Developing People Effectively


“When you hire people who are smarter than you are, you prove you are smarter than they are.” – R.H. Grant

I coach leaders. For the most part, they are smart and caring people. They want to do a great job of building and leveraging their talented people.  Because working through others is the right thing to do.  Plus, it’s the only way to get an organization’s work completed.

But, let’s be honest.  Developing your people is sometimes inconvenient (I have so much else to do!); time consuming (Do I need more than five minutes to explain this?), frustrating (I can tell now he/she’s not going to do it like I would!), not to mention, irritating (You did what? Even after all the fabulous coaching I’ve given you?!).

Putting aside the time factor for a moment, we have another issue: How easy is it to be great at building talent? Let me answer that. Not easy.  It’s  akin to being great at anything:   you have to be smart about ho w you approach it; you have to be disciplined to execute it as you planned; you have to invest in several non-urgent activities that will build capacity for the long term; and you have to evaluate what’s working and what’s not and be willing to adjust.

In short, building talent and building it well rests on the shoulders of the leader. No blaming the customer here (or anywhere) if your employees don’t improve under your watch.

So let me help.

Let’s start by identifying four key elements involved and then PLAN smart approaches to ensure that we drive those elements successfully.

Seek Out High Performers

When we have the opportunity to staff a team or project, most of us are clear that we want the “best people for the task.”  The first obstacle to overcome is the sad fact that there are no perfect people out there.  but we can stil find the “best” one for the job if we take the time to specify what “best” means, concretely…behaviorally… in words.

For example, let’s say you want to bring someone on board who is a strong strategic thinker.  Then you need to define the following:

Strong capability in strategic thinking in this context means…

  • The way I will assess it is…
  • The way a job candidate can convey that they have this capability is…
  • The way we can check the candidate’s references on this is by asking…

Finding Perfection

A manager is sitting dejectedly at lunch when a friend stops by and asks, “What’s wrong?”

The manager answers, “I finally found the perfect person to hire for a key role.

“So what’s wrong?” asks the friend.

“Unfortunately, the candidate’s still looking to find the perfect boss.”

Please note that what matters here is that you attract what you need as the hiring manager (not what Webster might define as a strong strategic thinker).

Next, it’s critical to specify only a few areas where you, no kidding around, require top tier capabilities. Where can the candidate be merely “very good” or “average?” Think through the acceptable trade-offs now so there’s no big surprises later. (For example, some of the best strategic thinkers are not our strongest detail people. Can you live with that? Can we not demoralize them later for not being the strongest detail people?)

The same approach can be applied to an intact team. Let’s say you decide you have the right people on the bus.  Once again (and this is a fact to accept, at work and at home), these right people are not PERFECT people.  They will have performance gaps. So your focus must be on drawing the right level of high performance from each individual on specific things that will have the most impact on the System.  Again, that means defining clearly what you mean by “high performance” and then helping your people improve and leverage THAT talent.

Help Them Learn and Grow

Here is what I know for sure as a psychologist and leadership coach. People (like you and me) are paradoxical creatures in some ways. We want to learn and improve at work, particularly in areas where we are clearly needed and valued for our contribution. But we feel badly when we hear from others (especially our boss) that we have “development needs.”

The leaders who can navigate this paradoxical psychology well are on their way to being exceptional coaches. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t multi-task during a coaching moment
  • Don’t  prove your point by referencing conversations with other people
  • Focus your conversation on an upcoming opportunity versus a situation where they already missed the mark
  • Give your people some concrete ideas about how they could be better (reminder: most of us do the best  we can at the time so if we could have done better, we would have)
  • Purposely end the conversation with a restatement of your respect, appreciation, confidence in this person’s talent


“Hey Bob, I was thinking about you yesterday and I may have an idea about how you could be even more effective when presenting to the operators. Do you have 5 minutes now or should we schedule time for later this week?”


“Hey Bob, before I hang up there, I wanted you to know that the operator leadership came up to me after your talk and they were pretty unhappy with your presentation. I know you can do better than that so let’s try and do a better job next month.”

