Through a long career in HR, I have come across many formulæ for the successful development of people. Many were too complex to be practically applied. Others were lopsided in their scope. Only one simple yet profound prescription has stood the test of the decades and has both explained the successful development programs I have encountered and been at the heart of most of those I have designed.
The concept took physical form for me as I sat through hour after hour of engineers being interviewed for a range of positions in the then-burgeoning research and manufacturing facilities of Telco (now Tata Motors) in Pune. The questions to which I am referring took many forms but the correct answer was something to the effect that steel does well under tensile loads (i.e. being 'stretched', in colloquial terms) but buckles under compressive loads. There may be various caveats to this generalization for steel but in the context of people, it is true almost without exception. People have to stretch beyond their current capabilities if they have to be enthused about their work and it is an essential prelude for them to grow and flow (in Csikszentmihályi’s 1 sense of the word). Of course, the Experience Fluctuation Model suggests anxiety and arousal as precedent to flow when skill levels are inadequate to the challenge 2. But in an organizational context, it is this very anxiety and arousal that is essential for driving the individual to develop and perform beyond the normal, provided there is a desire and ability to learn.
The concept appears simple and obvious yet, as I hope to show in the rest of this column, several policies and methods we adopt in HR are at variance with it and, consequently, destructive of development. On the other hand, where it is put into play, stretch delivers rapid development and commitment at minimal cost.
Catch Them Raw
Here’s a multiple choice question for you.
You want to feed your growing children healthy meals. You, therefore, make it a normal practice to feed them:
a. Nutritious, home-cooked food
b. At the nearest fast-food outlet
c. Ready-cooked meals from the supermarket
The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Yet, when it comes to meeting the organization’s need for people, more and more organizations have moved away from the 'fresher' recruitment and training schemes that were once the staple of people-sourcing for India’s corporates. In the process of insisting on 'plug-and-play' recruits, they not only pay a penalty in terms of quality, cost, and enculturation but in the attitude people acquire towards learning for the rest of their careers.
The idiom that has possibly done the most damage to the minds of recruiters is the fear of 'forcing square pegs into round holes'. Paradoxically, the greatest advantage of fresher-based cadre recruitment (whether with engineering or any other qualification) is that the people it brings in are NOT job-ready. Provided only youngsters with the thirst and capability to learn have been selected, the greater the gap they have to bridge before they are fully ready, the more permanently do they acquire a bent to learn and master new competencies throughout their careers. Of course, there is a practical limit to the extent the gap-to-readiness can be bridged but I have invariably been surprised by how great that gap can be. I have seen degree holders in Statistics, Physics and Psychology perform brilliantly in jobs that were traditionally the preserve of engineers (simply because engineers were believed to have higher analytical skills). Many of them have capitalized on the stretching and growing capabilities they acquired at their career thresholds and gone on to become highly successful business leaders and entrepreneurs.
Stretch for 'Laterals'
Not all staffing requirements can be met through cadres of 'freshers'. Very obviously, when 'laterals' have to be inducted, the choice must be made based on demonstrated capabilities for doing the job in question. Even in such cases, there are still ways in which an organization can minimize the dilution of its stretch-and-develop DNA.
In the first place, the proportion of lateral intake can be limited to the acquisition of key specialized competencies and to check excessive inbreeding. You may have noticed that most organizations are known for their talent management prowess and for being 'CEO factories', exercise great parsimony in adding mid-career generalists. One of the great advantages of doing so is to embed stretching and learning in the organization’s culture.
Secondly, just because the talent is recruited mid-career doesn’t mean it is bereft of the 'hungerability' to stretch. To recruit such talent, however, requires us to move beyond the standard competency-checking questions interviewers use. Instead of simply looking at demonstrated delivery to confirm whether a person is a right fit for a job, we also need to check how soon the person came up to speed when s/he was a poor or loose fit (or even a misfit) for a role in the past. Growing while contributing is not the monopoly of any one organization and 'laterals' can be learners too. But not all organizations prioritize it as a leadership requirement. Hence it needs to be specifically checked for during selection.
Lastly, it is important to have future stretch demands even for specialist and other roles where external recruitment may be inescapable. This, together with mainstream flows in and out of even these specialized functions, will prevent them from becoming low-energy, low-expectation pockets in otherwise dynamic learning organizations.
Nowhere does the strategy of stretch yield higher dividends than in managing internal talent. While the role that positive expectations play in the development of individuals from the school classroom3 onwards is well understood, what people tend to forget in organizations is that for the Pygmalion Effect to have full play, you need to start with a flower girl and not a duchess. In other words, inadequacy against the role requirement is a prerequisite for the development turbo-charger to kick in.
I have been fortunate to have been chosen for a highly regarded fast-track program and to have designed and implemented such schemes in more than one organization. In each of these cases, where accelerated development was the core design demand, the leeway to stretch was ensured through making the raw talent fall short on one or more of the following counts:
1. Maturity – by picking very young talent
2. Experience – by contravening normal experience requirements
3. Functional expertise – by placing HiPos in functions other than the ones from which they originated
Such a stressful baptism of fire sometimes puzzles even the HiPos picked for these programs – at least while they are struggling to cope. To the people who are not chosen and who seemingly have better credentials for the demanding roles, the choice appears totally wrong-headed. It is only when you hear CEOs recount their most formative career stints do you realize that the ones they were least prepared to outnumber all the rest!
Ladders and Super-angled-ladders
Of course, the stretch principle doesn’t apply only to the long leaps made by HiPos though its impact can be most conspicuous there. All sound manpower plans have substantive responsibility levels throughout the organization interlinked with programs for choosing the best talent from the levels below. It’s like a game of Snakes and Ladders without the snakes (you will have to wait for another column where I will deal mainly with organizational snakes).
To make these pathways into ladders of learning and have them hum with 'hungerability', they need to be extra-long (those are most desirable ones in the game too) and angle their origins as far as feasible from the destination function. That way, once we have checked for the burning desire to learn and provided the opportunities to acquire the skills the discontinuous leap involves, we can just step out of the way as the developmental energy unleashed by the process sweeps away most barriers to performance, engagement, and retention.
The Learning Organization Brought to Life
At a recent HR Conclave, speaker after speaker emphasized the need for organizational agility and learning. In this VUCA world, they pointed out, regardless of the quality or qualifications of the people initially recruited, their skill-sets would become obsolete in shorter and shorter spans of time. The only way to survive, both for organizations and individuals, was for them to be constantly in a learning and re-skilling mode.
While the diagnosis was repeated to the point of becoming boring, practical solutions were conspicuous by their absence. Of course, organizations were exhorted to raise their investments in training and development. But how were they to rekindle the spark of learning which years of complacent delivery by underutilized people had extinguished? To me, it is clear that the only way to address the root cause of this problem is for organizations to create a 'continuous learning mindset' in their people. And the best way to do this is by repeatedly making them stretch their slim (square-peg) capabilities to fill the large (round-hole) deliveries expected from them.
As a reminder of this simple philosophy of development, these lines from Browning should be blazoned on the doorway to every Human Resource Development Department:
"Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?" 4
1. Mihaly Csikszentmihályi (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row. ISBN 978-0-06-016253-5.
2. Schaffer, Owen (2013), Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow, Human Factors International.
3. Rosenthal, Robert; Jacobson, Lenore (1992). Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils' intellectual development (Newly expanded ed.). Bancyfelin, Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House Pub. ISBN 978-1904424062.
4. Robert Browning (1855). Andrea del Sarto, Men and Women.