The Missing Role That Could Make a Big Difference in the Workplace

There is a big needs-gap in human resource services. In the workplace, there are typically specific roles for coaching, therapy, and mentorship, but there is one area that none of those roles technically covers. When there is a high performer who wants strengths-training, they get a coach. When someone wants guidance from a person with experience in their field or industry, they seek out a mentor. If someone is having mental health issues, they can get therapy. 

But what about those folks (and there are many) who are struggling with their performance on the job? What does one do, for instance, when their manager tells them they need to improve their time management skills or their communication style? How about those unfortunate souls who find themselves on a Performance Improvement Plan? For most leadership coaches, such corrective action or progressive discipline cases are out of scope. They simply do not take on clients who are referred to them due to poor performance. Instead people are left to either fend for themselves, or managers are forced to carve time out of their already busy schedules to help (whether they are qualified to provide that help or not).

Often lacking in many organizations is a Performance Advisor—someone who can work with people who are struggling and get them back up to speed. Performance advisors could collaborate with the client’s manager when appropriate to find where the client needs to focus their development, and check-in regularly to see if progress is being made. 

In some cases, people who are coaches may also be performance advisors, but the work they would do in those two roles would be different. The relationship with the client who needs performance advising would likely be more prescriptive than in coaching relationships, and the determination of progress would often be dependent on the client’s supervisor. 

An added benefit of this new role would be clear delineation of roles among other workplace advocates. Below is a chart that attempts to break out the differences among those roles. 

What are your thoughts? Does your institution or organization have performance advisor roles? Are you a coach who does performance advisor work? Would it help to make a distinction between those roles?

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Learning is Wellness

Continuous learning is the substratum on which everything and everyone can flourish in successful organizations today. Any organization that purports to support the wellbeing of their employees, must first provide the structure, culture, and resources for people to always be learning. 

The evidence on the effect learning has on wellness is clear. In the UK, a program for people with mild to moderate symptoms of depression and anxiety found that adult learning resulted in better wellbeing and less severe symptoms of depression and anxiety. People reported that they enjoyed engaging in regular group activities and the courses helped foster relationships, and self-management strategies. Other research has shown that adult learners have improved optimism and rate themselves higher on wellbeing. Yet more research by David Cutler and Adriana Lleras-Muney found that education affects longevity and is a predictor of health.

On a basic level, learning makes us aware of important information that can help us get healthy, stay healthy, or manage our wellbeing. It can also bring us together, fostering community and belonging. 

Organizational learning for working professionals goes even deeper. Learning and development teaches people how to be in tune to seeking out new information and processing that information in a meaning and impactful way. A formal, structured learning and development program cultivates learning instincts and agility, perhaps the most vital competencies in the modern workplace. Everything is changing and changing faster. The problems we face are more complex and the opportunities abstruse. As an organization, if you are not learning as you go, you are sunk.  

McKinsey & Company says, “It’s about how leaders can reskill and upskill the workforce to deliver new business models.” Deloitte reports that “Employees at all levels expect dynamic, self-directed, continuous learning opportunities from their employers.” Boston Consulting Group warns, “More than ever, organizations will rely on skills to differentiate themselves from the competition. They can no longer afford to separate learning from core business operations.”

When learning is an integrated part of an organization’s operation and integral part of the culture, it becomes ingrained in how the work gets done. It instills in people that learning is part of life, and what’s more it helps them find value in their contributions. Learning gets people thinking and thinking puts us on a path toward groundbreaking discovery. 

Any leader who truly has the best interest of their workforce at heart, must make learning part of the job for everyone and do so in a thoughtful way.

Some organizations have yet to truly grasp the gravity of what is at stake by not investing in their people. Instead, in those arcane and likely doomed holdovers, learning and development is seen as an abstraction buried somewhere in the corporate values, or a nuisance they wish would go away. They regard learning as a liability against production. It is time taken away from work getting done. This, of course, is a corruption of how learning actually works. Learning is the fuel for innovation and continuous improvement. 

