By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Member, Wallace E. Boston School of Business
Businesses, whether they are large or small, have human capital needs. A question that frequently arises whenever there is a job opening is “Can we promote from within, or must we look outside of our organization?” The answer to this question almost always hinges on the extent to which the business has prioritized employee development and succession planning, if this work has been done at all.
In my career, I’ve had the privilege of leading teams as small as five people and as large as 500. But regardless of team size, there is always a need to plan for eventual growth, turnover and succession in every organization.
For this reason, my leadership philosophies tend to favor workforce development wherever possible. But sadly, not all leaders think this way.
Many shortsighted leaders look at the development of their subordinates through a “need to know” lens. In other words, they consider only what their employees need to know to do their jobs; anything else is superfluous.
Why Business Owners Sometimes Avoid Workforce Development
This mindset of resisting workforce development can be the product of several causes. One cause is simple time constraints. Some leaders are so burdened with other operational needs and priorities that they simply lack the time necessary to focus on training and developing their followers. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, they argue.
Another cause is insecurity. For some leaders, there is the fear that well-trained, well-developed followers will one day “bite the hand that feeds them,” making a play for the job that the leader currently occupies. The idea here is that if employees are not developed, then they will not be able to pose a threat to managers or business owners.
Finally, a third cause is sheer laziness. Why develop and train followers on extra-occupational knowledge and wisdom when employees already know how to do their jobs? Anything else is unnecessary, right? It’s always easier to not do something than to do it, so non-essential work frequently gets brushed aside as unimportant.
All of these motivators are misguided for several different reasons. First, an excuse about time constraints is always vulnerable to a simple shift in priorities.
In other words, if you think training your employees is important – at least important enough to warrant your attention and effort – then you should make the time for it. Objectively, the ability to meet the future human capital needs for an organization is an important priority.
Second, job insecurity concerns betray deeper problems related to a leader’s confidence in their own abilities and value to the organization they serve. Fears that a follower might try to take a leader’s job should never be a deterrent to employee development. If you worry that one of your employees is poised to outshine you, then this concern should inspire efforts to improve your own position and not sabotage the potential of others.
Third, laziness unfortunately does not have a cure, but it is never a good explanation for a failure to put effort into anything. Yes, it’s easier not to take the time to develop employees, but this lack of proper training often leads to bigger problems down the road, to include reduced production, higher turnover, safety issues, and more. Procrastination and a failure to prepare seldom render happy endings.
Smart Business Owners Realize the Long-Term Value of Workforce Development and Succession Planning
Smart business leaders recognize the essential value in growing and developing internal talent for numerous reasons. If a business aims to grow its operations, it will almost invariably need more people to carry the load, so nurturing competent leaders provides an infrastructure that paves the way for more talent to fill any gaps that emerge.
Also, there are both the predictable and unpredictable dynamics that affect the existing workforce. Predictable changes include retirements and promotions – events that are deliberate and can be planned for well in advance, but they nonetheless change the needs for human capital.
Unpredictable changes include unexpected resignations (both with and without notice) and the rare but nonetheless real occasions where employees suddenly move away, fall significantly ill, or step off a curb and get hit by a bus. Some of these examples may seem like hyperbole, but I have seen all of these scenarios play out in my experience.
When business teams are not prepared for contingencies with well-developed substitutes to fill in for missing employees, the fallout of a personal tragedy or other emergency is only further compounded by workplace crises borne from the circumstance that no one is able to fill the shoes of those missing individuals.
Whenever I lead teams, I always develop followers with a philosophy that is directly opposite of “need to know.” Instead, I ask myself what employees “can know” and what I can share with them to help them grow.
For instance, I organize field trips and visits to other departments to help employees better understand the “bigger picture” and how the different pieces of a company fit together. I invite our company leaders to visit shift meetings, serve as guest speakers and talk to staff about different topics. I coordinate cross-training opportunities so that employees become versatile and knowledgeable in many areas of business operations.
I also create shadowing programs that allow different employees to follow their leaders around on a rotating basis, watch what they do and learn from their experience. And if there are layers of leadership beneath me in an organization, I insist that all my subordinate managers and supervisors do the same with their respective subordinates. This way, the business culture is consistent, and the message is clear to employees that we value their development.
To be fair, there are some aspects of each level of leadership that cannot be shared with subordinates for reasons of security, privacy or confidentiality. For example, a leader obviously may not be able to share important passwords or access to employee records with their followers.
In some environments, such as law enforcement or national intelligence, there may be a great deal that cannot be shared. But in my experience, the vast majority of private-sector leader duties don’t have much disclosure or access concerns, so the argument that employee development is impracticable for these reasons usually doesn’t hold a lot of water.
Workforce Development Also Leads to Improved Morale, Loyalty and Productivity
In addition to providing contingencies for emergencies and succession plans for future growth, workforce development has the added benefit of improving morale, loyalty, and productivity. Employees who see that their leaders care about their growth and professional development are more likely to take their jobs seriously.
For instance, those workers are more likely to take interest in learning new things and growing themselves. They’re more likely to put optimal effort behind the work that they do as they see a long-term career on the horizon. They’re more likely to be happy with the circumstances of their work. Consequently, they’re more likely to stick around.
Loyal employees who stay with their companies minimize the number of emergencies and unpredictable workforce shrinkages that a business might encounter. Ultimately, employee retention is a very good thing, regardless of the amount of workforce development and succession planning to which an organization commits itself.