Innovative HR

Yuliya Rak: Strength over Weakness – A New Model for Employee Development

There is no such thing as a great company. Great office space, expensive furniture, high-tech equipment and even large amount of capital do not make for a great company. What makes for a great company is great teams – teams that are productive, innovative and engaged.

Employee development is an inspiring goal of every company – if you get the formula right, the benefits will drive your business forward to enhanced employee skills and knowledge, greater potential for innovation, employee engagement, stronger employer branding and employee retention.

The way employee development is usually done is a process that is well-known to most HR professionals: the manager and employee meet once a year (maybe more), discuss business goals and results from the previous period, agree on future goals and priorities and define employee development needs.

More often than not, the conversations focus on what the employee did not do well, and result in an agreement on how to prevent this sub-optimal performance in the future (figure 1).

Figure 1: Employee development plan in the classic performance management process

This approach sounds pretty rational. In fact, we are used to this approach from our earliest days in school. In order to be ‘good’ students, we needed to focus on subjects where we had poorer grades, and disregard the subjects that we were actually highly interested in (and therefore excel at!).

At work, our performance conversations follow the same approach: we discuss very briefly what we have done right, and then we drill down into what went wrong and how to ‘fix’ it. What we need to ‘fix’ is usually our weakness.

Through this process, HR professionals are faced with a task to develop employees in areas which are not their passion, their competitive advantage, that are not their strengths.

Employees, in return, believe that no one in the company ever tries to understand their true interests, grasp their true value and give a chance for their inner potential to grow.

What if we could do it differently?

What if the same process of performance management could be used to actually empower employees? What if, during the goal setting process, the manager does not merely delegate tasks to the team, but rather gathers the team to share the bigger picture, then asks people to take up challenges that best fit their talents.

What if, when discussing employee development areas, the manager and employee don’t mechanically focus on the areas of biggest concern?

Rather, together they consider what experiences, skills and knowledge may further strengthen the employee’s ‘power base’ – their ability to produce unique and useful outcomes for the team, for business and broader community.

This shift in focus delivers a huge difference in the outcome. It becomes a process where performance management and personal development become the source of energy, engagement and empowerment.

Figure 2. Employee development in strengths-based performance management process.

How to do it differently?

Our experience tells us that what we in HR should be doing is shifting our organization’s focus from weakness-based development and putting our core attention, energy and investment into creating opportunities for people to play on their strengths.

Here is how we did it at JTI:

  1. Identify employees’ strengths

The first step is to help our people know their strengths. While there are numerous tools available for this purpose on the market, you can do this part of the process without making expensive investments. You may ask your talent to keep the ‘strengths diary’.

Strengths diary method asks employees to carry a notepad with them and write down tasks and activities at work that energize them and that strongly interest them professionally.

Whenever they spend extra effort on some activity to ensure it’s done in an excellent way, they should note that.

The strengths diary makes it visible which tasks individual employee enjoys more and where they achieve results above the norm. As soon as the employee is aware of the pattern of tasks that form their personal competitive advantage, a huge paradigm shift happens.

This is the goal of HR in strengths based development – to help people identify their unique personal competitive advantage, to talk about their strengths and get further challenged in those areas.

In JTI, we use a specific tool with our employees. The tool predicts what kind of tasks, activities and challenges are likely to drive the person’s success at the workplace.

The tool also comes with warning signs, i.e. the situations where there is a higher probability that a person will not thrive, indicating the flipside of the particular strength (figure 3).

Figure 3. Sample results of the strengths research tool.
  1. Educate the managers on the strengths of their team

The second step is to coach managers to:

  • Build teams in which individuals have different, complementary strengths enabling the team to execute well different types of work;
  • Recognize people’s strengths and apply different managerial approaches to talent with different needs

When it comes to building balanced, high performing teams, it all starts with recruitment. In JTI, we pay very close attention to the way in which applicant’s personal strengths fit the challenges of the role. We always meet with the manager before starting the recruitment process.

We spend time discussing the desired competencies of a successful candidate – namely, what kind of natural strengths should the candidate possess. We invite peers, internal stakeholder and even successful ex-holders of the role to help us shape the proper set of competencies.

This not only helps in recruiting the right person for the right role, but also prevents us from trying to ‘change’ the person when they do not perform well in their role.

Such an approach brings another set of challenges for the managers. Having diverse individuals on the team, the line manager needs to adapt their management style to each team member and deliver highly personalized coaching that tackles their unique individual needs.

We focus on a personalized approach so that we can create an environment where every single individual employee can blossom – we know that this takes a lot of effort, hence HR’s role is to heavily support managers in this journey.

Research tells us that line managers account for 70% of the variance in their team engagement. What this means is that even the best HR strategies and development opportunities a company can offer will crash against poor people management practices.

In JTI, we pay separate attention to recruiting and promoting talent to managerial positions, as well as to managers’ systematic development. All newly appointed managers get enrolled to Young Manager Academy, a two year long program which contains education, coaching and assessments of managers (Figure 4).

Figure 4
  1. Put people’s strengths to work beyond their own team

This last step is a huge driver of strengths-based employee development in organizations. Essentially, it involves putting people’s strengths to work in the wider organization.

When talent knows where their professional shoulder is the broadest, they may offer that shoulder as support not only to their own team, but also to the wider organization.

In JTI, we practice Talent Activation projects which are company-wide initiatives that require cross-functional approach to get solved. Talent from all over the organization gets together to brainstorm on key emerging business issues, as well as on emerging business opportunities.

They work in project groups and their solutions are presented to the board of directors. Talent Activation practice tackles several critical business and people questions:

  • It builds an agile and proactive internal community to work on critical business questions;
  • It provides an opportunity for talent to ‘stretch’ their experiences and practice their strengths solving real life business issues;
  • Last, but not the least, such an approach to streamlining company talent provides leaders with a view towards capable and available cadre across the organization, creating career opportunities for people cross-functionally and cross-markets.

Strengths-based approach to talent development may help us to uncover huge potential that our people already have, but that may be underutilized for the good of the organization.

Deliberately working to make our employees become aware of their strengths, rely on and use their strengths, together with providing a supportive culture driven by line managers and wider organization helps bring our business to a new level of productivity and growth.

Yuliya Rak

Head of L&D, JT International

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