Grow Skills With Work, Not Extracurriculars

Managers are responsible for partnering with reports to grow their career. This growth should be primarily facilitated by the work that is given to the report. This growth should not be primarily facilitated by “extracurriculars.” Let’s dive into some details.

There are two kinds of ways people can grow skill-sets: the work the business needs or extracurriculars. Extracurriculars are things that are not (or are not in service of accomplishing) a priority for the business. Extracurriculars commonly include:

  • Reading a book
  • Doing side projects
  • Taking an online class
  • Going to meetups
  • Going to conferences

Companies should to the best of their ability support people who want to do these things. However, it’s a common anti-pattern for managers (and reports, and companies) to treat these activities as primary drivers of growth. There’s a couple main reasons why people intuitively lean on extracurriculars when trying to drive growth:

  • The alternative to extracurriculars is having people take on work that stretches their ability/skill set, which is less efficient for the business. Stated otherwise: extracurriculars are perceived as 0-risk to the business.
  • Interests are confused with growth. Instead of finding ways to strategically grow in a role and in the company, people start growth conversations from “what kind of stuff are you interested in?”*

Extracurriculars-as-growth has some major problems:

  • The machinery of the company is not set up to hold you accountable to actual delivery of extracurriculars. Nobody ever got a raise because they read a book. Nobody ever got fired because they didn’t read a book. It’s very common to see extracurricular tasks in growth plans only to never be followed up on.
  • Extracurriculars are usually done off the clock. Companies often don’t make time for people to actually do that work and it’s implicit that the report needs to find time to do both those things and their regular work. Company-driven growth should be done nearly exclusively on the company’s time. Because homework is often not a priority, the company often doesn’t support it being done on the clock, and this - appropriately, obviously - leads to conflict. Expecting homework from an employee isn’t fair.
  • Extracurriculars are often interest-based, not growth-based. So the work often doesn’t translate into any meaningful increase in impact at the company.

Ok, so extracurriculars-as-growth is bad. Let’s fix it. It’s easy - skills should be grown via work the business needs. The company supports that work and holds people accountable to doing it. That growth will be directly in-line with what the company needs. And growing via that work will also actually deliver impact in a way that gets you rewards.

Like eating your vegetables or daily exercise - it sounds easy, but putting this into practice can be difficult. In fact, getting it done is a major culture shift. You have to build a culture that:

  • Is willing to invest in people at the cost of optimal delivery in the short term.
  • Trusts people to fail. The other main anti-pattern is to give people a chance and then pull them out of the critical path the minute they make a mistake.