Looking Back: Insights From Our Talent Learning Cohort

by Jimmy Henderson and Betsy Doyle

In October 2015, EdFuel and The Bridgespan Group announced a partnership to bring to life findings from our jointly published Hidden in Plain Sight report, which focused on what it will take to more systematically invest in home office talent development. We created a six-month, interactive learning cohort designed to test ideas, share knowledge, and spur real changes in practice.

Together with senior leaders from Green Dot Public SchoolsIDEA Public SchoolsKIPP DC, and Uncommon Schools, we spent spring 2016 focused on building new approaches to home office talent development. Our goal was to design models that are simple, consistent, transparent, and promote ownership across both managers and teams. Through this process, each organization identified a set of top talent priorities to focus on this year.

We are excited to share what we feel are four important insights that emerged from the recently completed learning cohort.


Insight 1: Five Steps for Leadership Development

In our first cohort workshop, the need for a change was clear. Each organization was eager for a new approach to talent development at the home office. They used words like “simple,” “transparent,” “accessible,” and “aligned” to describe where they wanted to end up. But what was the path to get there?

Though the initial list of things they might tackle was long and varied, through its work together the group discovered that they are all tackling the same five steps:



Each step is important in its own right and should also be viewed as part of an organization’s overall approach. Each builds on the next, and works best when there’s a coherent talent philosophy tying them together. The sequence of these steps matters: our leadership research underscores the importance of starting with a shared understanding of the skills and competencies required for success, and then building an approach to development and coaching that meets the specific needs of teams and individuals.

All too often, organizations decide to tackle a highly visible step at the top—like introducing performance-based incentives or designing a new set of rewards and celebrations—without embedding them as part of a larger talent development approach. Such moves, on their own, can create inconsistencies or seem counter-cultural, leading organizations to add complexity or to start the process of changing systems when they are half-built.

Each of our CMO partners took stock of where they are on the steps and focused on a set of priorities that reinforced one another. What once seemed like a long list of competing to-dos when it came to talent development now seems like a natural progression.

As Stephanie Kapsis, Managing Director of Talent for KIPP DC remarked, “In the past three years we have grown our HDQ team from about 45 people to more than 100 people. We’ve grown quickly and thoughtfully but have had frequent moments of realization that there was so much more we could or should be doing.  We have been talking these issues for months (and years!), but finding time to prioritize pulling up and having the big meaty conversations that we needed to have was often deprioritized because ‘we wanted to do them right.’ Participating in the cohort gave us the opportunity to dig into these topics (and more!) and really think through the vision for our headquarters team at KIPP DC.”


Insight 2: Living into the 70-20-10 Development Model

From our leadership diagnostic survey at the outset of the cohort, we knew that each organization was committed to investing in talent and leadership at all levels. Many had a solid set of processes like leadership competencies and an annual performance review cycle in place. Similarly, each organization was already applying aspects of the 70-20-10 leadership development model, pioneered by the Center for Creative Leadership. In that model, 70 percent of development consists of on-the-job learning, supported by 20 percent coaching, and 10 percent formal training.

However, translating the 70-20-10 model into day-to-day practice requires strong managers who know how to tailor informal coaching and opportunities for growth to each employee’s development goals. For CMO partners, this can be a real challenge, given fast-growing organizations with many first-time and new managers.

In response, we tailored the cohort design to fit where they each were on the journey. We spent less time on designing competencies or the annual review (which many organizations had in place or were upgrading already) and instead focused more on what it takes to build the capacity of managers at all levels to do this in a high quality and consistent way. [Note: for best practices in these areas, you can read more in our talent review guide].

We didn’t need to look far for promising practices for developing strong managers. IDEA Public Schools has already started piloting an in-house manager development program focused on building the capacity of new and first time managers. They’ve designed a set of modules that emphasize skills such as project management and giving feedback, and have scheduled the sessions at key times during the year so that managers are exploring skills “just in time” for application. A number of the CMOs are now exploring how to build similar programs for their staff, with emphasis on cultivating managers adept at working on both the 70 and 20 with their teams.

