Dreaming of Great Talent Development

The Beatles had seventeen #1 songs and thirty-eight Top-40 songs on the UK charts, but “Yesterday” is the most covered song in The Beatles’ catalogue.  Recorded in 1965 by Paul McCartney on an acoustic guitar, the song was simple, but beautiful.  After hearing it the other band members – John, George, and Ringo – thought there was nothing to add.  Its success has caused artists and creative types to dissect how it was written to recreate its magic.

Paul has testified many times; he wrote it in his sleep: “I woke up with a lovely tune in my head. I thought, that’s great, I wonder what that is?”

I have thought about the best way to develop people for more than 30 years.  So, with an homage to Paul McCartney, I share a vivid dream I had about the best way to develop people: See / Salt / Listen…


One of my favorite books of all time is The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley with Jonathan Littman.  It shares design lessons learned from Tom’s company IDEO.  In the book, IDEO human factors expert Leon Segal says, “Innovation begins with an eye.”  “It’s not just about product design, either. Whether it’s art, science, technology, or business, inspiration often comes from being close to the action. Once you start observing carefully, all kinds of insights and opportunities can open-up.”

Great people development starts with observing real people, in real situations, in their environment.  I love training, workshops, offsites, and conferences – but at the end of the day they are episodic, temporal, and artificial.  Their best use is to provide psychologically safe spaces to be exposed to, and practice new behaviors.

That is why I believe it takes ten years to develop a world-class athlete, but 25-30 years to develop a C-suite business leader.  We do not spend enough time observing people in action (or ourselves) – so we guess.  In sports we get immediate feedback through video review of practices and games.  This allows athletes to work on technique and improve.

Start “seeing” the colleagues you wish to develop.  A few suggestions:

  • Team Meetings
  • Client Meetings
  • Presentations
  • Giving Feedback to Others
  • Creative / Brainstorming Sessions

You can add to this list but start using your eyes!


If you want great people development – think salt.  Discovered thousands of years ago, people used salt for seasoning and preserving food.  Like salt, use development to enhance the natural abilities of colleagues and preserve their talents and skills.

Look at the various recipes in any cookbook, it never says add a cup of salt.  Instead, it is a “pinch” of salt, or “salt to taste.”  Development should be tailored to the individual, and never the main ingredient.  If training is your primary method of developing people, it will be ineffective at worst and okay at best.  Use training and development as your salt that seasons the main development ingredients of job assignments, teamwork, job shadowing, feedback, mentoring, sponsorship, networking, etc.


Listening is an underutilized and underappreciated development tool.  I frustrated my team many times by not providing answers, instead asking questions, and then listening.  Leaders talk too long, explain too much, and give too many answers.

For what should you listen?

  • Goal – what is the goal of the speaker? Understand what the speaker wants from the audience.
  • Main Point – what is the main idea or point? Understand what the point is before you comment.
  • Supporting Evidence – what evidence is used to support the idea or point? Are the sources credible based on your knowledge and experience?
  • Conclusions – are the conclusions sound in your mind? Do you agree with the logic that underlies the main idea?

Once you understand the goal and listen deeply, you can give pointed feedback that does not overwhelm.  Use your comments to “salt” their work – to season their logic and preserve the goal.  For example, it can be a great idea, but it needs better supporting evidence to get organizational support.

Bottom Line

The best compliment I ever got from someone who worked for me was “I never learned anything from Ted.  He just asked me questions and I did it by myself.”  He did not mean it as a compliment, but it was.  If we want to develop great people – see, salt, and listen.

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