How to Cultivate Junior Talent

Cultivating junior talent is one of the most important responsibilities of a middle market leader. You want to give employees of lesser experience the opportunity to try new things, learn, and grow in their roles, but it's a delicate balancing act. While we all know that failure is part of the learning process, setbacks can sometimes be disastrous to young talent and to the company, especially if they fall short on a critical project. How can you best prepare junior talent for stretch opportunities? Here are four key points to keep in mind.

Put an emphasis on talent cultivation to improve the work of your most inexperienced employees

Provide the right resources. When it comes to presentation skills, managing a team, or other job skills, some younger employees will arrive at your doorstep with top-notch attributes, but the vast majority will require training to learn and improve (and even the best can likely get better). Make sure your employees have access to coaching or professional-development courses. The fact that they're signing up is evidence of their interest and dedication (a good marker of future professional success), and professional development opportunities are a good way to increase employee loyalty.

Incentivize talent cultivation. As the saying goes, "What gets measured, gets done." Make sure that managers throughout your organization are evaluated on the basis of how well they're developing the junior talent underneath them. Every manager should have a clear sense of which employees show particular promise, who might succeed them in the future, and how those employees need to develop and grow in order to fulfill their potential.

Look for the right opportunities. Give your junior employees room to shine but also some room to fail. Start them out with a low-stakes opportunity, leading a project that's useful but not mission critical, or a presentation to a local rotary club rather than at your industry's biggest conference. If they do well at the low-pressure event, next time move them up the ladder to something with greater consequences until you feel totally comfortable giving them an assignment of major import.

Institutionalize the debrief process. How do you achieve mastery in a field? There's been a lot of debate about whether it requires 10,000 hours of practice, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his popular book Outliers. What's not in dispute is that the best engage in deliberate practice — focused examination of what's going right and what's going wrong, which coaches often provide — rather than the more casual messing around of dabblers. You can help your employees improve their skills far more rapidly if you create a culture in which feedback is given frequently and in real time. They'll learn far more from hearing what they did right and wrong shortly after their performance, rather than waiting until your weekly (or monthly) check-in meeting. Think like a coach, and provide actionable feedback so they'll understand specifically how they can improve.

It can be immensely gratifying and beneficial for your company to develop your employees' talents and help them bolster their skills. By following these strategies, you can make sure they're learning in an environment that supports them every step of the way.

Dorie Clark is a NCMM contributor, marketing strategist, and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and the forthcoming Stand Out. Subscribe to her e-newsletter on her website, and follow her on Twitter.


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