How Smart Bosses Create Even Smarter Employees

With this three-step plan, managers can build a learning culture that boosts the bottom line and benefits everyone in the organization.

By Seymour Adler, Ph.D., and Rafi Prager, Ph.D.

Sally Aikers is the chief human resources officer at a global technology firm with more than 3,000 employees. Every month, she convenes one-on-one with each of her department heads. 

These meetings are aside from normal business issues. The goal is to focus on the individual’s growth. With an openly inquisitive manner, she encourages her direct reports to bring new ideas, interesting research, innovative tools, and best practices gleaned from their explorations over the previous few weeks.

She is genuinely interested in what she can learn from her team. More than that, she’s genuinely interested in them. She explores their aspirations and the challenges they’re eager to take on, and personally connects them with counterparts in other organizations, thanks to the networks she’s built through the years.

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Rather than being angry or jealous when one of her department heads moves on, she takes pride in how many have risen to CHRO roles in other organizations. Those “graduates” remain indebted to Aikers, and form the core of her external HR network. At the same time, she invests in her internal network, looking for challenges her team can take on as stretch assignments.

Show of hands: How many of you work for a boss like Aikers, or have a lieutenant like her working for you? For those who answered “no,” how many would like to? 

When we ask our HR colleagues this question, we quickly learn that transcendent managers like Sally are few and far between. Keep in mind that we’re talking about human resources departments, where the bosses should be the biggest advocates and practitioners of learning and development.

If managers don’t know how to build learning cultures in their organizations, how do we teach them? What follows, in our experience, is what works.

Step #1: Start with the Business Case

Coasting is simply not an option for a manager today. She’s expected to improve every year. That manager, in turn, knows she can’t meet these rising expectations unless her teams build their own capabilities.

Moreover, the modern workplace is often described as VUCA, an unlovely acronym that’s short for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. 

A VUCA environment requires greater strength in the areas historically associated with success—that is, the capabilities most top managers exhibited when they were hired or promoted. 

Moreover, these managers also need new capabilities. An HR executive needs to be comfortable in human capital analytics and the ability to utilize that data to tell compelling stories to business partners to guide them toward sound decisions.

Just to pick one example, executives in consumer-packaged goods tell us that the only way to stay relevant in a more competitive marketplace is for leaders at every level to be more adept at Big Data, more astute in reading the voice of the customer, and more innovative in leveraging e-commerce. 

Research shows that the skills a new graduate brings to the workplace will be obsolete faster than ever. The average half-life for their skills and knowledge is less than 7 years, and much less than 7 years in some of the more technical fields.

Sometimes the clearest way to drive home the business case for investing in learning is to ask managers what happens when they don’t. What are the costs of organizational inertia, of outdated methods and procedures, of employees not keeping up? What opportunities are wasted? How will that hurt the business? 

We’ve heard all the “can’t because” excuses for why learning is a low priority. But if you believe that managers should align their time and effort with business priorities, then some of that time must be spent building new skills and knowledge. Learning today is very much a business priority. 

Step #2: Envision What a Learning Culture Looks Like

The idea of a “learning culture” seems abstract to most managers. It only becomes concrete when we talk about specific activities with clear links to improved performance and ROI.

We like to start by asking managers what they themselves do to keep up. What pushes them into a learning mode? What go-to sources—people or sites—do they turn to when they need to upgrade their own knowledge or skill?

That moment of self-reflection helps managers think about what they can do as leaders to stimulate and satisfy the needs of their employees. If we ask them to describe their vision of what a genuine learning culture would look like in their business, they can do so in very concrete terms. What learning activities already occur, and how should they continue? Which should be started? What obstacles get in the way of learning, and how can they be addressed? 

From there we have managers compile action plans to promote more learning activity and assign timelines and accountabilities. The next step is to encourage them to memorialize these plans by putting them in writing. Now the aspiration can become a reality. 

It’s also important to have managers specify the impact that each learning activity will have on the business. How will it help your company achieve an important goal? How will it help individuals increase engagement and achieve personal goals? Opportunities to grow and develop are almost always among the top two or three drivers of engagement across organizations. 

Step #3: Build Greater Awareness of the Multiple Ways a Boss Can Promote Learning

Some years ago, the Corporate Leadership Council identified five different roles for bosses in building a learning culture. We’ve found that few managers enact more than one or two of them.

Learning Architect

A manager can help an employee define her career objectives and outline what she needs to learn to achieve each one. The manager can then design stretch experiences that put her in position to achieve each one.

Let’s say an employee needs greater exposure to the budgetary process. Email her a chapter from a text that describes the basics. Invite her to a few meetings during budget planning season. Connect her to someone on the team who has genuine expertise and enjoys mentoring a peer. Ask her to review and comment on the draft budget, and then give her feedback on her analysis.

As every manager knows, there’s only so much time for one-on-one engagement, for both the boss and her employee. Fortunately, you can also engage a team collectively with an open discussion of emerging challenges and the skills it will take to address them. The team, in turn, can share ideas, encouragement, and coaching with one another about how to use new knowledge and skills on the job.

What Can You Do? 

  • Jointly create an individual development plan, with specific targets, activities, and endpoints.
  • Encourage, recognize, and reward employees for achieving developmental milestones.
  • Craft focused stretch experiences.
  • Provide guidance on how best to apply new knowledge and skills on the job.
  • Point out learning opportunities within the everyday cadence of work. Ask employees what they learned from recent assignments and experiences. 