That aside—and to return to the point at hand—learning is wellness. Any leader who truly has the best interest of their workforce at heart, must make learning part of the job for everyone and do so in a thoughtful way. Learning is not easy. It is challenging and at times stressful, so when we provide learning opportunities to working professionals, we need to be considerate of their circumstances. Providing learning as yet another thing for people to do on top of their already demanding jobs can backfire in some situations. Learning needs to be incorporated into the job and accessible to different levels of learners. Learning, in fact, needs to be a requirement of the job—built into the business.

To deny people continuous learning or to give only a glancing recognition to learning and development is to deny the wellbeing of the people in your organization. To stay well—to recover from being unwell— people must be open to new information and receptive in a way that gathers that information from sometimes unexpected places. We must all be vigilant about wellness on an individual and community level. The key to that vigilance is to ensure that we are always learning.


Focus on Teaching People to Think & Learn

As organizations and institutions all take a long hard look in the mirror and decide how we need to move forward during these on-going crises (racial, social justice, economic, health, etc.) the focus should not be on training people how to stay in line. The focus should be on teaching people how to learn and think. Yes, we can (and should) create training on the importance of wearing masks and following policies that prohibit racism and discrimination, but that is not enough. The aspiration should not be a workforce that only makes the right decisions because of rules and policies. The goal should be a workforce that deeply understands the spirit and intent of those rules and policies—people who wear masks because they care about the well-being of others; people who, through their language and actions, promote inclusion; and people who actively fight against racism because they fundamentally understand that it is good and right to do so. As we yet again confront our long history of systemic racism, how our organizations and workforce learn will be crucial.

Ensuring that a workforce is continuously learning was already important prior to our current state of crises, and now it’s more important than ever. As we all adapt to our new challenges and environments, it is critical that organizations have people at every structural level who can analyze situations, think critically, and make sound judgements. The way to make that happen is through aggressive learning and development. As Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston put it, “The point isn’t to know; the point is to remember to keep learning like crazy as we are taking action.”

And as Annie Peshkam and Gianpiero Petriglieri pointed out recently in the Harvard Business Review, “Like all major crises, and perhaps more than most, the COVID-19 pandemic is bound to leave behind lasting changes in the way work and business take place. Learning will be the foundation of our survival, then, for both organizations and the individuals who make them up.” 

Practically and ethically, creating a learning organization is the right thing to do.

A learning organization does more than provide training for its workforce. Training, while essential, is not enough. A true learning organization establishes a culture and structure for learning. In learning organizations, leaders and HR professionals do more than just encourage learning; they expect it of everyone—at every level. In doing so, it enables the organization to be adaptable and consistently make innovative, strategic changes. In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge defines a learning organization as “an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.”

Practically and ethically, creating a learning organization is the right thing to do. Learning and development is how to cultivate a culture of anti-racism, instill self-awareness, promote social justice, and help people understand the concept of a social contract. The power of learning and development is evidenced in improved recruitment and retention, innovation and productivity, and enriching health and wellness.

Recruitment and Retention

Organizations that ignore or underestimate the importance of the human need to grow do so at their own peril. Leaders and HR professionals must make it clear to their workforce that learning and development is expected and then nurture that development. Doing so will attract high potentials and retain high performers. Proactive learners with growth mindsets are the people we all need most right now—people who can quickly develop new skills, actively look for gnarly problems they can solve, and when crises hit, they stand on the frontline alert and equipped for the challenge. To have that frontline, learning and development must be a priority.

You cannot have continuous improvement without continuous learning. 

The 2019 LinkedIn Learning Workplace Learning Report found that 94% of employees “would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development,” and Payscale’s 2019 Compensation Practices Report found that 59% of organizations provide learning and development opportunities as a retention tactic. Providing high quality learning opportunities for a workforce works. The right people—the people who can make a lasting and positive impact—gravitate to that kind of community and generally speaking they stay there. 

