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Five top tips for developing your team – a leader’s perspective

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Head shot of Kate Silver
Kate Silver, Programme Director, Ministry of Defence

“I can’t afford to send them on a course,” is a comment we’ve all heard a lot over the past few years. This, of course, reinforces the belief that development is about being formally ‘taught’ on a course, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Development is about learning. And learning is about development. And it happens all the time in more forms than it’s possible to count.

But who is responsible for development? The leader or the individual? And where does my responsibility, as a leader, start and stop? Let’s be clear: leaders are not parents. And it takes two to tango. By this we mean the responsibility is shared. However, it is the leader’s responsibility to make sure everyone has the opportunity to learn.

So how does a leader do this?

At a recent conference I told some stories about learning, both as a team and individuals, but they were all centred on the same thing – developing teams and individuals is only genuinely successful when the leader really knows their people. Knows their aspirations, their strengths, their background, their gaps. These stories were all anchored around 5 themes for developing a team through learning that is: (1) tailored, (2) continuous, based on (3) trust, which in turn is achieved through (4) connection and (5) conversation.

  1. Learning should be tailored to the individual / team. Generic development for the sake of it never ‘lands’ and feels like a waste of time. It is the leader’s responsibility to seek out development opportunities for members of their team and to support individuals to find the right development for them. In most cases this won’t be a formal training course – it is far more likely to be a guest speaker at a team meeting, a shadowing opportunity, a chance to support another team, an interesting article or a conversation among the team. Where it is training, it is the leader’s job to help it land with their team; put another way, to find the context and give it meaning.
  2. Learning is continuous. You might be one of the lucky ones able to reflect each day and find the thing you have learnt, or you might be the same as many people who stumble across their learning when tested by a new situation. Either way, every day is a school day, so don’t ‘box’ learning into the formal course space. Instead, as a leader, start to help your teams find their learning. You could try setting aside time in team meetings to specifically ask ‘what have you learnt this week’ or, like we did, you could adapt the weekly performance hub conversation to take the listing of successes or concerns into learning points.
  3. / 4. / 5. You will only really know your team, collectively and individually if they trust you. And trust comes about through connection and conversation.

Let’s look at these together.

We all operate in pressurised environments. Whether it is the pressure of a written brief for senior leaders or delivering a vital service to the public that has direct consequences, we are all subject to the stresses of the modern workplace. Often, what gets lost in this is time for conversation. The moments where as a leader you can share a part of yourself and build a connection with your people informally.

When you have teams spread across multiple locations, or working shifts, this can be even harder. It is however essential for trust and for engagement. And we know that engaged teams perform better. So, as a leader, don’t let this slip. Schedule time for it and stick to it. It doesn’t have to be hours and hours, but it is a crucial part of leadership. Try asking what they do outside of work, or what they may be worrying about. Sharing a bit of yourself goes a long way towards building connections and trust. So, be ready to tell them what you’re worrying about, especially if it’s outside of work.

By now you are probably wondering what this has to do with development. Well, if you don’t have the trust, the conversation about aspirations, strengths and development areas either won’t happen or will be unfulfilling for both parties, because your team member won’t be completely open with you. If you don’t believe me, think back over a few of your managers, which ones you trusted and which ones you didn’t. l’d bet how much you felt you developed directly correlates with how much you trusted your manager.

Finally, what do you want your legacy as a leader to be? We all have people who move on from our teams, or whole teams we leave behind when we move. Do you want to be the person who each of those individuals would work for again, or the person they would avoid? And, by the way, if the latter, you can pretty much guarantee that they would advise others to avoid you too. This isn’t about being soft on people but about giving them opportunities, stretching them, knowing them, helping them to achieve their aspirations. In other words, creating the environment in which they can thrive.

And that is your responsibility as a leader.

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  1. Comment by Hawabibi Rawat posted on

    What a fantastic article, really enjoyed reading this.

  2. Comment by Nat posted on

    I was also lucky enough to hear this speech at Civil Service live. Unfortunately none of my " leaders " were there to hear it, and I think those of us at the receiving end get the message, but the Leaders in my department are either not listening or not caring sadly.

  3. Comment by Steve Lintern posted on

    I like the principle: They won't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

  4. Comment by Eddie posted on

    As a manager when I carry out staff appraisals we are guided to always complete them 'the civil service way' which is to be formal for me, I tend to be a bit more 'informal' and introduce items (see attached) that my team can relate to and be honest with, by leading with honesty and openness I feel I get better results, it does not all have to be about policy and procedures when you deal with people as they are the greatest assets.

