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As a leader, I consider engaging and developing employees to be the single most critical task on my plate. Think about it: why would anyone stay in a position if they aren’t learning, growing, and having fun while doing it? Life is too short! Not to mention, how much value are you leaving on the table if your talented employees are sitting stagnant, when they could be making larger contributions and taking work off your plate?

If you are a leader yourself, you know this is easier said than done. It won’t happen unless you have a strategy that is actionable and effective. I encountered this problem and developed a framework that is not only actionable and has proven effective for my team but is also quite simple. I call it Learners to Leaders.

It works like this: there are four distinct levels of expertise in any subject matter. It’s the same for teachers, accountants, software developers, project managers, doesn’t matter. They go in order from least to most independent.

  • Learner: brand new. Ready to learn but in need of mentoring and direction.
  • Contributor: able to handle simple tasks independently but needs support for more complex ones.
  • Key Contributor: able to handle complex tasks independently but still needs help every now and then.
  • Leader: ready to break free and lead projects independently.

That’s the first part. Here is an exercise to clarify this. If you can, please grab a notepad and take a minute to try it.

Exercise: Your Team

Think about an expertise your team has. It can be general or specific. For a teacher, it might be teaching a class or subject. For an architect, designing a building. For sales, selling a specific product or managing a territory. For my team, it is building web applications using the R computer language.

Now think about your team: what level would you put each person at with regards to this expertise?

And that’s it! Now that you know where your team is at, you are ready to develop them by moving them to higher levels.

Staffing Projects for Growth

All you need to do to ensure your team grows is to staff them on projects that provide learning opportunities. Projects go into two categories, each with distinct needs from the levels.

New: starting from scratch or from a template. These projects should always include a Contributor, Key Contributor, and a Leader. The Leader leads the team and steps in to meet tight deadlines or help with particularly difficult tasks. Easier tasks go to the Contributor so they can learn without being overwhelmed. Difficult tasks go to the Key Contributor. This prevents your Key Contributors and Leaders from wasting time on simple tasks they’ve done a million times already, while giving everyone a chance to get better at tasks matching their level of expertise.

Maintenance: running smoothly. After the initial phase, transition your project to a Learner and a teammate at the Contributor or Key Contributor level. It is easier to work with an existing process than start a new one, so this is a good place to start Learners. A Contributor is there to help them out while gaining a bit of leadership experience in a safe environment. A single Contributor can support multiple Learners at once. Transitioning the project ensures that documentation is good enough to facilitate a smooth transfer to a Learner while giving everyone a healthy dose of variety.

Now wait a bit, and in short order your team will be ready to move to the next level. When you notice a team member has been performing their level confidently and without development objectives for a month or so, advance their level and staff them at the new level on the next project. This will place them in an environment where they can grow. Rinse and repeat.

Don’t have a person at a level? Now you know what level you need to hire at.

Before you know it, your Learners will be Leaders, ready to bring the next generation forward!

Bonus: Planning

Another way this comes in handy: a Key Contributor will complete tasks faster than a Learner. During project planning, you can use the levels to estimate how long tasks will take based on who you assign them to.

For example: I often use a multiplier of 4x for Learners. So if I have a task that I expect a Leader can finish in 2 hours, then I can easily estimate that a Learner will take 8 hours (2 x 4) to complete the task.

This simplifies estimation because you don’t need to know in advance the specific person who will be doing the task, just their level. You know which levels the team will be at, based on the project stage referenced above, so you can assign tasks to levels for an easy estimate, and worry about selecting the final team later when you are ready to start the project.

Go Forth and Grow

I hope I’ve piqued your interest! Try this out with your team and let me know how it goes. Share it with your network. I find it takes two to three years to go from Learner to Leader, so this should keep your team growing for some time.