Most critically, “The right people” means people from diverse backgrounds. Recruiting with diversity in mind is one thing, but if organizations are not consistently and vigorously developing their workforce to be able to analyze and evaluate their surroundings through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens, we will never move forward meaningfully. That is the only way any organization will be able to foster inclusion and therefore retain a diverse workforce. Diversity, social justice, empathy, or emotional intelligence are not classes to be ticked off in someone’s personnel file. Those subjects, along with many more, are an unending education.

Innovation and Productivity

The call for innovation and continuous improvement is ubiquitous. Well before our current set of harrowing crises, it seemed companies everywhere were putting great effort into strategic initiatives that promote those ideals. It is common in many cultures to push workers to embody ingenuity and creative problem solving. The reality is that it is unreasonable to ask anyone to be innovative if you do not have a culture and structure that supports learning. You cannot have continuous improvement without continuous learning. 

Fundamental to creating any structure for success is teaching people how to learn. Exploration is critical here. Yes, acquiring knowledge is important, but it is at least equally important to discover what you don’t know. Implicit bias is a key contributor to structural and systemic racism. It is imperative that we encourage people to explore as they learn—question assumptions, learn from other disciplines, and listen to diverse perspectives. 

The goal for organizations should be more than ensuring that their people know how to do their jobs today; it should be to help them imagine how they will do their jobs tomorrow.

When a supervisor requires that a direct report justify how a learning opportunity is directly related to their job, an acceptable response might be, “I don’t know yet. That’s what I’m trying to find out.” One might argue that if the connection between a learning opportunity and someone’s current job is explicit before they participate, it’s simply training. Discovery, ingenuity, inspiration, that eureka moment—those things happen at a different level of learning. Let new ideas and perspectives into your organization. That’s how to make progress, do better, and move forward.

The goal for organizations should be more than ensuring that their people know how to do their jobs today; it should be to help them imagine how they will do their jobs tomorrow. A binary approach to learning that hopes to educate a workforce by explicating right from wrong will do nothing to build a workforce that can think critically about issues, nor does it have the health and well-being of that workforce in mind. 

Holistic Health and Wellness

For years, many organizations have been providing benefits packages that not only include good insurance, but robust preventative care as well. For savvy job seekers, counselors, mediators, and wellness professionals are table stakes. The next evolution in showcasing wellness is to include learning and development in the package.

…learning is a load-bearing pillar of wellness.

Continuous learning has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and dementia. Human beings need to learn. We crave it. When that desire is stymied, we begin to collapse mentally. People will quickly become disengaged and ambivalent about an environment that does not challenge them mentally. Any organization interested in retaining their best and brightest should be in a constant scramble to provide a continuous stream of learning opportunities for their workforce. HR departments who understand the importance of wellness, should also understand that learning is a load-bearing pillar of wellness.

Moving Forward

We are all currently responding to crises, but change does not only have to happen as a response or reaction. Change can also come about proactively. We do have it within our power to get ahead of problems—do the right thing before we are confronted with trauma, pain, and violence. We must be agile; not only adapting to change but initiating it. At every level of any workforce, people should be striving to be pioneers of change not victims of it. To do that you must have a workforce that consistently looks at everything around them critically, questioning why things are done the way they are, and discussing how they can do something better.

Ethics is nuanced and not something that can be conveyed through training. Any given situation has an infinite number of variables to navigate. Growing and doing better—progress—means constantly reassessing what those variables mean and how they apply to the world around us. That’s no simple task. That’s a heavy lift that calls for heavy-duty tools. Those cognitive tools are forged through learning and development.


The Leadership Bottleneck

What happens when your leadership pipeline creates a leadership bottleneck?

Here’s the scenario: A new CEO takes the helm of your organization. She quickly sees that she’s got a problem on her hands. Before she got there, people in formal leadership positions were not trained properly before they moved into their roles, and now they are not particularly responsive to professional development. They’re getting the work done, but they have no vision or strategy, and they are generally complacent. They have the jobs they want and aren’t particularly interested in going anywhere.

