Excerpt from “Manager Redefined: The Competitive Advantage in the Middle of Your Organization” by Thomas O. Davenport and Stephen D. Harding (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.).
By Thomas O. Davenport and Stephen D. Harding
We suggest that human capital treasurer is an apt metaphor for the role managers play in employee development. Like financial treasury, human capital treasury focuses on a valuable asset (not money, but rather employee knowledge, skills, talents, and behaviors). Like a corporate treasurer, a human capital treasurer has responsibility for custodianship and growth of those assets, not through cash and investment management but instead through insightful, individualized learning strategies. Most important, like a company treasurer, a manager grows and guides the investment of an asset he does not own—employees own their human capital—much as a company’s treasurer husbands financial assets that belong to the organization’s shareholders.
Let’s consider how effective human capital treasurers help people find and exploit the organization’s learning and career development resources.
Help Employees Formulate Career Plans and Choose the Best Learning Modes
Looking ahead to the employee’s next opportunities, identifying the learning required to take those steps, and suggesting the path forward—these form the core of manager responsibility for human capital development planning.
To do this job successfully, managers need to know, for example, that mentoring works well when people need to grasp the nuances of organizational culture, brainstorm career direction, or navigate internal politics. A mentor has less to offer, however, when the employee needs to acquire a specific skill rather than a bit of more general organizational wisdom. Coaching by managers can help with skill improvement, insofar as a coach can give targeted advice to help improve a particular aspect of performance. A manager may need to help the employee find classroom training to pick up aspects of knowledge that don’t require same-day application or for topics that call for little one-on-one contact between teacher and learner. Conversely, the manager may need to ensure opportunities for on-the-job training, which works well in cases where hands-on application can accelerate learning and where the targeted skill can be acquired and used quickly. However, OJT requires supervisors and peers who have the time, inclination, and skill to pass on what they know.
Astute managers know that the richest learning opportunities often come from work that combines abundant job resources with challenging expectations for performance. Managers can do a lot to ensure that jobs like these provide the maximum opportunity for employees to expand their skills and knowledge. Transfer to other functions—a special kind of on-the-job learning—can help people learn new techniques, enlarge their technical vocabularies, understand issues from other units’ perspectives, and build personal networks.
Counseling employees about how to select from the portfolio of learning options is becoming a needed-to-play competency for managers who aspire to act as effective human capital treasurers.
Create a Constellation of Learning Contacts
The more we study how learning takes place in organizations, the more we understand that employees benefit from having access to multiple sources of advice, counsel, and knowledge. It’s helpful from time to time to seek out a confidant, a peer, or a manager (other than the direct boss) to get off-the-record advice or have the occasional mea culpa conversation. In a study of attorneys at prestigious New York law firms, researchers Monica Higgins and David Thomas from the Harvard Business School found that having an array of developmental contacts within the organization did more for young lawyers striving for partnership than did having a single, even senior and effective, mentoring contact. They concluded, “Our results show that while the quality of an individual’s primary developmental relationship does affect short-term career outcomes such as work satisfaction and intentions to remain [with the firm], it is the composition of one’s entire constellation of developers that accounts for longer term career outcomes such as organizational retention and career advancement.”
Help People Travel Multidirectional Career Paths
The late lamented vertical career path has gone the way of the dinosaur, the dodo, and the dollar cup of coffee. Some organizations still offer an upward, linear career path, but many of those have flattened the organizational hierarchy so much that career ladders have far fewer rungs than they once did. In place of the ladder, we have the multidirectional career configuration. Managers stand at the intersections of those pathways, like cops directing traffic and helping employees choose the right direction.
Helping an employee navigate an up-down-sideways career structure requires managers to:
• Display sophisticated understanding of the production function and project/unit contribution to strategy. They must apply systems thinking to their project management, understanding how inputs and outputs interact. They must hold projects and processes together as people cycle onto and off of project work and into and out of career phases.
• Span boundaries and establish their own networks in the organization. Managers must be able to navigate the organization, locating development resources and helping each employee find the right next opportunity.
• Be creative in helping people craft individualized career strategies. Managers must be a direct source of development for employees, and also know when to focus development locally and when to guide them in looking elsewhere.
• Show sensitivity to fairness across employees in the unit. With people crafting customized careers, managers must ensure that job and career elements fit the person and are equitable (though not necessarily identical) across the group.
• Develop a command of organizational tools. Managers must be able to guide people to advanced organizational tools that help employees plot career paths. Genentech, for example, has created a catalogue of scientific disciplines, from antibody engineering to structural biology, and put it on the company Web site. Readers can peruse the biographies of researchers in each discipline at Genentech, learn about what they are currently working on and understand what inspires them, and find out what kind of people they are looking to recruit.
A few years ago, a Cisco Systems career services manager described an incident that reflects how a human capital treasurer should behave. “This week, a manager e-mailed the new manager about a person who was considering a transfer. He said, ‘This guy is my absolute number one employee—his performance ratings have been consistently stellar. He can truly make a contribution to your team. I don’t want to lose him, but I know this move is in his best interest, so call me if you have any questions.’ When every manager in our company acts that way, then I know we’ll be providing end-to-end career support.” We think that’s a good way for every manager in every company to act.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from “Manager Redefined: The Competitive Advantage in the Middle of Your Organization,” Copyright (c) 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Thomas O. Davenport is a senior practitioner in the San Francisco office of Towers Watson, a worldwide human resources consulting firm. He provides advice on human capital strategy, employee and organization research, and leadership development to clients in a wide variety of industries.
Stephen D. Harding is a senior practitioner in the London office of Towers Watson. He has consulted in employee research and organizational behavior for the last 20 years and has responsibility for managing employee research projects throughout Europe and elsewhere internationally.