Trusted Assessor

Effective learning is grounded in self-awareness. If you don’t know what you don’t know, or where your skills fall short, you can’t understand how those gaps might hold you back, or appreciate opportunities to close them when they come your way, much less seek them out. Nor can you leverage your strengths if you aren’t sure what they are, or how they’ve shifted relative to the new challenges of your workplace and industry.

The boss can improve employee self-awareness by objectively appraising his strengths and limitations, and providing critical feedback. But it only works if the boss’ feedback is fact-based, and if there’s a high level of trust in the boss’s perspective.

What Can You Do?

  • Use fact-based assessments to complement informal observation.
  • Solicit and deploy input from multiple sources—peers, direct reports, customers.
  • Establish metrics to assess the employee’s progress toward developmental objectives.
  • Give specific feedback, with concrete examples, on strengths and potential risk factors.
  • Schedule meetings with employees to discuss significant project milestones, or after meetings with key stakeholders.
  • Target both hidden strengths and surprising blind spots.

Solutions Enabler

A 2016 Pew Research Center study showed that three-quarters of American adults consider themselves lifelong learners, and 63 percent said they’d taken a class or gotten some kind of work-related training in the past 12 months. So as a boss, you have to assume that most of your workforce is doing something in pursuit of personal or professional development. 

It might be formal education or training in a classroom or online; it might be self-education via books, clubs, or online communities; it might involve travel to conferences, conventions, or networking events.

Bosses typically control two of the commodities critical to these extracurricular learning opportunities: time and money. A boss who wants to encourage development has to respect her employees’ work-life balance and should, as much as possible, avoid putting demands on them when they’re doing one of those activities off-site. 

They must also recognize that investing in a valued employee’s continuing education and professional development is money well spent. Finally, a boss can invest her own time in coaching and counseling. 

What Can You Do?

  • Provide a professional coach to help build employees’ leadership skills. 
  • Support enrollment in an executive MBA program.
  • Schedule regular one-on-one coaching sessions to teach new skills, share knowledge, or provide advice from your own career experiences.
  • Discuss the best ways to apply newly learned skills, and then give employees a chance to use them, preferably in controlled simulations or as part of smaller, low-stakes projects.
  • Take time to assess the results of those experiments or test runs, and give honest feedback on what did and didn’t work.

Development Strategist

The goal of a learning culture is to equip employees to succeed in the future, and to play increasingly important roles in the organization’s success. It shouldn’t be a random process. A forward-thinking boss understands how his business is evolving and what he’ll need from his employees to meet future objectives. He can then help them prepare for those changing circumstances and expectations. 

What Can You Do?

  • Explain the changes you expect in your company’s needs and performance standards.
  • Talk about what those changes mean for individual employees’ career paths.
  • Reward and recognize developmental efforts, acknowledging that it may take years for the efforts to pay off. 

Opportunity Broker

A manager, by definition, has access to information his employees don’t have, which means he can offer opportunities employees wouldn’t otherwise know about.

For example, let’s say a manager learns that a counterpart in another region is looking for a strong technical specialist to help him roll out a new product line. He has someone on his team who’s perfect for the assignment; she could help with the rollout and learn a lot in the process. The manager can open the door with a strong recommendation, followed by an introduction to his fellow manager.

A veteran manager also has perspectives beyond those of his employees and their peers. Even if he hasn’t gone through specific education and training programs, he’s seen the results, and can help his team members get a sense of which ones add value and which are a waste of time.

What Can You Do?

  • Help employees find the highest-value education and training programs—inside and outside the firm.
  • From within your own networks, look for and then broker developmental opportunities for your employees.
  • Pass along job openings, including those outside the organization when it’s appropriate—with a customer or supply chain partner, for example.
  • Create “play dates”—visits, projects, and training exercises—with counterparts in other areas of the business from whom they can learn.

Remember: It All Starts with People

The three steps we lay out above apply to managers who are already supervising teams, and are invested in their success. But a commitment to a learning culture begins before they’re on the job. You should rigorously assess prospective bosses using every tool at your disposal—multi-rater surveys, structured interviews, psychometric assessments, simulations and role plays—to ensure they have attributes conducive to the learning environment you want to continue or create. 

You won’t find many bosses like Sally Aikers, whose commitment to her employees’ development is both impressive and authentic. But you can certainly weed out the ones who are least likely to emulate her example, or even aspire to do so. An arrogant, complacent, self-aggrandizing, or oblivious candidate shouldn’t be entrusted with the growth and development of your most valued employees, many of whom may still be around long after their manager has moved on.

After all, no amount of knowledge or technical proficiency can compensate for a boss’s lack of interest in the future success of the people he’s been entrusted to lead. 

Seymour Adler, Ph.D., is a partner at Kincentric. Before that, he was a partner in talent and rewards for Aon Hewitt. A renowned expert in leadership development and organizational transformation, he was featured in a documentary called The Science of Personality.

Rafi Prager, Ph.D., is a senior director on the Associate Leadership & Learning team at Walmart. In his role, he is responsible for leading the strategy, design, and delivery of Walmart’s selection program for internal and external VP and SVP candidates. Specifically, he helps officers and hiring teams interpret psychometric assessment data to make informed decisions around selection, promotion, and development. He also has oversight of Walmart’s enterprise development assessment strategy.