Prerequisites for a Culture of Development

Our core competency at Hudson is coaching that’s focused on growing and developing people from early manager into senior roles. We spend a lot of our time working inside organizations to foster a culture of development through the use of coaching. 

This concept of creating a culture of development is not a new one. Folks like Dr. Lisa Lahey and Dr. Robert Kegan of Minds at Work, along with many others, have been writing about the topic for several decades now. But in spite of the growing research demonstrating the benefits of a culture of development, organizations struggle to put the concepts into practice. Theory abounds, but there hasn’t been much in the way of practical guidance on how to effectively establish such a culture. 

This moment of disruption presents an opportunity to bridge that gap. Research has shown that employees today are looking for purpose in their work and opportunities to grow. At the same time, the rise of remote work and the Great Resignation, are underscoring just how important it is that workplaces have cultures that are responsive to the needs of their teams. A culture of development not only addresses these realities, it creates a workforce that’s empowered, resilient, and prepared to take on the next big challenges and disruptions.

A learning culture starts with a true commitment to developing your people at all levels in the organization, day in and day out. Kegan and Lahey call these “deliberately developmental organizations,” where the organization supports not just the development of employees in their job functions but also the growth of their employees as people. 

These cultures see development as a mindset, not an event. Beginning with individual development plans and linking the plans to regular growth opportunities, they empower the best in the person and in others. Importantly, these cultures don’t reserve strategic development for top executives only; it’s a commitment and a way of working that extends to all levels in the organization.

Of course, cultural transformation doesn’t just happen. To create an environment where learning, coaching and development are central to “how we do things here,” you have to make it a priority. Depending on where your organization is today, the specific steps you’ll need to take may vary. But regardless of whether you’re just getting started or are already down the path of transformation, there are a few underlying elements that are essential for success and sustainability.

As you approach the process of building and strengthening your own culture of development, here are two characteristics your organization will need before your transformation efforts can take hold.

Prerequisite 1: Accountability 

The culture is what permeates the entire organization. It’s the combination of values, attitudes, behaviors and priorities that define the work environment and reflect “how we do things here.” And the strongest influence on what kind of culture you have comes from leadership.

Greg Honey, Executive Vice-President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Farm Credit Canada, puts it this way: “The biggest determinant of culture in an organization is active and visible sponsorship of the leadership from the top of the organization. It’s got to be from the top. If the CEO doesn’t do it, then employees ask, why should I?

Particularly as so many organizations are now undergoing massive transformation and change efforts, the senior team has to lead the charge on culture. It’s the only way you can build the kind of culture you want and make it clear why it matters. This means leaders have to take responsibility for defining the culture, establishing expectations, holding themselves accountable to it and then cascading that accountability throughout the organization. 

Echoing Honey’s point, Heather Robsahm, Head of HQ Talent Development + Executive Development & Coaching Practices at Gap.Inc., says it simply doesn’t work to try to drive accountability upstream. Instead, she advises, leverage your senior team as champions of the culture. The impact will be powerful. 

“We just launched a whole new culture and strategic framework for the company, and we’re seeing the benefits of having that led by our senior leadership team,” she says. “We’re seeing a drive up of accountability across leaders at all levels.”

While that commitment and accountability at the top is critical, being a “deliberately developmental organization” isn’t just about the top, and you don’t have to have a top-down plan to get broader traction for the culture. In fact, from an employee’s point of view, the direct manager has the most significant influence on the everyday employee experience, and that includes whether or not they feel supported in their efforts to grow on the job, in their careers and as individuals. You’ve heard it before: People don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Increasingly, they’re leaving managers who aren’t invested in helping them achieve their developmental goals. 

For some managers, this is going to require a mindset shift about what their role entails. Are they tuned in and prepared to act on those in-the-moment opportunities to coach and develop their people when it matters most? Are they thinking about ways to make learning part of the job? Do they know what their employees’ aspirations and goals are? 

