Nurturing and Developing Talent

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In this edition

Building for the future is always fraught with risk. Building takes time away from the present. It also presumes that the investments you make now will still be relevant.

And yet, if you don’t build for the future, you will find yourself forever treading water and unable to react.

So it is with talent as well. You need people to perform now. But if you’re not thinking about the future and working to develop your talent, your transaction relationship will limit your performance and leave you ill prepared to face the future. The risk is that you invest time in people and then they leave.

Guess what though… they’re going to do that anyway. The thing is, you can be SURE they’ll leave in the absence of any development opportunities. If they have those opportunities, though, just maybe they’ll stay—and you’ll accelerate together.

This week’s newsletter covers the challenges of defining development opportunities. The reality is that it’s not as hard as you think. The hard part is getting started.

Thanks as always for reading.

Nurturing and Developing Talent


Investing in long-term career development is crucial for building a high-performing team. When employees see a clear path for growth and development within the company, they are more motivated, engaged, and productive. By nurturing their talent, you not only enhance their skills but also improve the overall performance of your organization.

Struggling with Development Plans

One of the things I regularly see leaders struggle with is how to nurture talent. Most employees want opportunities to prove themselves and then, assuming they do, see their responsibilities (and their paychecks) increase. And in my experience, most leaders want their employees to have these opportunities. It’s getting from wanting to doing that’s the struggle.

There are several possible reasons for this. Some leaders don’t know how to have development conversations with people, meaning it’s up to the employee to sort of look around and figure out how it works. Some find it hard to have those conversations if they are frustrated in their own careers. Some are just too wrapped up in the day-to-day.

Employees don’t always make it easy, though. In an ideal situation, an employee would have the agency and courage to approach their manager not just with an ultimatum (“Give me a development opportunity!”), but with specific ideas about ways they could expand their skills and responsibilities. In my experience, these people are rare. And of course, there are employees who aren’t meeting expectations in their current role, yet that does not stop them from having delusions of grandeur about the next.

And then there’s the question of budget and training. In highly “corporate” environments, it’s not uncommon for people to equate development with training, or to think that a limited training budget means limited opportunities for growth. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Framework for Development

My approach to developing talent revolves around four elements:

  1. Putting the Prerequisites in Place
  2. Ensuring Performance in the Current Job
  3. Defining the Development Opportunity
  4. Making it a Team Sport
Putting the Prerequisites in Place

There are two prerequisites for being able to offer people development opportunities. The first, naturally, is hiring the right people. Of course, we should be looking for people with the skill set, temperament, and character to do the job we’ve hired them for. But that isn’t all. We should always be on the lookout for people with “runway”—that is, the potential to grow, acquire new skills, and be an even greater asset to the company.

The second is a structure within which you can talk about development. By that, I mean things like career paths, job descriptions, and general expectations at different levels of the organization.

Here are some examples:

  • In an operations environment, a manager may want to be promoted to director and have a greater span of responsibility. If you had two job descriptions—one for the manager and one for the director—you can have a fruitful conversation about expectations in each job and what the person needs to do to get promoted.
  • In a sales environment, you may have a star account manager (a “farmer”) who has ambitions to join a new business development team (to be a “hunter”). In this case, you might compare things like differences in competencies required, quota expectations, and so on.

Structure serves two purposes. First, it reflects (or at least it should reflect) the company’s priorities and operating model, and therefore channels people to do the right functional things. Second, it is an easy way to start a development conversation! Even if the person has ambitions outside their current function, your ability to show some possible paths will help start the development conversation.

Ensuring Performance in the Current Job

There can be no discussion of “next steps” if the person isn’t performing well in the current job. The essential gauge here is whether they are meeting their goals. All things being equal, a person who excels should be given a fast track over someone who is underachieving. A discussion of goal setting is beyond the scope of this week’s newsletter, but suffice it to say that you and employee need to define clear goals that are aligned with the business’s overarching goals.

Defining the Development Opportunity

Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that the person is performing admirably. Here’s how I approach the creation of a development opportunity.

Introductory Discussion

This first step is where you, the leader, will ask the person how they are feeling generally about their current set of responsibilities (not enough, just right, too much) and what they might be looking for in terms of development opportunities. Some helpful questions you could ask include:

  • Are there specific aspects of the job which you like and want to dig into further?
  • Are there areas where you feel like you could use more experience?
  • Are there other functions either in the team or elsewhere in the company you find interesting?
  • Are there projects that people are working on, either in our team or elsewhere in the company, that you find interesting?
  • What are your goals for your career?
  • What would you want from the company?

