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Rethinking Personal Growth and Development

For six years, I served as the Chief People Officer at Nmbrs, a thriving tech company that operates without traditional managers and strict rules. With only a four-person board to guide the company strategically. As we challenged the standard ways of leading a company, we constantly trained ourselves to challenge the status quo – including in the realm of HR where I believe many standard practices fall short, particularly in personal development and growth.

Personal development and growth, indispensable for companies and individuals, but over the years it became a land with truths which aren’t true with procedures which don’t help anyone.

As someone who has seen various HR philosophies in action, I’m excited to share my insights on what really works. Join me as I unravel seven HR myths on personal development and growth and reveal the  approach I implemented.

Myth 1: Careers Must Follow a Strict Junior-Medior-Senior Progression

Myth 2: Focusing on Deficient Skills or Flaws

Myth 3: (Top level) Management is the only Career Path worth Pursuing

Myth 4: Making Managers Responsible for the Growth and Development of Their Teams and People

Myth 5: Annual Development Plans and Five-Year Growth Cycles are the way to go

Myth 6: Budgets that can Only be Used Under Strictly Defined Circumstances and you need to stay for x years

Myth 7: Treating Illness and Life Events as a Hassle


Myth 1: Careers Must Follow a Strict Junior-Medior-Senior Progression


In most companies, employee development is depicted as a climb up a staircase or a mountain, on the top you see a nice little flag fluttering. That’s not how I view it. I prefer to think of it as a five-lane highway. Your position on the highway is heavily influenced by the mix of your project, your team, and your talents. When everything clicks, you’ll find yourself cruising in the fifth lane. If you’re on the fourth or third lane, there’s likely a bit of a disbalance, which is not a major problem, just something to be aware of. Projects and teams change constantly, so there’s a good chance that on your next project, you’ll find yourself back in the fourth or fifth lane. If you’re stuck in the first or second lane, it’s a sign that there’s a significant imbalance between your project, your team, and your talents. It’s possible that this may not be the right job or the right team or even the right company for you, but It could also be a temporary setback caused by a life event that requires your attention. I will come back to that later in Myth7.


So, the idea that career growth follows a neat, linear progression from junior to medior to senior roles seems outdated and oversimplified. Employees do grow during their career, but in my opinion growth is much more erratic with the occasional set back or hitting a plateau sometimes. While it’s definitely true that some employees bring more value to a company than others, and could therefore be defined as more senior, the traditional approach to defining roles and job titles junior, medior, senior is in my opinion counterproductive.


Here is why


Defining seniority in the workplace is not as straightforward as it seems. For example, is a developer who creates exceptional code but lacks people skills considered more senior than an outgoing developer who fosters teamwork but produces less code? The reality is that employees come in different sizes, with unique talents and flaws, and bringing different levels of value to a company. While salaries may reflect these differences, assigning labels like junior, medior, and senior is not always practical or helpful. This can create fierce discussions and disappointment in determining when to promote someone, as growth is not a simple overnight transition from junior to medior to senior. Or more simply put: You don’t go to bed a junior and wake up a medior.


While it’s understandable that companies may create junior, medior, and senior roles for budget control or team diversity reasons, the rules, expectations, and politics that often come with these labels can create more problems than they solve. 


I’ve witnessed situations where juniors outperformed their medior colleagues but weren’t promoted simply because there was no room for another medior on the team. I have seen the same juniors being passed by their managers who brought in a more junior colleague in a medior role, just because this person did not fit the junior salary scale. Just a quick guess from your site how long this junior stayed within the company? 


Finally, why go through the trouble of having multiple conversations each year to explain that someone is not good enough or may never become good enough, when you can avoid it altogether? And even worse, having to tell a talented employee that their lack of promotion is due to budget reasons and asking for their understanding…


My own view on job titles is that they’re crucial to the recruiting process and attracting the right kinds of candidates. Once a person has been hired, though, within the company they should have a simple functional description (“marketer”, “developer”, etc.). To the outside world (LinkedIn) each individual can divine him/her/themselves as they wish. I assure you no one will call himself CTO when they are not and having two Tech Leads in your company, according to LinkedIn, is really not a problem. They are probably really leading something. What I mean is don’t be afraid of what people will call themselves! Trust them to do the right thing. As for salaries: When possible just work with long salary scales which fits starters and senior contributors. In order to keep salaries in control, manage exits in a strategic and warm way. I will post about that later.


