How to Have a Strong Developmental Conversation

At some point in your leadership, you’ll encounter a staff member or volunteer who isn’t cutting it. And if you’re a part of any growing organization, your organization is eventually going to outgrow someone on your team. The hard part, especially for those of us who are spiritual leaders, is that we want to be the nice guy and help them along. And in our effort to be kind and loving, sometimes we often end up hurting the person more than if we simply told the truth.

In fact, in the early years of Life.Church, this was a common problem for me. The church was growing, and sometimes the church would outgrow someone’s leadership. For example, someone was leading a kids ministry of 40 kids and then it grew to 120 kids. If that person didn’t grow as a leader then the organization would have outgrown their leadership. Suddenly, we’re presented with a challenge. We have a great person we love, but they’re not getting the job done. So what do we do?

We need to acknowledge the issue, sit down with them, and develop a plan to help them grow toward becoming a better leader.

Here are five things to do in the conversation.

Be honest. Let them know that things are not going well. This might sound harsh, but you have to set the tone of the conversation. It’s not unloving to tell the truth and explain that if things continue in the same way, it’s not going to work out. You might say something like, “The organization has grown, things have changed, and the way you’re doing things hasn’t changed yet.” Bringing everything to light is the only way to improve. It’s actually unloving to pretend like everything is okay.

Be encouraging. Explain that you want this person to succeed and will do everything you can to help. This is important because they need to know that you love them and that you’re going to give them all the tools they need. And you need to follow through. You have to show them that you care, and one of the ways to do that is developing a specific plan to help them grow.

Be specific. Establish a timeframe and be very clear about what improvements need to be made by the deadline. Be specific about the growth that’s necessary for them to stay in their role. Set goals. Don’t just say, “Hey, you need to get better in order to make it.” Too vague. Instead, say, “You need to recruit and train eight new volunteers by the end of the month.” Along with establishing the timeframe and goals, assign a learning exercise to encourage them to find new ways of achieving their goals. Give them a book to read, send them to a conference, or find the right mentor.

Evaluate regularly. Meet regularly to evaluate their progress. “Regularly” might be once a week, but certainly not less than once a month. During these checkups, ask how close they are to reaching their goals, what they’re learning, and what they’re changing. Get everything on the table. If they’re not growing, you have to be honest and acknowledge they aren’t hitting their targets.

Identify the consequence. What’s so powerful is that by the end of the timeframe it should be apparent to both of you if progress has been made. If it has, you’ve got a massive victory and you celebrate it. If not, a change needs to be made—but since you’ve already had the hard conversation at the beginning of this process, the next conversation isn’t going to be as difficult as it would be if they didn’t see it coming. This is the loving, pastoral, Christ-centered, honoring way to give someone the chance to get better. If they don’t, you’ve done everything you could to help them get there.

If someone ends up at step five and a change needs to be made, you can still look for another role that might be a better fit, especially if they’re a volunteer. Rather than immediately removing someone, consider finding another spot in the organization where you both agree their talents and skills can effectively contribute to the collective mission.

But here’s the reality. If the organization outgrows somebody, and you as the leader don’t address it, it should be obvious who is at fault. It’s not the other person. As the leader, you are the problem.

What we've learned:

A strong developmental conversation requires loving honesty. As a leader, know that sometimes the hard thing is the right thing for your organization.

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