June 11, 2020

Adapt to Thrive: Key Takeaways from Our Recent Leadership Series Event

How do you balance the performance of your employees with their professional development? The process of learning involves mistakes, but how do you ensure that those mistakes don’t lead to serious consequences? How do make sure that employees’ professional development doesn’t come at the cost of their work?

These questions inspired our most recent Learnerbly leadership event at the (incredible!) Mercer offices in London. Nestled in the shadow of the Tower of London, we brought in Stephan Thoma, the former Global Head of Learning at Google, to speak about balancing performance and development.

We’ve written this article to share Stephan’s insights on the matter with people who weren’t able to attend. You can also watch the condensed highlights here:

What does the landscape look like?

A challenging business environment

Our economy is at the intersection of lots of changes — from new technologies to evolving office demographics. Just as individuals are struggling to keep up with these changes, companies are too.

Beyond the challenges themselves, companies face the meta-problem of understanding which trend matters most and how to address it.

While you worry about AI, an innovation you’re not even aware of could be challenging the fundamentals of your business. Smaller companies and startups are collectively chasing down large enterprises, which don’t have the agility to respond.

The people at work are changing

It can be tiring to hear (especially if you are one 😁), but the expectations and attitudes of younger people in the workforce are very different. Generally speaking, millennials tend to be more independent, less blindly obedient and more focused on developing at work.

The end of an idea of a job-for-life means that work is seen as a two-way process, It’s increasingly important for young people to feel like they’re getting something out of work for themselves. Learning and development at work is a must-have for this demographic group, and they won’t be fobbed off with bad learning experiences.

This business environment makes the work of People managers and HR more challenging, particularly as large companies seek to reskill or re-align their workforces. Business generally, and the workforce in particular, has never changed this fast and unpredictably.

How do companies react to these changes?

With this context, how can people and HR teams figure out how to balance immediate concerns about performance with longer-term questions around upskilling and developing their people? Stephan broke his answer down into four takeaways.

1. There are no best practices, only good practices.

Well, the bad news is that there’s no best practice. There’s no single answer that will work for every situation. There are good practices, but what you should do at each company is contingent on size, workforce and industry — as well as the challenges that you are facing.

2. What do you optimise for?

To start with, you need to understand how you want to meet the challenges that you face. What do you need to optimise your people operations and processes for?

If you optimise your system for performance, then you’ll deliver now. But if you optimise for Development and Growth, you’ll deliver tomorrow.

But that isn’t the only thing you need to optimise for. You also need to offer people compelling and purposeful work. You need to be in the game for the long-run and treat your people like people.

However, the nuance comes in when you need to avoid creating a culture of entitlement. At the end of the day, you’re running a business and you need to make sure you hit your bottom line.

3. OKRs can help — but they’re tough to get right

OKRs can help many companies, but the process isn’t foolproof. Like every process, it relies on the people setting and updating them to make difficult choices.

In particular, lots of companies which jump into using OKRs don’t get the iterative cycle right. Fixing that issue can lead to difficult and uncomfortable conversations at the executive level around expectations and accountability.

4. Take action — don’t just think about it

The most important thing is to do something about this! There isn’t a magical list of best practices out there for you to follow — you’ll need to define your own response, and choose what you optimise for.

Start small and focus on experiments you can take around performance and learning to see what’s most effective for your organisation.

At the end of his presentation, Stephan signed off with a favourite quote from the scientist Charles Darwin:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives; nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

As the world changes around our eyes, it’s a reminder that the strongest, smartest or richest companies will not be the ones which last. It will the companies which can adapt to and exploit the changes coming up that will be most successful. That process starts with understanding what you need to optimise for, and whether to focus on performance or development.

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