Manage Your Team’s Learning Curve

Over the last two weeks we have looked at building transformational teams & key steps in building transformational teams. Today we are going to look at the first step that being: Manage Your Team’s Learning Curves.

Think of the leaven in bread: a little bit is all it takes for the whole mass of dough to rise, but let it rise too long and it will collapse. The energy of the chemical reaction will have spent itself. The key is to capture the leavening at the right time, bake our loaves, and reserve some “starter” for the next batch. The energy of your employees is there waiting to be tapped. But they will need to start over regularly. Ensure that they can, and they will provide lift to your organization—and do it over and over again.

In one of my facilitated ‘Building Transformation Teams’ sessions, a CEO said to me, “Eighty percent of my people don’t have an S-Curve. They just don’t care.” I could hear the frustration in her voice; it was real. But her claim wasn’t true. There are different types of curves and factors that can affect them, but everyone has an S-Curve. And throughout a career, most of us will discover several or even many of them.

If employees “don’t care,” it doesn’t mean that they don’t have an S-Curve—it means they are disengaged. Nearly every human being is on the lookout for growth opportunities. If a person can’t grow with a company, they will grow away from it. As with any rule, there are exceptions. Some are people who won’t grow, no matter how you try to help them. But what about past high performers who are currently underperforming? If it’s time to jump, and they won’t, you may need to give them a nudge.

So as a leader you need to manage your team as a collection of S-Curves. Every person is on a S-Curve. You build an ‘A’ team by having 15% at the bottom of the S-Curve. Brand new to the role where lots of stupid questions are being asked. You have 70% of your team in the sweet spot where they are competent and confident. This is where the transformation happens. And then 15% at the top of the S-Curve. You build a transformational organization by helping these people jump to another S-Curve. If you have too many people at the top of the S-Curve, chances are that you are about to be disrupted. Complacency and boredom will cripple your performance. So when they jump, further transformation can occur. For the individual and the organization.

Consider a major health care company. It was found that around 5 percent were at the low end of the curve. This phase is characterized by a high degree of challenge, intense stretching, and personal growth. Seventy-one percent of respondents fell into the central portion of the S curve, indicating that they were challenged, with room for continued learning and growth. One-quarter (24 percent) of respondents were at the high end of the curve, suggesting a level of mastery that may demand a new opportunity to help them stay engaged.

While a manager could be forgiven for thinking that’s a good thing, 24 percent is too high in my experience. These valuable employees have moved beyond the sweet spot into a potential danger zone. Most of them didn’t want to leave the firm for something new. Most expressed excitement about the company’s mission and values. But 40 percent of the employees were feeling under-challenged. For a manager, this is an important data point. If you have too many people at the high end, it’s a surefire sign that you are at risk of disruption. People at the high end of the curve may be high performers, but if they stay there too long, they will get bored, and leave, or become complacent. Companies with bored and complacent people don’t innovate; they get disrupted. On the flip side, a large percentage of people at the high end of the curve presents an opportunity: to capitalize on innovative capacity lying dormant.

By contrast, recall WD-40 who we featured in oils aint oils who has an amazing engagement score, produced the balance of numbers we would anticipate from an engaged workplace: a small number (5%) of employees scored in the lower range, indicating that they may be dealing with the high-challenge portion of the S-Curve and the struggle to gain competence. The majority (89%) fell within the sweet spot of high engagement and productivity, indicating that they are learning, feeling challenged, and enjoying growth in their present role. A relatively small number (6%) of employees are operating at the higher end of the S-Curve, indicating a level of mastery that may require a new, more challenging path. An additional 5 percent of people were closing in on this mastery stage.

To be clear, not all employees on the high end of the S curve will need to jump. While some high-end employees may have fallen into a rut of complacency and entitlement, some may be able to stay in their current role longer if given stretch assignments. Especially in intellectually rigorous fields, where it may require years for true mastery. So long as we are aware that tedium can undercut performance, we can watch for signs that an employee needs to jump.

When you facilitate personal transformation, you build an ‘A’ team and become a boss people want to work for. A boss people love.

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