Myth 2: Focusing on Deficient Skills or Flaws, Instead of Talents


Many roles in the modern economy are, in a sense, fractured. There is simply so much to learn that everyone cannot be good at everything their job nominally entails. Almost everybody has different, unique talents and struggles with their own shortcomings and flaws. Therefore everyone gives their job a very unique flavor and that is ok! Individuals are not defined by their job descriptions – Have you ever started a workday by reading your job description in order to figure out what to do?


While having a specific competency and skill set is necessary to qualify for a job, it serves solely as a selection criterion and is in my opinion not a growth and development issue. For instance, medical school is a prerequisite to become a doctor, and law school is mandatory to become a lawyer. However, after securing the job, 

The idea I have of personal development and growth is not that someone focuses on what competences they miss, but that they focus on their talents. That doesn’t mean there should be no attention for your shortcomings, it means that you need to be aware of your shortcomings and you need to find a way to deal with them in the best possible way.

During my time at Vitae from 2000 to 2005, I developed a competence scale for junior, medior, and senior consultants (as shown above). The scale required progress in all 5 competencies and promotion was based on reaching certain milestones. All competences were backed-up with example behavior statements, therefore it was quite straightforward which level you would be. Soon we came into problems with this system because we had outperforming consultants who did not show certain example behavior. What we did see was that these talented consultants were very transparent and knew what their shortcomings were. By communicating this with their customers and colleagues they were able to outperform others, who solely focused on the competence scale and trying to get all the example behavior boxes ticked, so they would get the promotion and a salary compliant to the new function title. 


Flaws and shortcomings only become truly relevant when they are impacting a person’s performance and are not recognized and talked about. Instead of sending people on courses or providing counseling, the key to dealing with these issues is to identify and accept them. This approach yields much better results. It involves finding workarounds and being transparent about what you are not good at. When one’s team knows what to expect and how to help, weaknesses don’t impede progress.


Myth 3: (Top level) management is the only career path worth pursuing


Society rules that managers, directors and vice presidents are rated higher, treated with more respect and seen as more talented than the most profound specialists and that is often why we ourselves, but also our spouses, parents and friends aspire these types of job titles for us. This pressure is worsened by the fact that most companies only offer certain pay scales to managerial positions.


What makes it even harder is that the myth that top-level management is the only desirable career path persists due to a self-perpetuating mechanism. Managers are often viewed as responsible for an individual’s growth and development within a company (that problem is addressed in Myth 4) which keeps the myth that (Top level) management is the only career path worth pursuing stays intact. Simply because the manager in the payscale above you is participating in the same rat race and therefore quite likely is believing in the system. Despite more and more companies valuing their specialists and creating career paths and pay scales accordingly, the firm believes that a director is worth more and should therefore be paid more than your best specialist remains one of the toughest myths to unravel in my opinion.


The only way that I found to unravel this myth is to keep telling and to show that you mean it. Make salary scales for the professionals to match the leaders’ scales. Obviously at Nmbrs we were working without managers but even there, I lost good professionals to managers careers in other companies. This is something which is embedded so deep in our way of seeing the world. From the time we are born we are surrounded by parents, teachers and managers who tell us what to do and give us praise and recognition. Not everyone is willing and able to let this worldview go. Telling the story over and over again and selecting people on a certain mindset was my solution and then again it did not always work out. 


Myth 4: Making Managers Responsible for the Growth and Development of Their Teams and People


The Olympic decathlon tests various skills such as running, jumping, and throwing, and it’s rare for someone to excel at all of them. Similarly, managers are expected to be proficient in multiple areas, they need to think strategically, coach their staff, be empathetic for their teams, make deadlines, absorb stress from levels above, motivate, energize and much, much more. At Nmbrs, we decided not to work with managers because it is simply unrealistic and unfair to expect one person to possess all the various skills and talents required for a manager job. As explained in Myth 2, all people, managers included, have their flaws and talents.


