Airport People Power: Development

This is part two of a series where I explore concepts associated with people management, inspired by Greg Principato's post on the key concern of airport executives: people. The first article in the series looked at discipline.

There seem to be a million internet memes on developing your staff with the “what if we don’t and they stay” posting on LinkedIn on a seemingly four-week cycle. So, it seems almost needless to discuss why we need to invest in our teams but we will, briefly, and then will move into some ideas on development that won’t break the bank.

Faster, Better, Quicker

Continuous improvement is a hallmark of modern business and it doesn’t just relate to safety. Stock holders in publicly-listed airports expect growth & returns, customers expect increased service & amenity and executives want to deliver on these expectations. One of the biggest problems for airports, is that the infrastructure to deliver on some of these expectations takes time to build. In the meantime, we often expect our people to do more with what they have.

But this is only the start of the story. You can’t just dump these expectations on people without creating an environment that encourages and supports the growth in the people we need to support the growth in the business.

Retention

A second big argument for developing your people harks back that well-trodden meme I mentioned earlier. The third point in that discussion, for me, would be, “if we don’t invest, they (the good ones at least) will leave”. Part of what people think of as being talented, is having the drive to learn, grow, progress. If our people aren’t getting this from their job, they will look for it elsewhere.

Development as an incentive is a great retention strategy. This author has definitely stayed on with a company offering a development opportunity where alternate career paths were available. It must be remembered, however, that it’s not a guarantee. Some people will leave after having developed a new skill at your expense. The goal is to, with respect to your overall program, think in the aggregate rather than the specific.

Personal Satisfaction

Another great reason for taking a strong stance on development is that it can be greatly rewarding from a purely personal point of view. In spite of all the worry associated with people leaving after you have invested time and money in them, seeing a team member that you have supported and developed leave to take a new opportunity; one that they wouldn’t have dreamed was a possibility before, is exciting and extremely satisfying.


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The Three Es

In a lot of internet and company literature, development activities are often broken down into experience, exposure and education. They even have a rule regarding how much of each but we’ll get to that in a moment.

  • Experience can be described as learning by doing. At its most basic level, this is on-the-job training of new team members to bring them up to the minimum standard. Moving beyond this, experience involves assigning team members work beyond or outside their current duties.
  • Exposure is similar to experience in that it is often a workplace setting but it doesn’t involve any actual doing. It often includes work shadowing or even mentoring. It can also include attending a networking event or a conference.
  • Education is the more traditional view of development typically involving off-site training in either short or longer term, formal settings.

Now the rule often cited in relation to the three Es is 70:20:10 - as a breakdown of the ratio between the three activities. Some sources seem to cite this rule as descriptive rather than prescriptive but it's not a bad guide to use in development planning.

So which ratio relates to which activity? Experience should represent 70% of the development plan, exposure should make-up 20% and education is the other 10%. As the bulk of development should relate to experience, let’s look at a great approach to using it in the development of a team member.

Stretch

Work hardening is a metallurgical process by which a material is strengthened by incrementally straining and releasing a piece of it. Using stretch in development is a similar concept but more mental than physical, of course. A stretch project is a task or project that is thought to sit beyond the team member’s current job level.

Assigning a team member a stretch project works on a couple of levels:

  • Firstly, it challenges the team member and fights against stagnation and boredom.
  • It can (should) lead to a sense of achievement, pride and increased job satisfaction.
  • It also, perhaps selfishly, gets an important project done.

This may seem like exploitation and, if not initiated from a position of collaboration, it could be. It is, therefore very important that the development discussion involves whether the team member is looking for a stretch assignment, in what areas they want to develop and what is their current capacity to take the project on. A stretch project should always be a collaborative decision and for a manager, extra care should be taken to avoid implied expectations - i.e. if you don’t take this project, you won’t be considered for other development opportunities.

Supporting a Growth Mindset

It takes a supportive corporate culture for stretch to work. Much like the implied expectations mentioned above, a culture that doesn’t accept failure will not support stretch projects. No team member will accept a stretch project, if they see it as a poisoned chalice. A positive culture is one that cultivates a growth mindset.

A growth mindset puts learning at the forefront and, as such, comes at the world with a certain set of assumptions. The big ones associated with the discussion here are:

  • Challenge is a part of learning.
  • Effort leads to learning.
  • Criticism is for learning.

Does this mean failure is an option? It depends what you consider a failure. Mistakes are inevitable and are not be feared. Failure will only occur when the goals are not clear, the team member hasn’t fully accepted the project and the manager isn't supporting the project. This is not a set and forget activity.

Building Momentum and Keeping it Up

A support structure is essential to the success of a stretch project. If the company has a formal project management process then this is a good place to start but regular documented meetings looking at the project itself as well as the needs of the team member are a minimum. Since time is often our most precious commodity, it is also our most precious gift. Schedule time to support your team member and their success will be your success - see the personal satisfaction section above.

In the final article of this series, we will take an exciting look at workforce diversity in the airport field. As always, please feel free to contribute to the conversation below with a comment or feedback.