  5. Comment by Susan posted on

    Sorry, forgot to mention. My Line Manager's catch-phrase is "every day's a school day', and it works.

  6. Comment by Susan posted on

    Really enjoyed this article. I'm fortunate in as much as my line manager is good. He knows me and my circumstances, and can therefore play to my strengths but is also aware of my personal circumstances and takes them into account. The sad thing is I think those 'higher up the food chain' don't care about anyone's personal circumstances, don't take them into consideration, and to them we're all just a name and number.

  7. Comment by Fiona Montgomery posted on

    Kate, Hi. Enjoyed the article. I realise how lucky I am to have a great team of Improvement Advisers here in Scottish Government. We are always learning - it is part of our make-up anyway! We take time to learn and develop together, sharing insights of what's worked or not, discussing new articles or books, etc.
    Our Team's 2015 People Survey results for L&D at 80% appear to be 25% higher than the average for Civil Service High Performers......

  8. Comment by Samateh posted on

    What a wonderful article. I think a good leader should be open and be available when needed and you will easily earn your members trust.

  9. Comment by Heather posted on

    Inspirational leadership is very simple and natural without pretence

  10. Comment by Paula Smalley posted on

    I think this is a great article. It reminds me of a great leader I had the good luck to work with. I say work with, because it never felt like I was working 'for' her. She was inspirational in getting you on side by working as hard as anyone else on the team and empowering you to make decisions on her behalf.
    This leader did create an environment where one could thrive and I have as a result thrived. This does not just entail going for promotion, but means having the confidence to wander into areas you wouldn't have done previously. For me this was the digital arena and conquering my fear of technology.

  11. Comment by mohammed qureshi posted on

    Super article written unfortunately lower down the management level " means nothing. "

    • Replies to mohammed qureshi>

      Comment by MAS posted on

      I'm fortunate enough to have an excellent, engaging, approachable line manager, but as Mohammed illustrates, we're not all that lucky.

    • Replies to mohammed qureshi>

      Comment by Kate Silver posted on

      Hi Mohammed. I'm very sorry to hear that. Personally I don't believe building great connections and trust has anything to do with seniority but I am well aware (and have personally experienced) managers who don't feel the same way. I would love to be able to 'fix' it for everyone but unfortunately I can't. What I can do is try to help people think a bit differently, and perhaps help people learn how not to do it so that they don't repeat the same mistakes. Perhaps you should pass this around your team? Or try starting an informal conversation about what you want your legacy to be on your team; we all leave a legacy regardless of position and it's up to us to choose whether or not it is a positive one. Good luck.

  12. Comment by Sarah Grant posted on

    Thank you for sharing this Kate. I was fortunate enough to hear the talk you gave at Civil Service Live and agree with all the comments you made - and those who have commented on this article.
    I work for a manager who I would definitely work for again and again. They engage with staff and the well-being and development of the team is their priority. No one person is more important than any other team member as everyone is valued, respected, trusted and given attention. As a result of this, the team are engaged, we trust and respect our manager and not only feel like we have control of our workload and ultimately, our destiny, but we have the support we need to achieve this.
    I have seen that all too often in private industries , the needs of the business are prioritised over the needs of the staff . If managers are able to spend time developing and supporting staff, then the "business " would take care of itself.
    Thanks Kate

  13. Comment by Peter Carlisle posted on

    Excellent comments and ideas. I have been on the receiving end of 'That Manager you want to avoid' and trust me I went home every night feeling awful. I now have a Manager that does not fall into that category and things are so different now. I have excelled and feel trusted and part of the team but before I felt isolated, unworthy and constantly doubted myself. Thanks Kate

  14. Comment by Jason posted on

    Such an inspiring article. I think that good leader is the one that can easily earn members' trust and confidence and unite them around the same goal. I believe it is the main figure to trigger and motivate, but at the same time work as hard as the rest of the team members.

  15. Comment by Nic Giles posted on

    A really good article and one that should hit home with a lot of the current leaders within the civil service. A good leader, in my opinion, will see the development of a team member as a reflection of their skill.

  16. Comment by Ann Carter-Gray posted on

    Kate - thanks for this article. Agree with all of it. One addition I would suggest is that as a leader I have found it important to provide the opportunity and trusted environment to enable my team to 'step up' and learn by doing.

  17. Comment by Christine Tydeman posted on

    Great perspective Kate and a timely reminder of ways to engage with and value our teams as individuals. Adopting 70:20:10 principles are ever more important to find ways to create and connect learning opportunities with personal learning style preferences.

  18. Comment by Jo Napper posted on

    Very good and succinct summary of learning types and responsibilities - thanks for this article Kate