Talent development strategy: 8 timeless commandments for growth organizations

Stick to this principled approach and watch it pay dividends in engagement and retention.

For what must be months now, our vice president of people operations (and my persuasive boss) Tiffany Chelsvig has been “gently nudging” me to write and share a thought leadership piece on what makes a great talent development strategy. And despite encouraging individuals every day to demonstrate their growth mindset and stretch outside their comfort zone, I have found every excuse to avoid stretching outside of mine. A short list of my many excuses includes, but is by no means limited to:

  • “I’m from Pittsburgh. I was raised never to ‘toot my horn’.”
  • “No one is ever going to read this.”
  • “What’s so special about what we’re doing?”

And knowing that the last excuse listed above is pure nonsense, I hung my hat for a while on:  

  • “Why in the world would we give away our ‘secret sauce’?”

The truth is all my excuses are hooey. I’ve been with DISQO for two years. And with the partnership of amazing leaders like Tiffany, our founders, and the members of our leadership team, I am proud of the strategic approach we’ve taken to developing the talented team members of DISQO Nation. It’s a strategy that any growth organization would be wise to implement if they are serious about making theirs a great place to work. Without further ado, I present to you eight timeless commandments for building a talent development strategy:

  1. Collaborate with committed leaders  

“Earning a seat at the table” has long been a trope among professionals in my field. What if instead of having to scratch and claw for their resources and support, you could simply collaborate with committed leaders who already believe in the value of investing in people?

At DISQO, it’s easy to partner with leaders. This is the key that unlocks everything. They have already made the commitment, not just of the company’s resources, but rather to personally invest in the growth of our team members. Instead of “HR” having to fight for resources to support growth, our leaders ask “what more can we do?” 

If you’re continuously fighting leaders for resources, you’ve got a long road ahead, because your leaders aren’t seeing the value of investing in talent.  

  1. Developing talent is everyone’s business

At DISQO, we do not believe it is HR’s job to grow talent. Nor do we believe it’s the manager’s job. Nor do we believe it’s on team members to “figure it out” alone.  

Instead, we believe it’s everyone’s job. A simple example: We introduce each new hire during our monthly company all hands. During those introductions, Tiffany always takes the golden opportunity to remind everyone of our joint responsibility to help new hires get up to speed. A new team member’s onboarding will be defined by the experience authored collectively by their manager, their new teammates, the organization at large and the individual themselves. It’s a team effort.  

This expectation starts with a common understanding forged among our senior leaders.  Regardless of subject area, if your people leaders are passing the buck to anyone else to take ownership of talent development, your organization will certainly not see a return on investment in talent development efforts.

  1. Grow leaders

Leadership development was my entry point into DISQO. The first program I rolled out was a series of workshops on servant leadership. What I’m about to share is going to make my fellow talent development professionals jealous: People, it was not a tough sell. Our senior leaders already embodied and knew they wanted a servant leader mindset to be core to DISQO’s culture. They just needed support to spread the message.  

The first time I met our CTO Drew Kutcharian, he asked me if I’d read John Maxwell’s work. That told me right from the start that they knew the value of investing in and growing leaders. One of Maxwell’s “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” is the “Law of the Lid.” It says leadership ability is the lid that determines a person’s level of effectiveness. Therefore, your leadership ability—for better or for worse — always determines your effectiveness and the potential impact of your organization.

Your organization is only going to go as far as your leaders take it. Grow your leaders or risk severely limiting the potential of the entire organization.

  1. Focus on career inflection points

There are countless development opportunities along any career journey. However, there are two points on that journey where team members have the greatest need and where learning programs can have the greatest impact. This is first when a new team member joins, and second when they are promoted into management.  

For these reasons and more, we continuously add new learning opportunities to our onboarding program. We offer new hires extended onboarding training that lasts over their first few months at DISQO. In addition, every new and aspiring people leader is invited to participate in our multi-week servant leadership program.  

There is never a shortage of learning needs for a talent development professional to tackle.  If you are chasing down and trying to fulfill every unique training request that pops up, you may lose focus on these key inflection points, where the investment of your limited and precious resources can have the greatest impact.  