That is why putting managers in charge of professional growth and development is so problematic. Even when half of your managers are talented, holding  the necessary skills of listening, being empathetic and genuinely interested in their people, it still means the other half has talents in other areas, giving half of your staff the idea that growth and development is a mandatory HR exercise from which you have not much to expect. I will elaborate on this in Myth 5, which talks about PDP cycles.


While there are indeed genuine managers who possess an innate desire to inspire and elevate their team, there are also those who simply adhere to the status quo. These managers perpetuate a cycle where growth and development take a back seat to their own interests, often resulting in exceptional employees being passed over for internal opportunities. Sometimes, employees are denied educational opportunities due to their manager’s fear of being outperformed. These situations are rarely straightforward and can be complicated. While most managers strive to perform their duties to the best of their abilities, the weight of their responsibilities and inherent contradictions can make certain tasks impossible to fulfill. For instance, meeting a crucial project deadline while simultaneously allowing a talented engineer to transfer to another department.


At Nmbrs, our managerless approach to work required us to adopt a unique strategy for developing and growing our employees. We opted to work with a personal coach for each staff member who was solely responsible for their growth, wellbeing, and team dynamics. To maintain a strict boundary between the coach and the organization, we implemented a Chinese wall that ensured every conversation was kept confidential until the employee chose to discuss it openly or if it was a prevalent concern amongst many employees. Each employee had at least one yearly personal conversation with their coach, but when you wanted to discuss with your coach each month or even each week that was also ok.

Conversations between coaches and coachees covered a range of growth and development topics, such as training, role and team changes, motivation, stress and wellbeing, salary, performance reviews, fears and insecurities, and achievements. The goal was to empower individuals with the necessary tools to steer their own careers and make changes as needed. As CPO I found that the organization and with that the coaches as a forward post were responsible for providing learning and growth opportunities, but it was up to the individual to seize them. 

What I have found is that development, growth, wellbeing and team dynamics are topics which are far better off in the hands of specialists and in a secure, call it Chinese wall if you please, environment. This coach – coachee relationship involves an ongoing dialogue aimed at identifying a person’s strong points and flaws, leading to a coherent, individualized blueprint for personal growth.

Myth 5: Annual Development Plans and Five-Year Growth Cycles are the way to go


Because half of your managers are so not inclined to focus on growth and development for your staff, HR has come up with something to make certain each manager takes time to address this important issue. But because it is done not from an intrinsic idea of genuine interest and a feeling of urgency or importance, I will tell you it is going to fail and not only that fails also the rep of your HR department fails. Making growth and development a mandatory exercise, steered and monitored by HR will not improve your popularity nor your credibility and will not add in growth and development of your staff.


Don’t get me wrong: I love it when people are structured by nature and want to start the year by taking some time to think about what they want to achieve this year. These same people also normally take some time to end the year by looking back on what they accomplished. At Nmbrs, you are more than welcome to structure your coach talks according to an annual cycle. We encourage this process and suggest speaking with a coach to plan, evaluate and look back. It’s a great way to nurture personal growth and development. However, I do have a concern with making it a mandatory exercise with standardized forms. Often, these forms end up being filled with empty phrases and lacking any genuine motivation or ideas, simply because people think that’s what a manager or a company wants to hear. Alo I see those forms in a system without ever being looked at again till the next mandatory meeting. Plus, not everyone thinks of growth and development in annual cycles, when you are dealing with life stuff you want to be able to talk about that in a conversation with your coach or manager and not fill out a form which asks what job you aspire to in three years. 


Ultimately, I firmly believe that personal growth and development are primarily the responsibility of the individual. As an employer, I recognize my role in facilitating, sponsoring and cheering growth and development to the max, but I am not the initiator of this process. That responsibility always rests with the employee themselves. I am a firm believer that each employee should have a coach or a professional within the company with whom they can discuss everything, their fears, insecurities and life stuff without fear that it will backfire.