For more on coaching, see my “Secret to Great Coaching” column.

Reward Achievement

Another relevant psychological truism is that, in general, we do what we are incented to do.  Incentives are far more than monetary. How did you feel when your manager left you a message just to tell you in detail how your hard work on a specific project was appreciated by many AND paid off for the company? Need I say more?

Exceptional achievement comes at a cost. It means that time was invested…something else was attended to less… a risk was taken.  So when an employee, colleague, peer, manager “hits it out of the park,” we will improve the likelihood of a repeat performance (by them OR by others who are within earshot of the acknowledgment) if we reward or recognize that achievement.

The second psychological truism to apply to effective rewarding of others is that people are different. Some people are motivated by public recognition while others would be mortified with embarrassment at the same public “shout-out. “ Some people are motivated by a hand-written note. Others prefer a live conversation. Let’s make this easier for everyone. Talk to your people and:

  • Tell them a key part of your role as a talent manager is to reward achievement
  • Tell them which achievements would make the greatest impact in their role
  • Ask them directly what type of acknowledgement and reward works best for them in their pursuit of, and repetition of, those types of achievements
  • Follow-through on what you say and what you learn

Support Diversity of Thought

Leaders generally agree that they need to understand and integrate alternative ways of seeing, thinking, and approaching business tasks to best serve the organization and our marketplace.  It just happens to be hard to invite diversity of thought on a regular basis.  Do you signal to your people on a regular basis that their point of view occupies an important place at the table of your decisions?  Or do you pretend to listen as you bide your time until you can state what you already know is the right approach?

The key here is to be open to something different – don’t let your viewpoint be set in stone from the start. Then when you ask people for their thoughts, you will really want to listen and consider them. A great aid is to memorize what some have called “conversational recipes.” These are set questions to routinely ask of the people you lead:

  • What is another way to think about this?
  • What would our customers want us to think more about?
  • What am I not fully appreciating about your point of view?
  • What do we think Stan would say if he were here?

The Bottom Line: Building and leveraging talent is not an add-on to the task of leaders. It is the task of leaders. Invest the time to do it well and we will all reap the reward.

Top Ten Don’t’s for Building and Leveraging Talent

10. Don’t assume that you’ll be building talent through your everyday work routines

9.   Don’t think the task of building talent is really code for: showing up for the annual performance discussions

8.  Don’t use only your individual preferences for communication, feedback, reward to guide how you manage other people’s talent development

7.  Don’t assume that everyone remembers every conversation you had with them – or that they can read your mind

6.  Don’t focus only on the people who report to you and let your peers handle their own people

5.  Don’t ignore the demoralized look on someone’s face after you’ve “coached” them by telling yourself that “feedback isn’t supposed to feel good”

4.  Don’t assume that money is the best reward for a job done well

3.  Don’t reschedule your one-on-one meetings when other things come up (other things will always come up)

2.  Don’t assume that your people can’t give you feedback on your talent management skills or strategies because they don’t get “the big picture” – ask them what you can do better!


1.  Don’t assume that everyone else is finding it easy to find the time, work with a range of personalities and provide uplifting coaching – all while getting home in time for dinner. Building and leveraging talent is tough – ask for help, support, or fresh ideas.

Why It’s Important

If you’re falling into any of the minefields listed above, here’s what your people might be concluding:

  • If my manager doesn’t schedule (and show up) for our meetings  about my development, it must not be (that) important
  • If my manager doesn’t give me affirming and constructive feedback, my contribution must not be that important
  • If my manager doesn’t ask me how he/she could do a better job of supporting my development, my growth must not be that important
  • If my manager doesn’t define for me how I can be great, my efforts to be exceptional must not be that important to the organization’s results


Laurie Anderson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience as an executive coach to leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies to the World Bank. Visit or call 1-708-524-2444 for more information on Laurie’s services for individuals, groups, and organizations.

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