It is not without irony when a leadership team complains about their talent. As the saying goes, “Leaders deserve the talent they hired.”
Looking into the Abyss – Not kidding!
Let me give you an idea how bad it can get. Here is a real-life scenario I was asked at address as a consultant not long ago: A global leadership team identified the need to diversify their management across a distributed, global division. Business results were lagging, bureaucracy stifling and fresh ideas nowhere to be seen let be implemented. Despite an outspoken commitment to Diversity and Inclusion, the ‘corporate immune system’ and ‘group-think’ resisted much needed change with repercussions for those questioning the status quo or thinking differently out loud. Data-driven paralysis by analysis was the daily mode of operation. – You get the picture.
The leadership team had tried filling open positions by hiring the usual ‘best and brightest’ with a focus on expert skills and solutions they would bring from their previous employer – it did not solve the problem. It was common practice to hire staff for their expertise, primarily; the term used was “to hit the ground running.”
As if the situation was not bad enough already, the brightest brains have left or where about to leave. They so drained the ‘leaky pipeline’ of talent even more. Since we know that “talent attracts talent” also the opposite appears quite likely. Thereby, the quality of leadership team overall weakens and entails the nasty downstream effects for the staff and the organization as a whole. Obviously the situation was home-grown, which added a sensitive political dimension the whole situation.
The blunt question stuck with me, does the top leaders actually know what talent they need? What are their criteria for ‘talent’ when they search, so you would recognize it when you see it? And, do they have the guts of hiring someone who actually looks at things and truly thinks differently, comes up with unorthodox solutions and possibly has a very different profession background, career path and experiences?
Let’s leave this ‘case study’ here and step back to look at the bigger picture.
Fighting the wrong battle?
Sadly, there were many hidden assumptions at work that never surfaced or articulated. For example, the steepest careers were made by employees sharing the same professional discipline as their leaders, so the assumption was that only a specific professional background would qualify a candidate. Another ironclad assumption was that talent is hard to find – after all we read about this “war for talent” raging out there, as Steven Hankin of McKinsey coined it so dramatically, right?
I respectfully disagree. While it makes sense to hire from the outside for certain purposes such as short-term for specific skills or experience for a project or long-term for the right mindset and development potential, for example, it makes little sense to me to neglect the talent you already have. My take was not that there is a lack of talent but a lack of being able to identifying talent.
It seems that talent acquisition and development have eroded from an an art form to a dry and rigid process that -obviously- doesn’t work all that well for this organization. Little attention was paid to talent identification and retention within the organization or mindset and cultural fit of candidates, for example.
Here are just some examples for common practices that inhibited internal talent to develop and grow – and eventually drove employees away:
- Internal applicants for open positions were in practice only considered when the already did the job they applied for. How is this supposed to work? Where is the potential for existing staff to develop and seize opportunities?
We know little about new hires but we a know a lot about our existing employees. What may look like an advantage for the employee often plays out the other way: This knowledge can induce a bias and limit our employees getting opportunities when we may still see them as ‘corporate infants’ despite many years of tenure; like parents who can be blindsided of their kids growing up and being ready for the challenge that we tend more easily to entrust a stranger with.
- Graduates fresh out of college were preferred over employees meeting the job requirements, for a trainee rotation program, for example. This was despite the fact that the company often had paid for the employees’ advanced degrees. These employees came with relevant work experience and existing networks within the organization which minimized on-boarding efforts. They already knew the company culture and what to expect. So these employees would not get the job despite their qualifications. – How crazy is that? I call this ‘talent mismanagement.’
Take an even closer look: These employees went back to school in parallel to their day job, family, etc. They had proven their tenacity and commitment to develop personally as well as for the company over years – and are denied a chance to apply their new skills. What a waste! No wonder the talent pipeline leaked!
Three ways to identify talent you already have
Traditionally, talent identification is seen as a top-down process where executives pick employees from their pool based on who they believe has potential. The selected ‘talent’ then receives training, development or career opportunities to prepare them for their future leadership role. This was the model applied leading up to the sad situation of the case study above. It favors a bias of group-think and appointing or hiring people like yourself instead of focusing to find the best person for the job.
What if we looked at and selected internal ‘talent’ differently? What if we leveled the playing field to allow any employee to prove themselves and then select talent based on merits?
Here are three proposals on how to identify talent you already have within your organization but overlooked in the past:
- Look closely at your employees who went back to school or underwent a significant challenge on top of their core job to learn and develop themselves, such as the ones mentioned above that graduated with advanced degrees in parallel to their day work. This are tough cookies, self-starters, driven to self-improve and seeking career opportunities; ignore them and they will leave.
Read also: How to retain talent under the new workplace paradigm?
- Build a School for Intrapreneurs: Lessons from a FORTUNE Global 500 company as a merit-based pipeline for leaders, talent and change agents. Our battle-hardened graduates have experienced resistance and found ways to form diverse teams and build supportive networks on their way to implementing their ideas.
Read also How to create innovation culture with diversity! and Innovation drives Diversity&Inclusion 2.0
- Seed-fund ideas that meet desirable criteria for disruptive innovation for a proof-of-concept by introducing, for example, Angel Investing within the Company – Insights from an Internal Corporate Venture Capitalist. We have seen colleagues returning with more great ideas after their first one got funded. It works like releasing creative breaks and empowering employees to take charge.
Meaningful change is likely to meet resistance within the organization. It takes determination to change established talent management practices. It takes guts to walk the walk despite a general intellectual agreement.
Time will tell how the above case study plays out for this particular organization, i.e. if the recommendations made will be adopted – or if this consulting appointment degrades to just a feel-good exercise without consequences, since taking action requires real leadership.