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From Algebra Failure to Mathlete - The Power of Employee Development

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

I struggled in Grade 9 Algebra. It was the first time I ever had trouble at school, and I was stressed! Because I’d never struggled before, the only thing I knew to do was put my head down and work extra hard, but that didn’t work either. One day my teacher, Mr. Meckleberg, asked me to stay after class. My heart pounded and I’m sure there were beads of sweat on my forehead. I was ready to hear the worst, and spent the seconds taken to trudge to his desk worrying about how I’d explain this to my parents.

I feared the worst but, instead, Mr. Meckleberg sat me down and kindly asked me to explain how I think. He’d noticed I consistently got the answers to math problems correct, but the process to those answers was wrong. You know how math at school is—they demand you show your work. Ugh. I hated that because I never really knew how I got to the answers. They just sort of floated up into my mind. After I explained that, we began to brainstorm what I could do to satisfy the curriculum (showing my work) and alleviate my stress (finding a way to show my work). We came up with this solution: write down the answer and then work backward until I got to the question. Eureka!

This changed everything! By working backward, I was able to show I did understand the problem and wasn’t just lucky at guessing. It also helped me to relax and realize I did, in fact, know what I was doing. It’s just that I thought about it in a slightly unconventional way. I went on to achieving straight As in Algebra and was asked to join the National Math Team the next school year. Ha! Algebra failure to mathlete in one term!

Fast forward a few (okay, many) years to a meeting I had with my boss. He was relatively new in his role, and I was pitching a leadership training course to him. He responded by asking me to find some third-party vendors and pricing and we’d see how it fit into the budget. I left his office silently fuming. I stalked back to my desk, no doubt muttering a few choice words under my breath as I did. I mean, sheesh! Soft skills training is what I did, and leadership training was in my blood. How dare he suggest we bring in so-called experts when I had exactly what it took to do this?

So, I turned on my heel and went straight back to my boss’ office. I proceeded to ask him what he knew about me and whether he had any idea of my level of knowledge and expertise. Had he even looked at my resume to know what I offered? To his credit, he apologized and said “No”. He then asked me to fill him in. And then he turned me loose to develop training for our organization’s people leaders. He was one of the best bosses I’ve ever had. Why? Because he was authentic and transparent and willing to apologize when he was wrong, and because of his sincere desire to fix that, and then for his trust in his team members to be great. Finally, I think he was an amazing boss because he encouraged the growth and development of his people.

When someone is hired into a role, we look at what they bring in with them. We look at their past experience, their knowledge, and the skills they’ve picked up along the way. Then we ask them to put all of that to use in their jobs. And then we tell them exactly what they should be doing and how they should be doing it, fully expecting everyone to fit into organizational moulds.


Well, that’s the way it’s always been done. The tried and true has worked all these years, why change it? And it’s just easier to do things that way than to try to think of new ways. It’s also easier to keep people in their same roles than move them to another role.

Wait, what? When did this blog take that turn? Isn't it all about change, growth, and development?


Let me loop back to the beginning. Both of the leaders I mentioned had profound impacts on my life and career. They were both caring and took the time to listen and truly consider not just what I was doing in the moment, but what my potential was.

One of the top motivators for people to start with a company and do well in their work is the opportunities they may have in working there. They seek a place where they can work their way up the corporate ladder or move laterally into a role that will satisfy alternative ways to grow. A sense of progression, of moving forward, is something almost everyone seeks, and it’s something they look to their boss to provide guidance on.

Challenging work provides the intrinsic motivation for people to do their best in their jobs. High-performing employees want a challenge, and then they want to be recognized when they achieve it. Just as in my case with my manager, they also want their boss to recognize what they’re capable of and to help them stretch to meet those goals. Leaders must be invested in the development of their team members, both to get great work from them and to keep them in the organization. One of the prime reasons people leave their jobs is because they don’t see room to grow.

Employers who don’t encourage learning and growth risk losing great workers.

Okay, so how does a manager know what their people need?

Why not ask them? In my first story, my Algebra teacher asked me what was holding me back. He saw my potential and encouraged me to find a way, with his support, to overcome it. He took the time to get to know me and to understand how I think. He worked with me to uncover alternatives to our shared end goal. And he supported me along the way as I tried something new. Ultimately, I was successful, and I’ve never forgotten him for it.

I’m a huge supporter of the one-on-one conversation. It’s the best way for a people leader to develop an understanding of their reports. These conversations provide an ideal opportunity to discuss career paths and how to get there. They help a manager to really dig into the true capabilities of their reports and go beyond their current job description. For example, asking a team member about some of their passions or knowledge might result in learning they speak several foreign languages (very handy in global companies) or have gained leadership skills in coaching sports teams. That’s very useful information in thinking about the right people for leadership roles. Taking that information and seeking, then presenting, possible career pathways through the company is such a powerful motivator! And it all comes from having regular, frequent, and consistent one on one conversations. Developing the relationship so everyone can see the potential. Wow!

According to Gartner, career progression within a company can result in these benefits:

  • 28% increase in employees recommending their organization

  • 6% increase in intent to stay with the organization (not insignificant, considering how many people are switching jobs these days and the retention issues, accordingly, facing organizations)

  • 7% increase in employee’s physical, mental, and financial well-being

These positive results don’t come about solely through promotions. They can also be realized through learning and development, challenging assignments, and variety in roles.

Learning > Engagement > Knowledge > Business Impact

Linking learning to career development is an important factor in engagement. There is great value in taking on something new and learning how to get there, even if it takes a lot of work. By including learning and development in corporate strategy, companies foster higher levels of employee engagement and, in turn, retention, loyalty, customer satisfaction, and revenue. So, worth it. This comes from the effect of employees feeling valued for what they bring to the company and for their potential within it.

Higher employee engagement, and the accompanying benefits from it, come about from learning opportunities. But how do we get to what employees are looking for to engage them? By enlisting the managers and those one-on-one conversations I mentioned earlier. Managers must pick up on the needs discussed and help to develop ways to satisfy those needs in a manner that also benefits the organization. Just by fostering learning, a manager can inspire engagement and loyalty.

The manager also has to go along on the learning journey with their team member. It falls to the manager to regularly assess and monitor learning, and how it’s applied on the job. Managers are the best people to assess progress and coach and support along the way. In conversations with their reports, managers can determine progress to goals and identify gaps and how to fix them—just like Mr. Meckleberg did with me. With frequent feedback and encouragement, employees will trust they're progressing and that their work is valued.


Let me go back to my story about my boss and the leadership training I proposed. And let me present an alternative scenario. What if my boss had simply asked me about my past experience? What if he had tried to find out what I brought to the table before suggesting outsiders would be better at delivering such training? And if he learned I was super interested in leadership training, but lacked certain knowledge, what if he had suggested ways for me to gain that knowledge? Now, that would have been an interesting discussion and I would have left the office in a much happier frame of mind.

I’m a pretty confident person who turned around and forced the conversation, and things went well afterward. But what if I hadn’t forced the conversation? I was already angry at the assumption I didn’t have the training chops to deliver such a program. I may have been hurt enough to try another company where they’d value my talent and skills more. That would have been a shame for myself, my boss, and the company.


Manager training is what I do. If your managers need support and guidance on how they can develop their team members, let me know. I'm happy to help!

If you'd like an alternative way to encourage learning in your management team, check out my book. There is a whole section on Promotion in which I encourage learning, development, guidance, and support of team members. You can find the book right here:


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