Make them practice: improving your return on talent development

In a recent conversation, an Executive VP of a global pharmaceutical company bemoaned the poor rate of return from one of her biggest investments, talent development. In the past two years she has sent three of her direct reports to an advanced executive development programme at a prestigious business school south-west of Paris, each placement costing £35,000 and requiring four weeks absence from work.

 Now as someone who is a graduate of the school and has helped design and present one of their programmes, it is natural that I leap to the defence of the Faculty. And I do. Not because I believe they are faultless and without parallel, but because I believe establishing the conditions and expectations for a high rate of return are the responsibility of the sponsoring line manager—not the participant, not HR, nor the teaching institution. 

 Over the years I have seen many development programmes fail to hit the mark.  Poor teaching, mis-matched expectations and inadequate participant preparation have been contributing factors but the biggest influencer on yielding high rates of return on development spend is the line manager.  It is they who determine the strength of the link between development gap and business need.

 Line managers are like coaches who delegate some component of their athletes' development to a specialist trainer. The process commences when the coach gauges the athlete's shortcomings in the context of desired performance against the competition. Next, in selecting the specialist trainer, the coach has to have confidence that the trainer will develop capabilities quickly and efficiently so that they are immediately usable and relevant. Finally, the best Coaches give athletes opportunities to apply their acquired knowledge and skills within a short time of returning. 

 What tennis, golf or football coach would give advice on improvement to their top performers but then deny them an opportunity for its practiced application for 12 months?

 Reinforcing learning through practiced application early and safely is crucial to sustained improvement.  It is the biggest contributor to generating a return on investment—but, in businesses, it is the component most frequently ignored. In this sense, executives should follow an apprenticeship model if they want the highest return for effective talent development.

To test the preparedness of the line manager ahead of investment in talent development, use the Improvement Benefits Everyone (IBE) diagnostic.