Developing Employees the Jedi Way
I’m not a particularly big Star Wars fan. There’s plenty of whiz-bang fun, but the series’ plot inconsistencies and logic lapses keep me from real emotional investment in that galaxy far, far away. I don’t understand why a Jedi should spend a lifetime training to defend goodness when taking out the second-most evil guy in the galaxy would make him evil, too. I don’t see what’s so ennobling about learning the ways of The Force when it doesn’t seem to be good for much more than levitating rocks, choking people without touching them even though they’re already within arm’s reach, and doing awesome backflips. And let’s not get into midichlorians (fortunately this isn’t a film review for nerds).
That said, there is one feature of the Star Wars universe that I find not just rational, but for employers, simple, practical, and worth emulating. It appears in Episode I, The Phantom Menace. I’m not talking about Watto’s exploitation of young Anakin Skywalker: I’m referring to the film’s depiction of how the Jedi grow the next generation of Knights.
The Phantom Menace shows us the latter days of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s apprenticeship under the Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn. Whether escaping the Trade Federation’s treachery, negotiating with the Gungans on Naboo, or helping Anakin win the pod race to buy parts to fix the star cruiser, Obi-Wan is at Qui-Gon’s side through all the action (I can’t call it the story, because honestly, this movie has literally no plot. Sorry, no more film review!).
However, Obi-Wan doesn’t actually do very much in these situations. That’s because master Qui-Gon has things completely in hand. The apprentice isn’t really there to help; he’s there to learn. Obi-Wan may lightsaber the odd battle droid, but his real job is to observe Qui-Gon in action, feel the adrenalin with a safe, steady hand nearby, and learn how it’s done.
In many organizations, staff development can be a cumbersome matter of formal development plans targeted to grow employees according to structured competency models. That approach can certainly add value; however, some of the most effective employee development requires no more planning than letting a subordinate tag along to customer meeting, or a strategic planning session, or a counseling or disciplinary discussion, or maybe a termination. The employee has only to observe. After the event, the manager can ask what the employee noticed, and provide perspective on why things went one way or another. Then, at a subsequent session, the manager can suggest a way the employee could participate.
As managers, we often hustle from one action item to the next on our own. But we should stay mindful that it’s not good to always work alone. We may not need help fending off a lightquarterstaff-wielding Sith Lord (although some customers can be pretty ruthless), but we only become more effective when our team members grow. Spontaneous opportunities for subordinates to observe or participate in situations above their pay grade can be as helpful to them – and us – as it is to the Jedi order.