  1. Focus on your unique capabilities         

Collectively, organizations across the globe spend billions of dollars a year on talent development. Countless vendors exist to provide learning opportunities across the full spectrum of skills. Why then does an organization need internal resources to focus on talent development? 

DISQO’s internal talent development resources add value in two ways that resources available in the open market cannot. One is the ability to create learning relative to DISQO’s proprietary technologies, products, brand and internal processes – subject matter unique to our organization. Two is that the learning experiences we provide internally both shape and reinforce our unique culture and values. 

When we take on a talent development initiative internally, it is for one or both reasons. When it comes to more transferable skills, we leverage third-party resources such as LinkedIn Learning, as it is much more efficient to point a team member there rather than create training internally. If you are building a learning experience internally, from scratch, it must be something you are uniquely capable of delivering. Otherwise, it’s a questionable investment of your resources. 

  1. Make it interactive

Development is an active, not passive, experience. We recognize that most team member development happens through “informal” on-the-job learning. That’s where skills are applied and thus where learning sticks. However, that same emphasis on application applies to our “formal” learning events. Our team members know that when they come to one of our workshops, they cannot be a wallflower who hides out in the back of the “classroom.” Rather, they are expected to engage in open discussions, analyze scenarios and collaborate in breakout sessions. More importantly, they are invited to show vulnerability, in a safe and collegial environment, and to tackle the actual challenges they face.

Anyone who has had success in developing others’ talent has somewhere along the way learned a key lesson: The less you talk, the more they learn. Your role is to create the environment, space and opportunity for growth. If you’re merely going to share information, rather than asking insightful questions or driving interactivity, you’re not going to spur growth.

  1. Invest to scale

At DISQO, we started investing in scaling our talent development efforts way ahead of the growth in our headcount. This means implementing processes, tools and technologies that enable talent development before most organizations of similar size usually do. Examples include our competency model, performance management processes and various learning platforms. We know it takes time (and sometimes a few iterations) to effectively implement these investments such that they are integrated into the fabric of our culture.  

Don’t worry about whether you have the processes, tools and technologies to develop your talent for today. If that’s the best you can do, you’re unprepared to scale your business. Instead, put in place today the infrastructure you know needs to be up and running 12 months from now, to foster not merely retention, but more importantly a values-based culture of growth.

  1. Measure what matters

Yes, I stole the title… because it’s quite applicable at DISQO. Our business – our entire business – runs on data. Unfortunately, when it comes to growing our people, we don’t have time to conduct science experiments. Nevertheless, we measure every talent development effort with team member feedback and we measure the overall experience of team members every quarter. Why? Because at the rate our business is growing and evolving, we have no choice but to measure frequently. We cannot assume the team member experience is staying the same. 

We listen to the voice of our internal customers – our team members. That’s what matters most to us, and that’s what should matter most to your talent development efforts. Their voice is “what matters” because the people, not the products or services, are the business.

Here’s what’s great about sticking to this strategy: You always know where you’re taking your talent development efforts. Sure, the tactics (how the strategies are executed) will constantly evolve. But the strategies themselves will remain constant, despite what the ever-changing workplace, economy, or competitive landscape may hold. When I sit down with my team to write our objectives, be they for a quarter, a year, or longer, we’re never starting from a blank slate. We know what we’re here to do.

Further, we know the strategy is working because, in measuring what truly matters, our team members have told us so. In a recent experience survey:

  • 88 percent agreed they “have access to the learning and development I need to do my job well.”
  • 85 percent agreed they are “given opportunities to develop skills relevant to my interests.”

Data like this demonstrates the shared consensus among all stakeholders that we are living our core value of “growth mindset as a team.”

Why am I willing to give away our “secret sauce?” Because true talent development leaders are those who proactively share knowledge in our community and continuously improve our profession. Moreover, while most organizations talk a great game, they rarely abide by these “commandments.” Our leaders’ belief that talent development is their business as much, if not more than anyone else’s, is unlike any I’ve seen in my career. This, plus the tireless commitment of every member of this team is why I choose to remain part of DISQO Nation (as long as they’ll let me).

After all, we’re just getting started.