Scaling Pathways
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Scaling Pathways

Evolve Strategies to Train Talent as You Scale

How can you create a talent development strategy to grow your leadership power and ready your employees for the challenges that scale will bring?

“We fundamentally believe that talent takes many shapes, and people have the potential to do things they haven’t necessarily been trained for or done before. So, we hire people in unconventional ways and then focus very deliberately on talent management to help them grow, learn, and succeed.” — Maryana Iskander, CEO, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator

In the beginning, training and development is often learning on the fly — wearing multiple hats, taking on additional responsibility, and learning on the job. But as enterprises scale their impact, the work becomes more complex, is often more about teamwork than individual work, and sometimes requires significant changes in responsibilities. During this journey, social enterprises need to be intentional about investing in talent development to lead to better-performing employees, increased retention, empowered staff who can adapt and respond to changing market conditions and customer feedback, and a pipeline for succession planning.

Advice from the field includes:

1. Create multi-faceted training approaches.

A popular talent development model used by commercial and social ventures alike (and based on research from the Center for Creative Leadership) is the 70–20–10 model which recommends that approximately 70 percent of training should be experiential learning and on the job experience; 20 percent should be informal training (e.g., mentoring, coaching, and receiving feedback); and 10 percent should be formal training (e.g., workshops, webinars, courses). For Boys & Girls Clubs of America, focusing on a 70–20–10 approach allows for a significant change in mindset — shifting from one-off formal trainings to engaging all levels of the organization in embracing a culture of continuous learning. With 70–20–10, BGCA supervisors are empowered (and expected) to build development plans, identify relevant mentors, and achieve a balance between observation and feedback. Our interviewees provided many helpful examples of training programs in each category:

  • 70%: Creating challenging on the job experiences. Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) created a Performance Coordination Team (PCT) to nurture second-level leadership and help devolve decision-making. The PCT is composed of eight to nine individuals (three in regions and five in central office) who are selected for their growth potential and given the opportunity to stretch from project coordination roles to additional responsibilities, such as training or research. By identifying these high potential employees, FES is able to give them challenging opportunities to help them grow and demonstrate competency in new skill-sets. In another example, Health Leads has created a peer-nominated leadership team. The leadership team consists of 10–12 people who work on special initiatives related to culture and performance across the organization, with the chair reporting directly to the CEO. Participants dedicate time above their day-to-day work, further develop their leadership skills, and have helped the organization be more skilled in pursuing its mission. Note that not all on- the-job experiences have to involve big investments of time or resources; check out the “52 Free Development Opportunities” created by the Bridgespan Group for inspiration.
  • 20%: Informal training through feedback and mentoring. BGCA has a structured process for identifying high potential leaders within the organization and creating plans to develop them into higher-level roles. Twice a year, BGCA senior executives assess staff on axes of performance and agility (both based on extensive assessments and input). Those rated as low on both factors are targeted for additional feedback, coaching, and potentially transitioning; those rated as high on both factors are targeted to receive additional investment. An executive is assigned to each of these high-potential staff and must develop a plan to forge and test their growth in areas that will be required at the next level. For example, an executive may develop a plan to see if the individual can handle more responsibility and can engage with the board and also provide that person a coach to help development in key areas. This leadership development is part of the executive’s responsibilities (five percent of the executive’s bonus potential) and, while currently happening at the senior management level, will be rolling out to field operations staff over the course of the year.
  • 10%: Formal coursework and training. Opportunities for formal training can be created through external partners (e.g., online training including MOOCs or webinar series; partnering with universities or corporate entities for in-person executive education programming where budget — or pro-bono partnership — allows) or internally within a social enterprise. An example of a rigorous internal training is the process that VisionSpring undergoes when onboarding all new hires through a three day “VisionSpring Academy” — which everyone from marketing directors, to finance assistants, to customer-facing sales teams attends. The Academy covers key technical aspects of the organization’s work — such as an introduction to eyeglasses and vision — alongside sessions to reinforce VisionSpring’s values and ways of working together (i.e., the “unstated” rules). Participants also visit a vision camp and warehouse to understand the various levels at which VisionSpring works, and at the end participants must pass a test to ensure that they have absorbed the content. When it is not possible to get new staff to the Academy, VisionSpring provides a recording of the sessions, and has them discuss their learnings, insights, and questions with their managers. In another example, One Acre Fund identifies high performing staff to participate in a structured talent development curriculum, such as its field staff “fast track” program. This program includes a structured set of trainings (covering topics such as key technical skills, leading effective trainings, public speaking, creative problem solving, and leadership), grades on assignments, and an exit exam, and it is supplemented with on-the-job feedback and mentorship.

Case in Point: Making the case for training
Lorraine Orr, COO of Boys & Girls Clubs of America, spoke about the evolution in BGCA training programs. When she began her first position at BGCA in the mid-1990s, she recalled her onboarding experience as being “handed a rolodex and then two days later someone looked in on me and said, ‘Why are you still here?’ I had to get out to the field and figure it out by myself. It was all very haphazard, but,
as we scaled, we knew we needed to address the increased complexity and invest in training to improve performance and shrink time to competency.” The organization first created a three-day required training for all new Club CEOs, which primarily consisted of time in the classroom. The training was a good first effort to formalize learning, but as BGCA became more data-driven, it noted that by 18 months on the job, 40 percent of the new CEOs were turning over, and core mission metrics were also falling. BGCA then initiated the development of a more robust onboarding program, which resulted in an 18-month competency-based training required for all new Club CEOs. Coupled with the addition of a high-touch, intentional follow-up and coaching protocol from field-based BGCA staff, within two years of implementing this new onboarding program, CEO turnover in the first two years in role decreased by 50 percent, and mission metrics saw double-digit gains.

This investment in training yielded impressive results but was also a major commitment from the BGCA leadership and board. In 2014 BGCA created a leadership development department to guide these efforts and brings in external consultants as needed. Orr spoke of the critical importance of data collection, such as mission KPIs, staff retention rates, and regular “pulse” surveys — to understand if and how the investments were yielding results. With the compelling onboarding data in hand, BGCA found it much easier to raise money — from corporations, foundations, and individuals — to support the investments required for effective training and development of staff.

2. Balance internal development with external hires.

Although much of the focus of this section is on training and developing internal staff, a number of interviewees offered the caveat that a robust talent development program does not mean that all senior staff should be promoted from within the organization. There are advantages to hiring externally: bringing in fresh perspectives and skills and also filling gaps where internal staff are not ready. One enterprise spoke to the pressure during scale and growth periods to promote internal staff too quickly, before they are truly ready for new roles. In order to determine whether staff members are ready for the next job, you can ask these three simple questions sourced from the Entrepreneurial Operating System:

1. Do they get it (truly understand the business function and roles)?

2. Do they want it (have the motivation and desire)?

3. Do they have the capacity (the mental and emotional capacity and the time)?

Do’s and Don’ts of Evolving Strategies to Train Talent

This article was written by Erin Worsham, Kimberly Langsam, and Ellen Martin, and released in July 2019.



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CASE at Duke

CASE at Duke


The Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University leads the authorship for the Scaling Pathways series.