you work with are not comfortable or skilled at providing that data.  Seek out a third party for assistance…take a 360 degree feedback program.  They are not expensive and the usable data is priceless for developing your career.  The bonus is that they also generally provide you with development ideas for improving your areas of relative weakness.  As a reference, the ones I have used and that I found particularly useful were from DDI, PDI and CCL.

Published by Scott Neilson on 27 Oct 2010

Getting it right!

It is NOT rocket science, but it IS an area which is a source of chronic pain in organizations…DEVELOPMENT!  In this case I am talking about employee development…skill development…career development.   Development is a new category on my blog and periodically I will be writing posts on this subject.

Development is an area in which I have found organizations to be chronically weak, and it is one which I have found to be among the most powerful in motivating employees.  Getting it right has huge payoffs. 

First, let’s get clear on the concept.  What do people want in their careers?  Simple…they want a career, not just a job and not just a paycheck.  It has been my experience that a pay raise is not motivating.  At best it is satisfying for the short term.  Unfortunately, pay raises are often not done well and become more of a DE-motivator.

Being good at employee development means that your organization will be more productive and effective.  It means that your employees will be more motivated and committed.  It means that you will have better reputation in the market and with your customers.


The possibility for individuals to grow and create future opportunity IS motivating.  I have found it to be the MOST powerful of motivational tools a leader has at his/her disposal.  People are trying to develop a future for themselves and they want to know that they can grow and develop in their chosen field of interest.  Most do not expect a hand-out and are not afraid to work for it.  In fact, working for it makes the reward that much more meaningful.  However, they know that they cannot achieve this kind of development without management support.

So, why is it so difficult to make it happen?  The conflict arises with leaders/managers.  It is not a priority because it is not seen as clearly having a payoff for the company.

  • First, it takes time to think of ways in which to develop employees.  It takes time to think through what their development needs are and what their career interests are. 
  • Second, it takes time and resources to actually carry out that development. 
  • Finally, once you do carry it out, the perception is that the employees move on to the next higher level job or, worse, out of the company.  This means change and requires the leader/manager to take the time to recruit and fill the position…it makes their job that much harder. 

While it may be true that they move on to better jobs, my experience has been that investment in development actually earns the organization HIGHER rates of employee retention and that this movement is internal.  In addition, there are other upsides/payoffs to developing employees.  

  • First, while they are with you they are more motivated because you are investing in them, which they know will mean greater career potential in the long term.  In my experience this translates to improvements to the bottom line.
  • Second, as you are developing them they are performing better in their current role so you are getting greater quality and productivity. 
  • Third, providing developmental and career opportunity builds a level of loyalty and commitment among your employees that earns you dividends even if they do leave the company, particularly when they are hired by your customers and your former loyal employee now becomes a committed customer because of how well you treated him/her. 

Still, employee development seems to be an enigma.  Despite great research on the subject, and the efforts of HR departments, who often have good ideas about how to make it happen, it doesn’t.  As a starting point, leaders need to recognize the importance of developing people and make it a priority.  Second, we all need to de-mystify the subject.  It is not that tough.  It just takes a conscious effort.

I will be writing more on this subject, but to get you started, most of the best development opportunities happen every day in business.  Focus on development “in-job” which means such things as job swaps, temporary special project assignments, and filling in for another employee who is out of work  for some reason.  It helps you as a leader/manager fill short-term gaps.  It can be done without cost.  It provides people opportunities to learn new skills.  Everybody wins! 

Being good at developing people means that as a leader/manager you will likely spend more time recruiting and filling open positions.  It means that you will likely have to deal with more change in your organization.  It means that you will have to spend time thinking about it and how to make it happen.  However, it means that your organization will be more productive and effective.  It means that your employees will be more motivated and committed.  It means that you will have better reputation in the market and with your customers. 

It will mean that you are doing YOUR job as a leader.