Developing Talent in Crisis and Beyond

By: Lawrence James, Jr.

As many of us look at how businesses can survive during this pandemic-induced business slowdown (or shutdown for many), it should be obvious that leadership is more important than ever. The leadership choices being made today will have profound and long-term impacts not only on the business, but on employee engagement and loyalty. Most leaders will be thinking about the defensive moves that they need to make to protect their businesses. A few will be thinking about opportunities that may provide chances to grow or redirect their market positioning. Some will think about HR policy and engagement strategies for their employees, but few may be thinking about people development during this time. However, developing talent in this changing business climate is critical to sustaining the business and growing it post-crisis.

There isn’t just one area that leaders need to focus on to facilitate development. From a people-development standpoint, most leaders and organizations have organizational tools to aid with tutoring, training, and coaching activities. As such, this won’t be the focus of discussion here. Instead, the focus will be on cultivating thinking, creativity, and innovation skills.

First, leaders must challenge. They should challenge existing paradigms that those they lead may have around thinking and solving problems. To some degree, leaders should push people to think outside the box, but that in and of itself is too simplistic for development. They should be questioning, pushing, and at times cajoling, and even storytelling. All in the pursuit of creating known pathways of thinking to connect the dots and create ideas. Failure for the leader in this instance is not going far enough to create the dynamic and desire for thinking, creativity, and innovation.

Second, leaders shape the environment for thinking. Specifically, the leader must start with a clear statement of the current situation, the problem to be solved, and the goal. Situations and problems may change, but what will remain constant is the process leaders use to set the conditions for cultivating thinking and skill development. The statement of the current situation allows the leader to put the current “known universe” on the table. In a sporting analogy, this might be the broad game plan to defeat your opponent, including their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Explaining the goal is important, as it has implications for how one might attack the problem or craft a solution.

There is a scene in the film Hidden Figures that exemplifies the concept. Kevin Costner’s character is discussing with his NASA engineering team what they have to do to find the math necessary to do the calculations to get the John Glenn Friendship 7 spacecraft back to earth. He doesn’t have the solution himself, but he throws out the idea that they are looking at the problem in the wrong way. He says, “Maybe this isn’t new math at all.” The heroine of the film, Katherine Johnson, picks up on it, saying yes, maybe it is old math, and she comes up with the idea of using Euler’s method to solve the equation. The group quickly gains consensus that this could work and sets off to do the calculations, which eventually leads to the solution.

Third, the actions leaders take should be contextual. The action steps deployed will vary by situation and the baseline skills of each individual being developed. A leader’s expertise on the topic or in this process isn’t a necessity. In fact, if a team believes the leader has all the answers, it may inhibit learning and ownership as individuals may not take risks or push themselves. Most importantly in this process, leaders should not provide the answers to the problem or stipulate the methodology for idea creation. Contextual action planning moves learning and development from being something passively done by individuals to a self-owned and directed journey toward process mastery (i.e., how to think through a situation, gain insights, and draw conclusions). Within this framework, individuals can develop ideas, implement them, and even fail in pursuit of skill development. To solidify learning, leaders must not settle for just getting the answers that solve the problem. Instead, they need to push individuals to detail how they got to the answers. This is the real developmental outgrowth of the exercise because it helps to explicitly identify and reinforce the tools and processes that enabled creativity and innovation to occur.

For leaders who choose to take on this developmental challenge, a few thoughts on best practices might be useful:

1. Set the conditions for development. Establishing the intervention can be done in an individual or group setting depending upon how the leader wants to address developmental opportunities in the team.

2. Don’t let perfection get in the way of good. Leaders do not need to be experts of the process or in the problem area being discussed. Instead, they need to be intentional in challenging, shaping, and contextualizing.

3. Lay out the problem to be addressed, provide foundational knowledge and information on the problem, and articulate the goal to be achieved.

4. Prohibit answers in the moment. Have the team go away and think about the problem before bringing solutions or ideas to the table. Ensure that sufficient time is given for thinking and idea development.

5. When presented with ideas or solutions, have the individuals walk you through not just the ideas, but the process they used for developing it.

6. Where necessary, help the individual delineate the process that you heard them use to get to their ideas.

7. Provide support and reinforcement for utilizing their process and challenge the team to think about how they could make the process better and even more effective.

Leaders who engage in this process will know they have achieved their goal by the output they see in the thinking and idea creation process of the individuals in their team. In addition, greater individual ownership, engagement, and proactive behavior should occur. As a result, leaders will see more unique, unconventional, and even creative ideas coming to the table.

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