What Are You Doing to Develop Your Up-and-Comers?

Let’s begin with an axiom: Business growth depends on new ideas that are well executed.

If you are running (or involved in) what I call a Stage Two business (with more than $1 million in revenues and 40 employees), you deal with new ideas almost every day. In fact, assuming you’ve staffed your business with smart people who want to succeed, you are probably overwhelmed with new ideas.

The challenge is to make sure you have people on board who can make those ideas work. (When I consult with new Stage Two clients, that is one of their main concerns.)

The best solution is to establish a leadership-development program in which your top people train other people in the company to do what they do. Then, as the business grows and your top people take on new responsibilities, the leaders-in-training step up to take on their mentors’ old responsibilities.

But according to one article I read recently, only two-fifths of large companies have formal leadership-development programs. With smaller companies, I’m sure the figure is much lower — probably closer to 10 percent.

I think the reason it’s rarely done in smaller companies is that their growth is so fast that the need for people to take on new responsibilities is always immediate. That means one of two things. Either the more experienced people take on the extra work themselves, spreading themselves thin. Or the work is given to younger people who haven’t been trained to do it. In either case, the risk of failure increases significantly.

If I had to choose between those two options, I’d give the work to the less-experienced employee. And I’d put someone with experience in charge of mentoring that person, even if the mentoring is minimal.

I’d tell the mentor, “Your job is not to teach this person all the details. And it is not to do it yourself. Your job is to review the project periodically to make sure we can afford the mistakes that are going to be made. Other than that, you should allow the new person to flounder a bit. Flounder, but not founder.”

The flounder-don’t-founder method is imperfect, but it’s better than nothing — and better still than loading up all the new projects on your already overworked experienced staff.

With a little guidance, smart new people can figure out a lot on their own. Sometimes they can create systems and procedures you never thought about before. Sometimes they will astound you with their success.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]