Culture

What a Workplace Culture that Truly Develops People Looks Like

Jennifer Juo

HR and L&D Insights Writer at Udemy for Business

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Culture

April 13, 2017

What does a workplace culture that truly develops people look like? At a recent Chief Learning Officer (CLO) Conference in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to hear Robert Kegan, Meehan Professor of Adult Learning at Harvard University, deliver a keynote speech on this topic and recent book The Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization.

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Kegan makes a good point. We spend the first 25 years of our lives focusing on learning and growing. But after we finish formal schooling, what social institution helps us grow continuously into our 50s and 60s? Since adults spend most of their waking hours in the workplace, it makes sense for companies to help people learn and develop for the rest of their lives.

Why does this even matter? According to Kegan, in our increasingly volatile and uncertain world, organizations need to develop people and their collective capability to grow, adapt, and transform. Innovating a new business model, restructuring a supply chain, or going after a new market—tackling these new challenges require smarter people who can overcome blind spots and think differently. A Deliberately Developmental Organization is the best way to continuously grow your employees and their ability to adapt and transform your business, product, or processes.

But how can you transform your workplace culture to successfully develop people? Kegan and his colleagues identified key elements of a developmental organizational culture and highlighted pioneering companies that embody these features in their new book.

Here are some of the key elements of a Deliberately Developmental Organization:

Every job should be a stretch role

There should be a reciprocal nature to developing both the employee and the organization’s potential. At Next Jump, one of the companies highlighted in Kegan’s book, their motto is “Better me + Better you = Better us.” Next Jump believes if an employee keeps growing and helps others to grow, then the company grows. Their end of year promotions and bonuses are based 50% on contributions to culture (and helping others grow) and 50% related to revenue.

In a Deliberately Developmental Organization, it’s about creating an incubator to develop talent rather than stealing talent. You hire someone to grow them. If a person has all the qualities to do the job than it’s no longer the right job. Every job should be a stretch role that enables your employees to grow constantly. Once a person masters that role, it’s time to move onto the next challenge.

Quit the second job and feast on weaknesses

What is the second job? According to Kegan, it’s the job no one is paying us to do. It’s the job focusing on looking good, covering your rear end, and glossing over mistakes. Unfortunately, this “second job” is costly and wasteful for organizations. It’s not good for organizations if weaknesses or mistakes are hidden. Instead, companies should create a safe, trusting environment for employees to share and solve their weaknesses. Everyone’s potential lies in overcoming weaknesses.

In a Deliberately Developmental Organization, work is not for performance, but work is for practicing. In the old world of performance reviews, a negative review was considered “bad.” But if people don’t make mistakes, they don’t learn. Employees should be allowed to fail so they can constantly push the envelope and get better.

Continuous and immersive learning for everyone

According to Kegan, most of the learning and development at organizations has been for “too few people, too infrequently, and too far from work.” Often leadership training programs focus on the top 10% “high potential” employees. But what does that say about the other 90% of employees who don’t get the opportunity to learn and grow? Moreover, much of workplace learning is usually off-site in a classroom, one-on-one coaching, or at executive universities. This kind of learning is too far removed from the workplace, says Kegan. The biggest challenge is making sure employees apply their knowledge. If you provide continuous learning as part of an employee’s daily workflow, you’ll increase the chances people actually apply the new skill. For example, learning should include a scalable online tool that 100% of your workforce can easily access when they actually need it.

50 years from now: developing people at work will be the norm

50 years from now, Kegan predicts we’ll look back and be shocked that the purpose of work was just to provide products and income, without considering how to develop a person’s potential. Just like we look back at the Industrial Revolution today and are surprised factories didn’t have safety laws. Instead, the modern workplace needs to evolve to be the social institution that helps people keep growing for the rest of their adult life. This will be good for both the individual and the organization.

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