Myth 6: Budgets that can Only be Used Under Strictly Defined Circumstances and you need to stay for x years


One of the most demotivating things for an employee is waiting half a year for approval once they have asked something for themselves. For most people asking for training, to travel to meet their team, to transfer to a different team or a salary review for that matter is a highly stressful and scary process. To a lot of staff this endeavor is so difficult that they only ask for it when it is really at a boiling point. This means that a ‘no’ is deffestating and a ‘yes’ will spike motivation and engagement. So why is everyone so afraid to say ‘yes’?


The answer must be in budgets and being afraid that you will run out? 


At Nmbrs our default answer to training and traveling questions was ‘yes’. (For the salary requests it was a bit different, I will write a blog about that later.) And we would like to answer within a week. Nothing is more frustrating for staff and also for their managers to wait for months and months and months before getting an answer. 


So the thing is to answer fast and to answer ‘yes’ 

How to do that? Have big budgets available, work with coaches or managers who understand the importance of training and courses and who can help staff divining their training 


What if people overask? A conference for the whole team in Las Vegas? A MBA of 40K annually. I did not have that problem at all, maybe we just had great staff, I know we did! But I think it is how most people are wired. They come into a company and see what is possible. They talk to their managers or coaches and get their learning desire clear and they decide to put the question for budget forward if they feel it has a chance. They will come up with alternate ways if it is too expensive, far away or time-consuming. 


For me it was the coaches which were a good advocate on which training and why. I trusted them and my colleagues. In the five years I was at Nmbrs I never turned down a training or development request of an employee. We did have a big budget for training and growth available and we never spent it all. Not once in the time I was at Nmbrs.


One last remark: Don’t make contracts or connect retention schemes to training. I know it feels sour when your colleague decides to leave two months after finishing an expensive training course, but imagine that they are staying 2 more years while they really don’t want to. I am a firm believer to never tie people to your company. Our People departments pay off at Nmbrs: I want you to want to be here. 


Myth 7: Treating Illness and Life Events as a hassle


Setbacks outside of work are inevitable and often unforeseeable – divorce, illness, family tragedies, and more. It’s unrealistic to expect a person who’s going through a tough time to simply continue performing as normal at work. If you continue to push them, the best you can hope for is that they either burn out or quit.


Much of personal growth is invisible, unplanned, and buried deep within a person. Handling hard times is often what forces us out of our comfort zones and accelerates our development.


In challenging situations, it is immensely important to have employees who possess character traits like resilience, self-confidence, adaptability, and empathy. Yet these can’t be taught in any ordinary course or seminar – sometimes, the only way to attain these positive characteristics is by working through personal misfortunes and coming out stronger on the other side. 


So why treat the employees who are going through a rough path as employees who are of no value to your company? It is way too often these people are sidetracked and never return to the company at all, even though you have every opportunity to gain back a very loyal and more resilient employee.


The key aspect of these patches is maintaining open communication. This means not only dialogue between HR and employees or managers and employees, but also between colleagues and their respective teams. It’s essential for colleagues to comprehend the situation, its duration, and have the opportunity to ask questions and develop their understanding as knowledge of the situation grows.


While it’s important to respect an individual’s privacy and comply with relevant laws, it’s also crucial not to be too afraid to ask questions and seek clarity. Unfortunately, laws and rules have often instilled this fear, which can prevent us from understanding the situation fully.


Simultaneously, this conversation must be a two-way street, which can be challenging. Colleagues should have the space and ability to express their frustration when a team member is frequently absent due to caring for a sick child or is experiencing burnout due to family circumstances. It can be demotivating for a team to always work overtime because one person cannot keep up with the workload. There should also be room to express these feelings.


In these open team dialogue you will see there is a lot to gain. Trust will blossom and loyalty and understanding for each other will grow. At Nmbrs the coaches were indispensable to guide these worthy team conversations.


In Conclusion


Development and growth is one of the major factors in life. If you don’t grow you die! Your company grows and develops by default if your employees are growing. I really hope by sharing my insights on these seven very stubborn HR Myths on development and growth helps you to make better decisions on this subject for your company and for your employees