The Top 7 Tips for Effective Professional Development

According to one of the many books about Toyota[1], a common expression heard around Toyota is “We do not just build cars, we build people.”  It sounds nice, but what does it practically mean?

I had the good fortune to start my career in a major global corporation. In my case, it wasn’t Toyota, but the German chemical giant Hoechst AG. When I look around the TXM team I see successful professionals who all started their careers with leading global companies such as Boeing, Ford, Autoliv, Toyota and GM. So what is it that makes the really great companies companies so successful? What enables them to grow and grow. The answer is, of course their people.

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Business networks are a great way to help the professional development of your team.

A few years ago I saw a speech by John P. Duddy, the President of Boeing Aerostructures Australia. One statement he made particularly caught my attention. He was coming to the end of his tenure in Australia, but stated that this change would not affect the business as his replacement would be “another Boeing person”.

What he meant (or what I took him to mean) is that his replacement would be someone who had been developed through the Boeing system, who was steeped in the Boeing values and aligned with the Boeing vision and strategy. Of course the new person would bring their own personal style, strengths and weaknesses, but they would still manage the business in a “Boeing way”. Often I see companies pulled from one direction to another as external appointment after external appointment get recruited to key roles and then moved on to be replaced by another external appointment.

So how are companies like Boeing and Toyota enable to find leaders who can lead the various parts of their business in a consistent way? The answer is that these companies consciously work to develop leaders at all levels of their business. They pride themselves on offering a career path for employees from graduation to the C-suite.

What Are the Elements of Good Professional Development?

Drawing on my own experience and the experiences of the talented people around me at TXM, the following are the key elements of a successful professional development program that will provide the leaders your business will need for the future:

1. Assessment of Individual Talent

“One size fits all” is definitely not the basis of a successful professional development program for leaders. Many companies offer standardized graduate programs, but the reality is that this can be highly frustrating for your most talented individuals. They will be looking to do real work and make a real difference straight away rather than spending a year or two rotating around departments to “find their feet”. Therefore, you need to understand the strengths weaknesses, talents and personal goals of the individuals you have and tailor their individual development accordingly.

2. Mentors Are Important

Throughout my career key individuals (usually but not always my manager) provided me personal mentoring and coaching. This extended beyond technical skills to coaching me how to improve my listening skills, deal effectively with difficult individuals and cope with stress. In highly successful companies the task of developing future leaders is seen as the most important work of existing leaders. It is also perhaps the most satisfying part of leadership.

The LinkedIn recommendation I am personally proudest of is from a former process operator in whom I recognized leadership potential and provided with development and educational opportunities. This started him on a 20-year path to Senior Operational Leadership.

3. Projects Are an Opportunity to Develop People

When I reflect on my time at Hoechst, the business trusted me with key projects from very early in my career. Initially this was assigning me to a Total Quality Management team that fired my lifelong interest in Lean and Continuous Improvement. As I successfully took on and completed projects, I was then trusted with larger and more challenging project opportunities.

It was never sink or swim though. Even though I was leading projects, there was always an experienced mentor I could call on for support if things got difficult. When you have a big project such as a capital project, new IT system, your Lean project, a business restructuring or an acquisition, don’t just go to the “usual suspects”. Look at your management talent pool and ask, who is ready to lead this? Who will really benefit from this opportunity? Make sure that the “old hands” are around to support the person you appoint.

This process also can provide a double development opportunity as you “backfill” roles temporarily vacated with other high potential leaders. If you just give these projects to the usual experienced “trouble shooters” you potentially will waste the best development opportunities you have.

4. Support the People You Promote

Another very common mistake I see made is how companies ruin the careers of their best people by promoting them and not supporting them. This can be compounded by egotistical individuals who refuse the support offered. At every step in my career with Hoechst there was support and guidance offered to help me on the way. I remember my first highly unsuccessful encounter with the Union Shop Steward. I was forced to back down on disciplining an individual who thoroughly deserved the disciplinary warning I had given. Rather than being performance counselled, I was able to sit down with one of my much more experienced peers, talk through the issue, agree how it could have been handled better and plan how to manage it next time. When you promote someone, you have a personal investment in their success, therefore as a leader you must do everything you can to ensure that success. “Sink or Swim” too often leads to the costly loss of good talent and that is neither good for you, the business or the individual involved.

5. Education Must Be Targeted

I frequently come across companies who identify weakness in their management or front line leadership ranks. The solution? Put everyone on a management training course. Some level of generic skills training is useful. For example, you want to ensure that your management all receive the same message about safety, corruption or appropriate behavior towards employees. However, education around leadership and career development must be targeted to the individual. Education that is targeted to the individual’s particular needs and interests will often be seen as a reward, whereas forcing everyone to go on the same course will often be seen as a chore and can actually be resented. I have found that for middle and senior leaders one on one coaching with an experienced coach or consultant can be far more effective than a leadership training course. This is because it allows coaching in action around the actual strengths and weaknesses of the individual.

6. Line Leaders Have the Primary Responsibility for the Professional Development of Their People

Many big companies now have Talent Development functions dedicated to the identification and development of high potential staff. However, the role of these functions is intended to be cross departmental and across geographies. They do not replace the need for every leader at every level in every function to see developing their people as one of their most important jobs. The best “executive coaches” I ever had were also my best bosses. Every leader in your business should be assessed on how well they develop their team as well as their direct contribution to business performance.

7. Professional Development Is Never 100% Successful

A reason that many companies give for failing to actively develop their talented people is that “they will just leave”. Others will point to examples of people who “failed”. The reality is that a level of natural attrition is inevitable in any organization and some of the people you invest in will leave and take all those skills elsewhere. That can be very frustrating. However, the problem with not developing people is that you almost guarantee that your best talent will leave, and you will be left with the people who don’t want to be developed and probably have little or no potential as future leaders. Therefore, invest in development and accept that a proportion of people will leave. However also expect that more and more of your best staff will see the development pathway you offer and look to emulate those who have grown their careers within your business.

The Bottom Line

Every time your business expands, opens a new site or acquires a new business, you need to ensure that the things that made your business great at the start, your unique culture and competitive advantages, get transferred in to these new operations. The way to do this is to appoint leaders steeped in your culture and way of doing things to run these new operations. This kind of leader must be developed from within. The more you grow the more leaders you will need. Therefore, you must have a means of developing these leaders. This means that effective professional development is a prerequisite for the profitable growth of your business.

[1] Liker, J.K. and Meier, D. Toyota Talent: Developing your People the Toyota Way. 2007. McGraw-Hill. New York, NY.

Timothy McLean

Author: Timothy McLean

Timothy McLean is the Managing Director of TXM Lean Solutions and is an author of Lean books.