Your goal in this meeting is not to define the opportunity yet, but rather elicit direction from them as to what they want. The meeting should end with a commitment to meet again in the near future (a few weeks, a month, whatever feels appropriate) and homework for both participants. The employee should go away and think about specific things they may want to do. You, the leader, should be thinking about what you can offer. Give yourself 60-90 minutes for this conversation.


To prepare for the next conversation, you can do two things. First, you should prepare a three-column document. In column 1, show the expectations for any person in the employee’s current role (skills, experience, etc.). In column 3, show the expectations for any person in a future role consistent with the ideas the employee discussed. In the middle in column 2, how that employee stacks up in relation to the current job and the potential future role. These materials are the prerequisites I mentioned above. Below is an example of what the chart could look like.

Development Discussion Framework

The advantage of creating this sort of chart is that it provides an objective lens by which you can gauge how well-prepared the person is for their next role. It will help you think comprehensively about what skills they have now and—crucially—the gaps they need to fill to get promoted.

Walking into the next meeting with this information also sends two important signals. First, it shows that you’ve really given thought to the person’s individual situation, and that always feels good. Second, it allows you to communicate structure and what the company can realistically do. While we want to be flexible and play to a person’s strengths, we can’t just make up roles. Over-tailoring a position is confusing and not scalable; you’ll be constantly redefining how people work together.

In addition to the column chart, spend time thinking about projects or responsibilities you could give the employee as a stretch assignment based on what they said in the meeting. Maybe there are things you’re responsible for that you can hand over, and in doing so build valuable skills in a potential successor. Maybe this is an important project that would be important but you’re not tackling now because you don’t have someone to lead it.

First Planning Meeting

When you come back together, the two of you should compare notes. If you’re feeling comfortable about the conversation, let the employee go first. As they play their cards, you will be able to tailor what you have prepared to their ideas. If you go first, that’s fine, too. Start out by showing the column document, specifically digging into areas where the person would need to develop in order to be suitable for promotion, and use these to brainstorm some ideas.

Here are some thoughts on how this conversation could evolve:

  1. Work on a special project that will directly help the team or business achieve goals.
  2. Take over an area of your responsibility.
  3. Find mentors within the organization and define a program with them.
  4. Explore online courses or workshops that can directly serve team or company goals.

This part is always going to be a little messy, but with a little effort and good faith, you should be able to find a solution.

Stretch and Promote, or Promote and Hope?

It should be evident from the discussion thus far that my approach to development opportunities requires the person to prove they’re ready for promotion before they actually get it. As a general principle, there are myriad reasons why this is preferable to just putting someone in a new role and hoping they work out.

Giving someone a development opportunity allows them to express and improve their own agency, deal with challenges, find balance in a time of uncertainty, and feel like they are valued. It gives you, the leader, a chance to do a test drive and see how a person might perform before getting locked in. Of course, that means they will need support from you, as well.

There are some practical reasons for this, too, especially in a corporate environment.

Planning Ahead

By giving someone stretch assignments and development opportunities, we are deliberately setting them on the path where they would expect promotion or greater reward. Most companies want these things to happen at scheduled intervals. Below is the typical “seasonality” of budgeting and promotions:

  • Budgets are typically set a few months before the end of a financial or calendar year.
  • Performance reviews are usually done at the very beginning of the following year.
  • Promotions generally follow reviews.

By planning ahead and working toward these “seasons,” you will maximize your ability to deliver your end of the bargain. Justifying a salary increase and promotion will be easy. Of course, they should be promoted: they are already doing the work!

You can dial this in even more convincingly by starting development conversations at the beginning of the year when you are setting goals. I am a big fan of not just setting functional performance goals, but development goals as well—say, 3 parts functional performance and 1 part personal development. There is a huge benefit to this, namely that it makes both parties accountable for the outcome. Both need to agree to the target, the manager needs to agree to the reward, and the employee needs to deliver.

The downside of giving people tasks in advance is that it may mean more work. That said, if the employee is also a manager, it may be possible for them to offload some of their work to their own team members, and in doing so create development opportunities for them.

A Cadence of Communication

Assuming you reach an agreement on development opportunities, you will need to devote time to checking in on progress. I tend to use the following cadence:

  • Weekly one-to-one meetings: These are for tasks, tactical conversations, and ensuring forward progress on projects in flight.
  • Monthly reviews (individual and team): These are to check in on progress toward quarterly goals.
  • Quarterly reviews (individual and team): These are to discuss big picture performance and career or development topics.

As you go through this cadence, remember that development efforts are additional. They can’t come at the expense of meeting current goals.


The steps outlined above are things you can start doing immediately to promote your team’s career development. By following them you’ll be able to start the discussion confidently and create opportunities that align their growth with your team’s and company’s goals. Best of all, you’ll be building a more motivated, high-performing team.

A quick reminder!

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