For an industry that prides itself on its analytical ability and abstract mental processing, we often don’t do a great job applying that mental skill to the most important element of the programmer’s tool chest—that is, ourselves.

You’ve been made a manager. You now have a team. Like you, don’t want to stagnate. They’re looking to you for guidance and support on the development and growth of their talents and skills.

What now?

Priorities

Let’s set a few things in stone right now: If the manager, doesn’t make their growth and development a priority for the team, the team’s not going to get any better than they are right now. In fact, it’s reasonable to assume that as each day passes, their talents and skills are going to depreciate—if it’s the one constant thing in our industry, is that our industry is always changing. If they aren’t learning new technology, new approaches, new design patterns, or any other "new" that comes to mind, then they—and your team as a whole—are falling behind competitors.

Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to be in a company or market where you have no competitors. Congratulations. It still means the team is missing out on ideas and concepts that could reduce the cost of development or ownership. This doesn’t take into account that the actions involved in learning new things often benefit the team directly in other ways—going out to a conference, for example, brings them in contact with other folks who are doing similar things, expanding their "tribe" and giving them more connections on whom they can pull for advice, assistance, or suggestions.

Yes, it would be lovely to assume that your team will always be learning new things on their own. After all, if your team is highly motivated and interested in improving their craft, they’ll be out reading articles and books and exploring, right? It’s certainly always possible, but if you rely on them to do it on their own, you’ll have no input on what they learn, when they learn it, or how they think about applying it. If you want them to be able to take what they’re learning and apply it to the job, you have to be able to guide what they pick up next, and realistically speaking, the only way to guide that is to support it with company time, money, and participation.

You, as their manager, have to demonstrate that you’re as committed to their growth as they are. You do that by providing that time, the necessary money, and your time.

You have to demonstrate that you’re as committed to growth as they are.

Path

In many ways, putting your team onto a growth path is a simple one. It starts, as many management-related things do, with talking to the team and asking questions. These questions can range over a variety of topics, but usually should focus on a couple of areas: their interests and skills, their sense of organizational fit (the kind of environment they need in order to thrive), their work values (what they think a good career looks like), and their vision of their future. This is the only time, ever, it’s permissible and desirable to ask that question about where they see themselves in five years.

Fundamentally, what you’re looking for are the threads of possibility the team members want to go down. Do they want to go into management? Do they want to learn a new platform? Do they want to become an architect? Do they have aspirations to jump into a startup at some point?

The startup question is important. Unless the individual in question is going to retire in a year or two, it’s entirely likely that they’ll work for another company at some point, and you should be just as committed to their growth whether they leave or whether they stay. Sometimes that means helping them level up in skills that help both this company and the next one.

Once you know what their chosen direction is, it’s time to scour your horizon to look for opportunities to train them. In our industry, there’s no shortage of them—conferences, books, developer portals like CodeProject or DZone, magazine subscriptions like this magazine or MSDN, online training systems like LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, Pluralsight, or Safari—the list is long and in many ways, overwhelming. That’s fortunate, actually, because it means it won’t take a ton of time to find the training they need, assuming that it’s technical in nature.

But don’t stop there! There are very likely people at your company who already do the things that your employee is interested in, so try to set up some lunch or coffee dates between them, to give them a chance to learn from those who’ve been there. If you can, and the others are amenable, try to set up a mentorship relationship between them. This is one of those times when you trade on social capital between colleagues—offer to buy lunch every so often, trade a favor that will help the mentor, and so on. Keep in mind that many people will be flattered that you’ve asked them in the first place, so it might be a pretty even trade just on the surface of it.

Even then, don’t stop. Once your employee has started picking up the skills they’re looking for, look for ways to help them use them on the job—can they start using what they’re learning? Can you make them the person on the team responsible for that particular tool or approach? Can you "loan" them out to a team for a while that’s doing that work? Give them opportunities to stretch themselves, with their agreement, and they will find themselves absolutely enamored with the idea.

Let the team stretch and grow and everyone benefits.

But…

The objections will come, if not in your mind, then from others around you. "What if you put all this energy into them and they end up leaving the team?" Or perhaps, "Can you really afford to take that kind of hit to your team’s productivity?" Sometimes even, "What happens if they don’t actually do well at it?"

As with any endeavor that yields a return, a corresponding risk comes with investing in your people like this. No risk should ever be entered into lightly, without some amount of research, and certainly not without commitment from all parties involved. This means that you have to be absolutely clear-headed about this. Is the employee ready for this? Do they have what it takes to conquer a challenge, or this challenge in particular?

You never want to set somebody up to fail. Is this the right opportunity for them? Ideally, experts say, the assignment they take on should have about a 50-70% chance of success. In other words, it should be a task that they have a real shot at completing yet something that won’t come easily. They should have to work for it—and ideally, work hard for it. Psychologically, we value the things that we have to work for far more than we do the things that just fall into our laps.

The assignment they choose should have a 50-70% chance of success.

Honesty also has to cut the other way, too. Can you really make it happen for your employee? Will you need some higher-level of support from your boss or other parts of the organization to make this happen? It’s never a good idea to make promises that you can’t keep. You may also be going out on a limb and need to expect that if this doesn’t go well, it reflects on you just as much as it does your employee.

And that’s the last bit that needs to be said. If this isn’t a guaranteed win, everybody has to be ready to accept the fact that the stretch could fail, and to deal with the consequences of that fail. (If you do this long enough, in fact, and you’re choosing assignments that are in that "sweet spot" of 50-70% success, then statistically it’s only a matter of time before one does fail.) Accepting failure is one of the hardest things to do in the business world, and it’s up to you to be there to provide the safe space for your employee and the team if things don’t go as well as anybody would like.

Summary

Frankly, developing the talent on your team is probably the most rewarding aspect of management; it ranks right up there next to watching your kids grow, and most likely for the same reasons. As human beings, we feel rewarded when we bring value into the world and one of the greatest values is that of helping people. It’s personally rewarding to see somebody under your management thrive and grow and the rewards for the team can be just as large, as they catch on to the idea that yours is a team that isn’t just concerned with the business’ "today," but also with their "tomorrow."

Most of all, consider this. The Internet is rife with memes, and one is a discussion between the CFO and the CEO of a company. The CFO says, "But what if we pay them all this money to learn and they leave?" The CEO says in return, "What if we don’t, and they don’t?"

(This article was inspired by, and drew material from, Chapter 11 of the "Harvard Business Review Manager’s Handbook", from Harvard Business Review Press, 2017.)