The good news is, there are some simple actions any manager can start doing to help their employees take advantage of the learning opportunities that come up in the flow of daily work. In addition to stretch assignments, this might include creating opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and coaching and mentoring circles. Just as important, managers need to both support and hold their employees accountable for taking ownership of their personal and professional growth.

When everyone’s being held accountable, you can begin to create a culture of everyday development, where learning is part of the work, not relegated to certain times or a particular training program. Robsahm views this as an evolution of how we define the 70% in the 70/20/10 model of development.

“If anything,” she says, “it’s looking at the 70% very differently. We’ve always pointed out that the 70% is what you learn on the job. It’s looking at what are the heat experiences that you can go after that actually provide development in your day-to-day.”

Prerequisite 2: Personalization

One of the things that’s so powerful about effective coaching is that it’s specific and personalized to the individual. It comes from understanding the person, recognizing what’s going to move the needle for them and then supporting them in a way that’s going to resonate for them. It also recognizes the unique value and talents they bring to the organization.

“When you join the Gap, you’re bringing a tremendous amount of experience,” Robsahm points out. “So every new employee brings something new to the table.”

As Honey notes, there are a number of tools that can help managers understand better where their people are, what’s helping them and what might be holding them back. Greater clarity on these factors will allow you to be more systematized in your approach and create plans that align coaching and development activities with a person’s goals in a specific and targeted way.

“It’s got to be purpose-driven, systematized and personalized,” says Honey, and this applies not just to individual coaching but to team coaching as well, which helps unlock possibility within an organization. 

This is an approach to leading and a fundamental way of thinking about the manager’s role that’s increasingly key to retaining your top talent — and in many cases, your competitive advantage. 

“Your top performers want nothing less than a roadmap of growth and development opportunities,” says Robsahm, “and if we don’t have that internally, we do see the loss of top talent. And that really drives performance down.”

Spending the time on this kind of personalized roadmap not only builds trust, it creates what Robsahm calls “more great boss moments.” Your managers become the kind of leaders who make a powerful, lasting impact on other people’s lives. Their employees, in turn, are more fulfilled, purpose-driven and loyal. They’re motivated and inspired by the support and investment their managers are making in them.

The Impact of Culture Transformation

When we think about a culture of development, the mind often immediately goes to the internal impact. The right culture not only helps companies attract, retain and engage employees, it helps their employees and teams grow into the people they want to be. Farm Credit Canada, for example, has documented employee engagement scores of 90%. But there are more externally facing impacts as well. Honey shares that the organization has a net promoter score up in the ranks of companies like Ritz Carlton, and “we’ve got 20-plus years of record disbursements. ROI is solid.”

Particularly in light of the challenging times of the past year, though, he’s most proud of those engagement scores, which put them somewhere among the top five best employers to work for in Canada. “The benefits of that are immense across the organization,” he says.

With the right mindset, challenging times can also yield valuable new insights and lessons. And organizations with a culture of development never waste the opportunity to learn. 

Reflecting back on the accelerated pace of change brought on by the pandemic and the new ways of working and best practices that have emerged from it, Robsahm says, “We don’t want to lose all that learning. The whole last year has been peer-to-peer learning, sharing, and just getting to know one another much better. The equality and belonging has just supercharged that connection.”

While change is happening faster than ever, a culture of development — and the mindset that goes along with it — will open people up to the possibilities of change and give them the confidence to step up to the next challenge. It’s empowering, not just for top executives, but for everyone in the organization. Ultimately, it’s a way of working and an understanding that, in order to keep great talent in today’s world, we need to start at home and grow great talent and great people, day in and day out.

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Hudson Institute of Coaching

One of the early leaders in the field of coaching, Hudson Institute of Coaching has been providing developmentally based coach training for leaders for more than 30 years. We set the standard for experiential learning programs that lead organizations and people to reach for their best as leaders and human beings in our global world.