Planting Seeds for the Future: Making time for Development Conversations

by Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.

In October, I took a trip to Maui, where I drove the road to Hana. Those of you who have made the winding drive carved into the windward side of the Haleakalā volcano will no doubt recall the lush, tropical vegetation that grew everywhere. You may also remember an arboreal oddity: the collections of swaying palm trees were interspersed with incredibly tall and straight pine trees. The narrator on the tour CD we purchased explained that these were Cook’s Pines, trees native to New Caledonia and planted by the British explorer James Cook during his voyages to Hawaii over 200 years ago. Captain Cook carried the seeds on his voyage, so that the British Navy would have the raw material for ships masts 10 to 20 years after his visit, when the trees would be tall enough.

Living in an age of instant messaging, global sourcing and communication, and overall rapid change, I was struck by the foresight that was required in the past and wonder what we have lost with our obsessive focus on the present.  At a corporate level, many companies have made investments in developing their future leaders. But, it is also helpful to reflect on your role as an individual leader in the development process. After you are done replying to that next Blackberry e-mail, devote some time to thinking about the investments you are making in the future success of your people. Below are some tips for approaching the exercise.

Make time to talk. Put some time on your calendar with each of your people to talk to them about their future. The annual review meeting seems like a natural time for this conversation, but is often dominated either by an evaluation of the past year or planning for the next. Find time away from this meeting to talk about the next five years.

Start with strengths and interests. Psychologists Donald Clifton and Martin Seligman have both said that we do best when focusing on what we do best. Find out what your people believe are their strengths and what parts of their jobs give them the most energy. You might be surprised what drives people’s interests.

Focus on the work, not the role. Too often, we focus on what job we want, not the type of work we want to do. By thinking about the work, you can open yourself to more opportunities.

Provide challenging opportunities. By understanding what your employees want and where they want to go, you can help connect them with opportunities as they arise. You can create some of the opportunities; but, you should be open to opportunities beyond your work group.

Give plenty of feedback. During the development process, make sure you keep the feedback coming, both positive and negative. Feedback is oxygen; without it, development will suffocate.

Keep the conversation going. The first conversation about development shouldn’t be the last one. Devote some time every six months to the topic. As people learn more, they may sharpen their focus on the future or find a new direction. Be open to these changes and support them where you can.

By planting these seeds today and tending them over time, you will have your own grove of Cook’s Pines for the future and the legacy of a great leader.