Shift around work assignments to expand development

Shift around work assignments to expand development

When I got a call from a former intern who was recently employed at a global company, I just had to ask how work was going. “Not good at all” he said. “They give me the same low level tasks to do over and over. They figure I do them well and they’re not going to risk giving any of the more interesting work to me. I thought this job would grow my skills, but it’s not. I’m counting the months until it looks legitimate on my resume and then I’ll move on.” People get bored doing the same jobs day in and day out. That leads to less productive, unhappy employees. This post will focus on how managers can shift work to spark development.

People want to broaden their skill sets and have variety and challenge in their workday. Can managers realistically provide these ongoing opportunities without spending half their day addressing employee development? I found the answer from leaders we call “exceptional development managers” (EDMs) from companies such as Corning, Microsoft, Siemens, Kraft and Marriott. These EDMs have cracked the code for adding lots of development by looking at the total workload of the department and finding creative ways to mix and match people with various tasks. In doing this, managers also help foster a culture of learning and development in their departments while getting the work done.

Many managers are already doing some of this. Here’s what your managers can do to more fully implement this approach.
• Commit to making the investment of shifting work around, which means taking risks on assignments and letting go of some of the control for getting tasks done perfectly.
• Know your people and where they need to grow. Be purposeful with the shift–around assignment making sure it delivers meaningful development for the individual.
• Be transparent about: what you are trying to achieve, what will be required of employees and the benefits they will accrue.
• Avoid total overhaul to people’s jobs, or taking them too far over their heads. They may feel too challenged or miss what they feel they do best.
• Establish a ground rule for employees supporting each other. Encourage people to reach out to those who have already mastered the skill and for those skilled employees to respond.
• Monitor their progress and have short conversations—sometimes even two or three minutes shows your support, especially to get them over challenging bumps.

For some departments, where everyone has deeply rooted specialties, this approach seems too challenging. Yet, a couple years ago a VP of a pharmaceuticals company whose team’s mission included educating key opinion leaders in the global pharmaceuticals industry, proved it could be done. His highly talented team consisted of medical doctors, experts of brain functioning, regulators and marketers; all of them were working in silos of deep expertise. The VP, knowing that greater integration of the team’s efforts was essential for their overall performance, assigned people to new part-time roles in other sub-functions. Each one was provided an expert partner from the team. His staff members, who were quite resistant at first, told me they were amazed at how much they had to offer in their new unfamiliar roles. Their early opposition to shift-around turned into big appetites for more, as they realized how much their new role enhanced their skills, and added to the quality of the team’s efforts.

This VP’s use of “shift around” provided ongoing development to his deeply specialized team members and served as examples to many other company departments.

Published in the ASTD Human Capital Blog, Sept. 26th, 2013