Insight 3: Diversity by Design

From the outset, our cohort was committed to improving their ability to recruit and retain diverse staff. This means embedding diversity as a priority in all steps of the talent process, as well as setting clear targets and tracking gains. The group also explored ways to build the capacity of their staff to engage in conversations around race, identity, and equity and to promote a culture where issues and opportunities are front and center.

Everyone in the group named this as a priority, but each entered into the discussion from different places. Some members of the cohort already have fairly diverse home office staff, but others feel they have a lot of work to do. Indeed, it was clear that many leadership teams do not feel they can do this work on their own, and increasingly look to external facilitators to make progress.

To tackle these issues head on, we tried to ensure that diversity issues were consistently woven into the sessions: adding new questions on diversity into the leadership diagnostic, facilitating experience sharing and peer discussion on pilot programs happening at each CMO, and recommending diversity metrics as a core component of talent development dashboards that participants were developing.

Again, the power of sharing experience illuminated some remarkable work already happening at the home office level. Over the last few years, Uncommon Schools has been piloting a set of programs focused on improving diversity and racial equity in their schools and home office. Taking seriously the need to build a diverse pipeline, they have developed a summer teaching fellows program targeting college juniors from underrepresented backgrounds. The program provides these students with opportunities to experience teaching and secure a full time teaching role prior to the start of their senior year. Once in full time roles, these diverse teachers are paired with school leaders and master teachers as mentors to help guide their development, Within six years, they have grown the program from 10 fellows to nearly 150 fellows—leading to a sizable and strong pipeline of classroom teachers.

However, for Uncommon, representation is not enough. Uncommon also shared the design of its Diversity Facilitation Working Group—which seeks to build the capacity of leaders across the organization to facilitate conversations on race, identity, and equity. These trained facilitators have used existing professional development days as opportunities to have substantive dialogue of issues of race and how it impacts their work. The success of these conversations has led Uncommon to consider opportunities to structure these dialogues as part of their school based curriculum.

Insight 4: Breaking the Compensation “Doom Loop”

While it may be surprising, Bridgespan’s 2015 research on nonprofit leadership pipelines highlighted the fact that compensation is far less of an issue for educators than it is for other public and social sector employees. Moreover, EdFuel’s own research found that compensation ranked far below career advancement, burnout, and lack of strategic direction when it came to drivers of attrition.

Despite this reality, we also continue to hear organizations caught in a cycle of one-off compensation decisions at the home office. We call this the “compensation doom loop”:


To escape this cycle, we recommend that organizations proactively define a compensation structure they can stand behind. But what’s the “right” way to design a compensation system? Reflecting on EdFuel’s research in several charter markets that shows the variations within and across geographies for similar home office roles, it became clear that there’s no silver bullet. Instead, compensation systems should be customized to the home office context and align with its larger talent philosophy and core value.

To help CMOs dig into the compensation question, EdFuel developed an eight-question approach:

    1. How many salary bands will you offer?
    2. What will be the total width of each band?
    3. What is the target range within each band?
    4. What degree of overlap, if any, will there be between bands?
    5. What role, if any, should performance-based incentives play?
    6. What is the norm for where any new hire should be placed within a band?
    7. What is the norm for where any existing staff moving into a new band should be placed within that band?
    8. What are the expectations for how fast an individual can advance within a band?

To learn more, check out our compensation design tool and additional compensation research.


The road ahead

These insights are a testament to the powerful community of practice that emerged across the cohort. Individually, each organization also made strides on their internal systems and practices this spring.  Although each participating CMO has made significant strides, they all recognize that getting the frame right is just the first step in the journey to truly living into world class talent practices. As Nithya Rajan, Vice President for Strategic Planning at Green Dot Schools remarked, “We’ve finally started a broader working team at Green Dot and we looked at how much we wanted to do at each step. When you add it all together, this could be a multi-year approach.  But, we think that taking the time to develop and communicate the right philosophy up front has given us the ability do everything thoughtfully.” Inspired by their success, we hope to convene a second group of charter networks later this year.

We look forward to continuing along this journey together!