March 17, 2021

How to keep your team learning, constantly 

It's possible to make every meeting and 1-1 an opportunity for learning and development. Here's how.

Amy Lewin

6 min read

Carl Martin, people development and engagement lead at Farewill

Carl Martin has a fairly unusual job. He’s people development and engagement lead at Farewill, a startup which helps people organise wills, probate and cremations online. But it’s not the fact he works for a ‘deathtech’ company which is interesting. It’s that he’s on a mission to embed personal development into everything the 130-person team does.

First up, how do you describe your job?

Most people, when they think about the notion of L&D [learning and development] think about sitting in a classroom setting, with a powerpoint, being told a bunch of stuff. Whereas actually, the notion of learning and growing and developing is something we’re doing all the time. My job is to make every single touchpoint for an employee at Farewill an opportunity to learn. Whether that’s a meeting or a workshop or just doing their work itself, it should be an opportunity for them to get better. I’m trying to work out how to embed personal development into everything. 

Why did Farewill decide to create this role?

At some point in the startup to scaleup transition, you suddenly realise the importance of managers. They’re the direct touchpoint for most of the team; they become the new leaders in the business, so you need them role modelling. What is a great manager? What is great communication? What behaviours do you want to see and what values do you want people to exhibit? When I joined, Farewill recognised that its 30-odd managers would be more like 60-odd by the end of year — and they needed to supercharge them. 

My mandate is to train every single manager in the business to be an exceptional coach.

My mandate is to train every single manager in the business to be an exceptional coach. But our aspiration is for everyone in the business to have really strong coaching skills. Everyone should be able to coach anyone: to ask powerful questions and be a really great listener. 

What do new managers struggle with at startups?

Almost all new managers struggle with confidence. Many feel like they need to have all the answers all the time. We run confidence coaching with managers; helping them build confidence in their actions, or drilling down and working on what part of management they’re not confident with. 

They also struggle with giving and receiving feedback, so I do a training session once per month on areas like how to set a good goal and how to performance manage. We also have coaching triads — groups of three who take it in turns to coach one another, with the third person observing, and give each other feedback. Our big vision is to decentralise training as much as possible. 

People also really struggle with managing underperformers.

If a manager spots that someone is underperforming, what are, say, three steps they should take?
  1. Do they have everything they need in order to perform? I'd recommend managers assuming that they are somehow responsible for underperformance before pinning it on the individual. Maybe you've not given them clear enough goals? Maybe the goals are unreasonable or too ambitious? Or maybe they don't have the skills required to do the work you've delegated to them?
I'd recommend managers assuming that they are somehow responsible for underperformance before pinning it on the individual.
  1. Step two is to check in with them and ask them how they are getting on. Maybe there is something going on for them outside of work that they are comfortable talking to you about? Maybe they know they are underperforming but are worried about being honest with you. Encourage them to be open.
  2. If there isn't an obvious reason for it, it is likely time for some feedback. The COIN framework — context, observation, impact, next steps — is a great place to start if you're not used to or want to get better at giving feedback. At the same time, use this as an opportunity to lean into some coaching and encourage them to define a plan of action or how to act on the feedback. If and only if you've repeatedly given them this feedback over a month or so, should you then explore a more formal PIP [personal improvement plan].
What do you need to get external help for?

Not everything can be learned in-house. We can’t teach everyone everything. Some stuff is unique and specialist, and probably better served by someone external. If we have a PM who specifically wants to work on navigating towards product market fit, and there’s an amazing external course where they could work with peers doing that same thing, that only enhances the learning experience. 

For startups short on time or money, what can they put in place to develop their teams?
  1. Create personal development triads. Bring together three people from across the business — that could be around similar goals, or you could randomise it — once per month or per week to share personal development goals — or design them together. These little accountability groups to meet, share and give each other feedback can be super effective. They’re also a powerful way of building community.
  2. Formalise feedback at the end of every meeting or 1-1. Get people used to asking for feedback. I ask people for a session NPS: ‘Out of 10, how did you rate the session?’ I make it clear to people: "Slack message me any thoughts on how the session went." I facilitate a development session with the exec team. At the end of that, we save 10 minutes to give each other feedback. I say, "Who’s open to receiving feedback?" and most people opt in. That grants permission, and then people say, "Tom, I’ve got some feedback", "Dan, I’ve got some feedback". 
We don’t learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.
  1. Get reflecting. We don’t learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience. The more intentional reflection we do, the better we get. In startups, this is formalised in retrospectives at the end of sprints. But not many people really apply that to their own world. Every morning, I look back on the previous day and ask myself a set of questions: Who do I need to give feedback for? Who was I grateful for? Who do I need to apologise to? Did I get my priorities done? It’s an intentional and meaningful period to reflect on my own work. 
  2. Give people a chance to practice. Almost the entirety of work is game time, not practice time. Sometimes, it can be helpful to make space in a meeting or a workshop for people to practise something, whether that’s giving feedback or communicating or anything else — so that when they deploy at game speed, they’re ready. 
  3. Create cheat sheets for things like giving feedback and templates for things like a personal development plan. PDPs are one of the most poorly done things in businesses, yet one of the most powerful to do. Here's the one we use at Farewill. We have all of these resources in Notion, so anyone can go and look at them. 
Do you think other companies will soon start to create roles like yours?

I think we’ll see a shift, an acknowledgement that just like DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] is not just sponsoring black women in tech events, but about fundamentally changing everything a business does, that the same is true of L&D. It’s something that needs to be woven into everything we do. 

Amy Lewin

Amy Lewin is Sifted’s editor and cohost of Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast , and writes Up Round, a weekly newsletter on VC. Follow her on X and LinkedIn