So as not to repeat the mistakes of history, the CEO develops a robust leadership pipeline program. She wants to develop high performing and high potential people as leaders to challenge them, get them engaged, and when it’s time to move them into leadership positions, they can hit the ground running.

The leadership pipeline program is a success. Up-and-comers acquire excellent leadership skills and are chomping at the bit to put them into practice. The program is so effective, in fact, that it has instilled a sense of loyalty into the graduates. They don’t just want to be leaders. They want to be leaders for their organization.

Years go by. Several cohorts of this now prestigious program are in that pipeline. But there’s a problem. Those stagnant leaders already sitting in the formal leadership positions, aren’t going anywhere.

If you’re going to invest in a leadership pipeline, you have to be prepared to actually get those people into positions where they can do some good.

The graduates of the leadership pipeline program have been patient—as they learned to be in the program—and they know that they should show empathy and respect to existing leadership, but as they wait, frustration inevitably sets in. It’s not so much their ambition that is making them frustrated. It’s the fact that they can see how to make things better, and they know they have the capability to implement, but they do not have a seat at the table.

Except for that top tier of formal leadership, people are developing professionally, but the organization is not. The whole situation is becoming maddening.

So, what should the CEO do?

Two things:

  1. Transition those stagnant leaders out.
  2. Grow the organization.

If you’re going to invest in a leadership pipeline, you have to be prepared to actually get those people into positions where they can do some good. You can’t let them stagnate. It’s not fair, logical, or wise. If there are people who can make a significant positive impact on the organization waiting to move into positions where they can actually take action, then they should either be promoted into positions where other people are failing, or new positions should be created to accommodate them.

That doesn’t mean everyone has to get a C-suite or VP position. That, obviously, would create a top-heavy and dysfunctional structure. It just means providing positions where they can help drive the strategy, effect change, and develop others.

Let’s suppose, though, that the new CEO says, “Well, we just don’t have the resources or ability to grow like that?”

If the people are developing, and you do not take advantage of their potential to move the whole organization forward, you are failing.

Well, that leadership program may still very well be helping the organization because those people can still lead without being in formal leadership positions, and the people going through that program are developing, which is vitally important. Don’t consider it a total loss if you’re not able to place them in your organization.

Professional development, and leadership development in particular, is important because it pushes an organization to grow. Develop the people first so they can determine the best path forward, rather than reacting to top-down decisions that then require everyone else to develop retroactively before the next arbitrary mandate for change comes down from the mountaintop.

However, if the people are developing, and you do not (or cannot) take advantage of their potential to move the whole organization forward, know that they should move on. When possible, you should even help them move on. Find a place for them where they can make a real impact, even if that is not within your organization. Let them be ambassadors for your organization and let them thrive elsewhere.


Making Leaders

Regarding that age-old question of whether leaders are born or made, here’s what I think. No, I don’t think people are born to be leaders. No, I don’t think anyone can be a good leader. But it’s not as mystical or dramatic as some might like to believe. Really it comes down to two things. You gotta want it and you gotta want it for the right reasons.

There are people out there who just don’t have an interest or desire to take on the responsibility of a leader. That’s fine. We’re way too obsessed with the notion of leadership. If someone doesn’t want to be a leader, you can’t make them, and you certainly can’t make them be a good leader.Leadership Venn

Other people may want to be a leader, but they want it for the wrong reasons. They just want power. They want to be able to get people to do whatever they want them to do. That’s not leadership, and it will be very hard to impossible to make those people good leaders. First you have to fundamentally change how they look at the world, and that means you’ve got a long road ahead of you.

So, can anyone be a leader? No. But it’s more people than you might think because there are a lot of people out there who just want to do good things for other people, and they’re willing to do just about anything to make that happen—including becoming a leader.