The Problem

Companies expect employees, especially those in the mid-Manager- and Director-level positions, to be independent thinking, creative resources capable of prioritizing and managing their time to further the goals of the organization. While most employees feel they work hard, and most do, the sad truth is very few have the soft skills necessary to work efficiently. As a result, most organizations are rife with the exclamation “there’s just so much that I need to do” and a sense of continuous crisis. That’s not even getting into the quintessential “IT geek” stereotype where human interaction is an awkward and unwelcome process on the best of days.
Despite the expectation and desire for employees to have these attributes, most people are forced to learn them on their own and very little effort is put forth by most organizations to enhance these skills in their employees. If something is so critical to the success of the organization, why is it so difficult and rare? Perhaps it’s a symptom of itself: completing work is more important than understanding if it needs to be done at all.

The Solution

To solve that quandary, I designed and launched a voluntary program throughout our organization which, for lack of a better name, I called the “Leadership Development Program.” The one-year program has two major components and is designed in such a way that it can be implemented and sponsored by anyone willing to act in a mentoring role.
The first component of the program is based around the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) concept and format. Knowing in advance my video production skills are pretty much non-existent, and from past experience that voicing over a PowerPoint slide deck is about as fun as watching paint dry, I turned to “the Google” and found the Franklin Covey Insights On Demand program which fit the requirements nicely. The Franklin Covey Insights On Demand program is a one-year subscription to roughly 90 videos which cover the same concepts from Franklin Covey’s highly acclaimed book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Each video is five- to ten-minutes in length and provides the Franklin Covey concepts in bite sized pieces. The video is followed by three or four short-answer questions which each student completes and submits to the mentor. The mentor can then determine if the student really understood the concept or if they need some more guidance and respond accordingly. To keep the pace manageable, I schedule the videos in suggested chunks, roughly two or three a week, and provide students with a spreadsheet they can use to manage their time.
The second component of the program is made up of four reading assignments: a book assigned by the mentor to the student each quarter. The books I select are ones that I’ve found to be eye opening and easy to read and/or highly engaging. My current reading list for students is…

After a student finishes a reading assignment, they complete a writing assignment. The writing assignment is essentially a two- or three-page executive summary of what the student felt they got out of the book and how they plan to use what they learned. Throughout the course of the year, I’ll ask the student how they’re coming along with implementing what they read which has resulted in some amazingly interesting dialog between myself and the students I’ve taught.

Why the program works

I believe many soft skills programs fail for three primary reasons:

  • The program is perceived as training, not as mentoring.
  • People have different interests.
  • The cost to put a materially large number of employees through it is prohibitive.

The first challenge, people having the wrong perception of the program, is accounted for by using more hands-on techniques to transfer the knowledge to each person. Putting people in front of a video doesn’t make them learn; however, by coupling each of the videos with a review and response dialog with the mentor, the program facilitates an emotional buy-in from the student and the mentor. In the event the employee is way off-base in their assimilation of the material, the mentor then has the ability to further tailor the communication back to the employee and give them the tutoring they need or to call out any major bits they may have glossed over from the lesson. I also highly encourage employees to personalize their responses—show me who you are, what you think, and use real life examples. As a mentor, I do the same; a parable is often a great way to teach.
To address the second challenge, that people have different interests, the program is designed to allow the books to be tailored to each person in the program and to target where certain improvements would help them most. For example, one of my personal favorites for technology folks is The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford. It introduces many concepts they need to be aware of such as DevOps, data-driven decision making, and understanding how work truly flows through an organization. Conversely, someone in a sales role may be better served by reading Legendary Service by Ken Blanchard. There is no shortage of websites and blogs advertising the “50 best career books”; do some Googling, read the reviews, and pick books that best apply to those in the program—or better yet, read them yourself before assigning them out. I’ve even let students recommend books that interest them but they haven’t yet read.
Two additional benefits of the book assignments are that they further the objective of learning writing skills, which is critical for anyone who has high career aspirations, and to act as a hook for people to use their newfound knowledge in their day-to-day lives. Rhetorically speaking, what good is a new skill if it’s not used?
And lastly, the third challenge—cost—is always a difficult one. Cost was a major consideration while designing the program since it had no approved budget and was effectively a grassroots effort. Further, in the event the company did not see the need to provide even small amounts of funding, I wanted a cost that could be personally borne by those enrolled.
The cost for the program as it’s described here is just under $200 per person—that’s quite a deal considering traditional soft skills programs cost many thousands of dollars per person. An important, but possibly not obvious point, is the $200 cost is generally within the spending approval limit for Manager- and Director-level positions. Additionally, since all components of the program can be purchased via a credit card online, the need for purchase order approval, involvement of the organizations accounting team, and so on, is not present, keeping the barrier to entry low.
Of the $200 total cost, the Franklin Covey online videos consume the lion’s share at $149 per person. To keep the cost of books down, Kindle e-books are used via Amazon which generally run between $9 and $15 per book and have no shipping costs. Additionally, by using e-books and sending them as gifts through Amazon, you have a digital trail of who’s received which books and a handy receipt sent via email. To account for some people who prefer a paper book, they can easily order a copy on their own dollar from Amazon, too.

Success to date

I launched the Leadership Development Program internally to the five-person Security team I manage and proceeded with a year’s worth of tweaks and tuning to get it right. In the second year, I worked with one of our business units to recruit a second batch of aspiring leaders. I was hoping for five candidates; based on the visible improvements in the Security team’s communication, efficiency, and work product, I had fifty-four candidates volunteer for the program and was granted dedicated budget to administer it. We’re now on our third year of the program and have expanded to the size where it’s being led independently by other members of senior management across the world.