There are two primary reasons I hear from leaders for not investing in employee development. The first is a fear that the employees will leave. The second is cost.
“It is better to train people and have them leave than to not train people and have them stay,” Zig Ziglar said at a conference I attended in the early 1990s. Those words changed the course of my career.
Many leaders either don’t know about or understand this principle and fear their employees leaving after they have invested to make them better. As with most fears, very rarely is this fear realized. In my experience, employees feel a heightened sense of loyalty to employers who are willing to invest in them. The reality is just the opposite of the fear: Employees don’t want to leave if we invest in them.
Leaders who think of employee development as a cost are starting out with the wrong paradigm. Employee development is not a cost—it is an investment. Most good leaders today would agree that developing their employees is one of the best investments they can make. Several years ago, I read an article that reported Motorola, the pioneer of Six Sigma, had determined that it gets $33 back for every dollar it invests in employee development. That’s a crazy good return, and for most companies, it is the best investment available. When leaders are allocating capital, most will have a tough time beating a 33:1 return!
Build on Strengths
One of the challenges with which leaders wrestle is trying to decide whether to focus on correcting employee weaknesses or building on their strengths. My personal leadership style is more focused on being a high-energy, affirmative leader who builds on strengths, and it has seemed to work well for me. However, I understand it might not work well for every leader.
I also fully understand there are leaders who see this differently than me, and I respect their views. I agree that there often can be glaring weaknesses that are holding an employee back that the leader must address. And, as with any leadership philosophy, there are outliers that seem to disprove it. People are complicated, and there will always be plenty of examples to disprove any leadership approach.
So, for clarity, I am not saying that people should not work on weaknesses; of course we should.
However, my experience is that if an employee is operating at a 70 percent performance level, an easier and more certain way to help them increase that percentage is by helping them play to their strengths. Employees may struggle with correcting weakness and pick up a percentage point or two of performance if they manage to do so, but big improvements can be made by helping them play to their strengths.
For example, an employee operating at 70 percent may work diligently on a weakness that is hard-wired into them and only increase performance to 72 percent, if at all. That same employee may have an easy path to 85 percent performance by functioning in their strengths.
As leaders, we must work with our team to determine how to achieve the most improvement, but my experience is that often, the biggest gains come by focusing on strengths.
Francesca Gino, an outstanding Harvard professor who I have been honored to study under a few different times, explains this the best in her excellent book, Rebel Talent. Starting on page 153 of the book, Gino explains how most organizations have a negativity bias in employee evaluation and development. In some ways, it is the “easy button” (my words, not hers). Gino goes on to document that, “We improve faster in areas where we are strong than in areas where we are weak.” I recommend checking out Gino’s work for more information on this topic.
Over the last 15 years, we have developed employees in a lot of different ways at Correct Craft. We have brought in outside speakers, had internal speakers, and I have personally taught many leadership development classes. We had a large group of employees go through the Dale Carnegie course, and just last year we had about 30 employees working on their Lean Six Sigma Black Belt through Villanova University.
Plus, we are readers.
Over the years, our team has read dozens of books together, and it is a great way to not only learn together but to also build both comradery and a common language to better develop a learning organization. I know our organization is exponentially better because of our desire to read as a team.
A few years ago, we decided to better organize our learning under the umbrella of what we now call Correct Craft University (CCU). As part of CCU, we create annual learning plans for our team, and at the end of the year, we recognize those who complete their work. We will usually even throw in a small gift card as a token of our appreciation. Our former HR Director Shirley, who I previously mentioned in this book, travels the country visiting our facilities and encouraging our team to be learners through CCU.
There are a lot of ways to create an employee development pro- gram, and I am certain there are many who do it better than us. However, the key is not so much the method leaders use to develop their team as it is the importance of doing something.
Helping Others Become Leaders
Years ago, I was invited to join Wayne Huizenga on an outing to South Africa to visit a home he co-owned with Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus on the edge of Kruger National Park. As we took off in his private jet, I was sitting next to Wayne and he shared with me how proud he was of the significant opportunities he had given others. He said that true leaders don’t create followers, they create other leaders. Those words impacted me, and I wanted to emulate Wayne in that way. Actually, I would like to emulate Wayne in a lot of ways, but this may be the most important: I want to invest in our team.
Some leaders are not willing to invest heavily in their teams. Sometimes it is insecurity, other times a feeling that they are losing control, and often, as mentioned above, it is a concern that if they invest in people, the people will leave. None of that logic—if it is, in fact, even logical—makes sense.
The success or failure of an organization always comes back to the people in the organization. The best leaders know that the most effective way to improve their organization is to develop their people. Employee development is not an expense—it is an investment with a huge return.
Excerpted, with permission, from Education of a CEO: Lessons for Leaders, by Bill Yeargin (Ignite Press, May 2021).