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  • Writer's pictureJason R. Waller

Be a Master People Developer with This One Question

How do we develop your people, our most important assets? How do we know that we’re growing them in the best possible way? Where are we giving them opportunities to stretch and be stretched?

Whenever my coaching conversations turn to people development, I’m always curious about their tactics. How do my clients know the right approach to take with a given individual? Is it the same approach, just personalized? Or is it always the same approach?

When it comes to growing people, I’ve learned a ton from my clients. But one of the most important lessons, a lesson that I still carry with me, comes from my high school football team.

How I learned about developing people

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” -Frederick Douglass

As an only child to older parents, and homeschooled for most of my adolescence, I was more than a bit awkward. Needless to say, my first year at public high school was disorienting. I had no idea how to talk to my peers or how to navigate social norms.

As if freshman year wasn’t confusing enough already.

But one thing I did latch on to was high school football. In a small farming town, football was second only to religion. I saw this as a chance to push my comfort zone and be a part of something. Surprisingly, it also taught me a lot about life, community, and working together.

Okay Jason, what’s your point? Fair. In high school football, I also learned one of the most important lessons in how to grow and build people.

Awkward, gangly teenager me couldn’t really catch a football. My arms felt a few inches too long and they functioned more like those floaty pool noodles than anything else. But my coaches worked with me, trying to help me grow and develop. They would throw me the ball and I would swat at it like a cat with cataracts. Nine times out of ten I would drop it. But when I did catch it, they would ask and I would wonder “what happened just then that actually helped me catch the ball?”

It was a powerfully useful question, backed up by more learning and instruction and practice. But every time I caught the ball I felt a little closer to mastery. I felt a bit closer to the skill I was working to build.

Fast forward and I’m catching the ball nine times out of ten. I was still awkward, but miles ahead of where I was. In fact, I was pretty great at catching the ball. And still my coaches worked with me, trying to help me grow and develop. They would throw me the football and I would rescue it out of the sky with just a few fingertips. And whenever I dropped the ball, they would ask and I would wonder “what happened just then that made me drop the ball?”

Harness the true potential of failure and success

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” -Winston Churchill

The crux here is an important but nuanced point:

  • Failure does not always equal learning

  • Success does not always equal growth

  • What matters most is the one you really need at that moment

You see, when I was just starting out catching a football, I learned best by succeeding. I was given more data when I actually caught the ball because it was the uncommon outcome.

When I became more masterful at the skill, I learned best by failing. I was used to catching the ball and each time I didn’t I got a valuable lesson on why and what to do differently.

Far too often, I see leaders that try to develop their people with a broad brush stroke of one approach or the other. They take the hard-ass approach and believe that people learn to walk by falling. Or they take the softer approach and believe that people learn to walk by being held.

The truth is, both are right, both are wrong, and it’s a balance. Each person is different, and at a different point of their journey. Each skill is different, and it means different things to the people trying to master it.

The real people-development question leaders should ask themselves is: is this person going to learn best by succeeding or by failing? Are they going to learn best by catching the ball or by dropping the ball?

Why this matters

“The swiftest way to triple your success is to double your investment in personal development.” -Robin Sharma

People development is something that every leader thinks about. Both formal (e.g. performance reviews) and informal (e.g. feedback sessions) development is top-of-mind for my clients. But it still seems like a mystery in application.

I hope this approach helps a bit. I love this simplistic approach because of its simplicity. The next time you want to nudge someone into their full potential, try asking yourself whether success or failure will serve them best. And if you tend to try one out more often, try the other.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

Originally published in Be Yourself


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