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Developing your team

Business | November 1, 2022 | By:

All the business owners I work with want to surround themselves with better people. Having a solid team of highly skilled individuals with differing strengths will ultimately make running a business easier. It’s really satisfying when you don’t have to worry about every aspect of your operation. Having confidence in your team allows you time and space for creative visioning and strategic planning. But to achieve this freedom, you must first clear the hurdle of employee development. The primary challenge is this: How do you effectively develop members of a team with differing levels of experience, aptitude and motivation? 

Manage your managers

The place to start is with your managers’ attitude toward employee development. I have met many managers who have an innate fear of training their employees. They don’t want to enhance their employees’ skills for fear their employees will seek employment elsewhere. This type of manager wants to retain employees through control and coercion. I see them more as sheepherders than anything else. They are certainly not developers.

I was taught that the responsibility of a manager or a good leader is to prepare employees for the challenges ahead. Developing their skills, whether directly related to the business or not, is just part of the deal. Sure, this approach requires a little more work, but the caliber of these employees is ultimately so much better. They thrive while working on your team, which enhances your business, and they appreciate your efforts.

Be a Theory Y leader

In the 1960s, Douglas McGregor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spent a great deal of time studying motivation and leadership. While exploring how supervisors viewed their employees, he came up with the Theory X and Theory Y styles of management. A Theory X manager inherently believes that employees are not to be trusted and will avoid work if not monitored or incentivized. The Theory Y manager believes that employees have interest in their work and can be self-directed, seeking out new challenges to better themselves and the company. 

Interestingly, McGregor found that employee behavior and motivation mirrored the type of manager they worked for. Employees under the Theory X manager became less productive and required more supervision, while employees under the Theory Y manager became more self-directed. Essentially, a large part of developing the skills of your employees comes back to what type of leader you are.

Share the big picture

Assuming that we are all striving to be more of a Theory Y leader, one of the core tenets in getting employees interested in their own development is getting them to see the big picture. I believe that sharing financials is one of the best ways to make people feel like they are part of the organization. Why should they try to get better if they don’t know where they are now? Many employees don’t even know the structure of the company. Taking this one step further, some of your newer employees don’t understand where the company fits into the supply chain. This type of education can lead to a great discussion on where the company adds value to the market.  

Emphasize individual value

Once your team members feel like they are part of the bigger picture, you can turn the discussion to their individual contributions. Where do they fit into the bigger scheme? This is where I like to introduce the concept of an internal customer. When we talk about the term customer, most employees think of someone located outside of an organization’s walls. 

In sales, employees are critically focused on the external customer. In operations, the focus shifts to an internal customer. The internal customer is the next person in line during a process. For example, the internal customer of the person who puts stock on the shelf is the order picker. The way the shelf stocker performs his or her role has a direct impact on the picker’s ability to complete his or her task efficiently. An interest in personal development occurs when employees know how their actions affect the whole.  

Establish an advancement path

To create a development program, you first need to determine the advancement path. Many companies have a challenge recruiting good employees because they can’t sell the organization as a career opportunity. Most of the companies I work with prefer to develop their own people and promote from within as it can be very challenging to integrate outside talent at higher levels in the organization. Outside employees may have all the experience in the world, but they just don’t fit the culture. 

Good organizations have a defined progression for their employees to advance in the organization, but most organizations have a loose career path that is primarily defined in the six inches between someone’s ears. Unfortunately, it is very hard to create a program based on a loose idea. It’s time to get it down on paper. 

Dive into the details

The leadership team must take the time to write out the basic progression in the company. Perhaps it goes something like this: warehouse, counter, inside sales to outside sales. That is a basic framework. Then you can add in deviations required in your company, such as purchasing or branch management. Next, break down each functional area into components, such as will call counter, front counter or counter lead. 

The idea here is to take each of these individual jobs and define a set of skills associated with the function. This will help you develop a list of skills the employee must master to be eligible for promotion. This step might take some time and coordinated effort to complete, but it will really help your younger managers get their arms around employee development.  

Communicate carefully

As you roll out the program to your employees, be sensitive to how it is communicated. When presenting training and development opportunities to an employee, many managers are surprised when the offer is met with resistance. Some employees become defensive and hurt, wrongly perceiving the offer of education as a direct attack on their ability to do the job. This conflict of perception can lead to a breakdown in the program.  

To alleviate potential misunderstandings, present educational offerings from an employee benefit perspective. Communicate how the opportunity will advance an employee’s career. Discuss the specific needs these offerings address. Connect the education and training opportunities directly to the advancement path you’ve established.

Employee development is a perpetual activity. You don’t have the luxury of the occasional dabble. Push yourself to see your employees as a Theory Y leader would. They want to improve. They want to be part of something greater. They want to be successful and have their talent rewarded. It is up to you to provide the opportunity. 

Jason Bader is the managing partner at The Distribution Team in Portland, Ore. For additional information, visit

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