Leading the Way in Building Talent

iStock_000006792437XSmallManagement has always professed that people are a company’s most valuable asset.  However, demonstrations of that belief are hard to find.  A leader who wants to grow human capital needs to apply approaches identified in a University of North Carolina Executive Development ideas@work article.

Based on their research, here are the straightforward approaches the three authors suggest are essential to identifying, growing and promoting the best talent available.  “Talent builders identify the organizational capabilities and talent that they need to have in their organization to perform at a high level in today’s environment.  In addition, they also look ahead and identify the organizational capabilities and talent that they will need to win in the marketplace in 36 – 48 months.”

Drive and Expect World Class Performance at All Levels:  talent building organizations demand performance that is at a ‘higher standard’ and drive that mindset into their organization.  The status quo is never sufficient, not acceptable.  Beyond top performance, ‘nothing else much matters.’

Become Students of How to Build Better Leaders Faster:  leading organizations stay current on talent management best practices and ‘invite experts to audit their talent building practices and are open’ to new innovations that fit their business and talent development needs.  Teachable moments are not dismissed; rather, they are discussed for purposes of learning and what would be done differently next time.

Ensure that Talent is on the Agenda:  “Great talent builders communicate…that leadership and talent matter.”  They produce leaders better than themselves and inquire of their staff questions like:

  • Whom in your organization is as good or better than you?
  • Who could replace you in 1 – 2 years?
  • Whom do you know outside our organization who could replace you in 1 – 2 years?
  • Whom do you know within the company who could replace you in 1 – 2 years?

These are tough and intimidating questions for managers unless you provide them with an open and trusted forum that is inclusive of them.  You need to be sure that they too see opportunities for growth and identification.

Continually Assess and Develop their Team to Ensure World-Class Talent:  Great talent building organizations keep a list of leaders who are great performers and have ‘the greatest potential for the future.’  They constantly discuss the strengths and development needs of their direct reports, focusing not just on the top 20% but also others who are coachable to reach the top tier, and those who are blocking high performers from any opportunity to grow.  Active review and evaluation are ongoing and systematic.

Continually Recruit and Export Internal Talent:   Talent builders ‘ask peers to identify their top 3 most talent people and ask for an introduction.’  Then they schedule time to meet with each to get to know them and offer their services to mentor and guide.  ‘In addition, they continually export their high potential talent to other units because they have an obligation to develop talent and know that good talent wants to go to leaders interested in their long-term development.”

Continually Recruit External Talent:    By speaking to outsiders and external recruiters, they have a method for ‘calibrating’ their talent against world class alternatives.  In fact, some are ‘willing to cold call these individuals to get to know them and establish relationships’ which could possibly result in future recruiting efforts.  Most importantly, talent builders seek non-natural sources of talent.  They peer around many corners for new and fresh perspectives.

Accelerate the Development of Talent: Leaders in talent building organizations get to personally and professionally know their direct reports and two levels down.  They demand their managers identify assignments and moves for all their high potentials to ensure ‘development plans accelerate the likelihood of these individuals advancing to their next jobs.’  Techniques used in this process include multi-rater feedback, action learning, transparent performance reviews and stretch assignments..

Doing all the above well and consistently takes a significant amount of effort.  But if you want to build the best talent possible, the energy and time required will yield payoffs for your leaders and your organization.


Retaining Technology Talent

McKinsey Quarterly just published “Winning the Battle for Technology Talent.”  Its premise is that technology talent can be hard to find, though executives can ‘learn how to develop, retain and recruit good people.’

What drew my attention was a reference about technology talent that lacks ‘stars’ who can engage business managers.  For those who read my blog regularly, you know the lack of discourse between IT and non-IT managers is cause for concern because it leads to IT projects that do not meet management’s expectations. The financial impact is significant, as is the role failure plays on employee satisfaction and overall attitudes about the IT function.

What McKinsey suggests is that the ‘first imperative…is to develop and retain the team you do have,’  as this is far less risky, less time consuming and more efficient than hiring new managers.  In addition to the usual leadership development tools — among them coaching — they found several other approaches ‘to develop and retain technology talent.’  These are:

Retain High Performers  As I’ve written before, for many technologists the career path is quite traditional.  This can lead to technologists looking outside an organization to restart their careers and work in new domains.  Instead, another approach is to rotate high performers across technology areas and ‘into business and operational functions as well.’  What I like about this suggestion is that it ‘grooms managers who can engage with business leaders as peers.’

Make Training Less Technical  I feel like this sentence was written to support my coaching practice:  “Providing training that helps technology personnel understand the business — in some cases, all the way to the front line — makes technology’s value more tangible and provides invaluable context for interacting with technology managers.”  Through training, the technologists learn all about the company’s markets, clients, operations, and economics.  By doing so, they’ll be in a far better position to understand the technology requirements of the business.

Ensure Senior Exposure  Often technologists are kept hidden, when they should be front and center.  Without them, the business would stop running.  McKinsey suggests that the ‘opportunity to interact directly with the institution’s most senior leaders is an irreplaceable motivator for high-performing technology staff.’  What better way to show the value of IT than to have them participate directly with policy- and strategy-makers and to demonstrate their skills, passions and business understanding.

Facilitate Outside Exposure  The best technologists really like technology — that’s not as obvious as it seems.  Passion extends beyond the institution they work for to the larger outside community.  Supporting participation in industry, standards-setting, and technical groups offers the opportunity to augment their skills, but to also demonstrate what they know and connect with like-minded individuals.  And what is learned at these sessions is brought back to the sponsoring organization, which is a clear benefit to leading shops.

Good technologists are hard to find, so you want to keep those you have active, engaged, cared for, respected, and identified for future growth opportunities.  Technologists and business managers should not be viewed as groups to manage separately or differently.  However, there is one difference that the above approaches address:  technology managers often fall into the ‘specialization rut,’ cornering them in a career where they feel stymied and out of touch with the business.  If we want to keep the best technologists, special programs and attention are needed to retain them and allow them to do the best job possible.

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Coaching Abrasive Leaders

A friend of mine works in California as an in-house coach, most recently specializing in the area of bullying in the workplace, which is more prevalent than most would suspect, not to mention the whole larger subject of bullying in schools.  She sent me an article on coaching abrasive leaders and I wanted to share with you some of the critical highlights.  I found every page enlightening and a real education.

Written by Laura Crawshaw and entitled ‘Coaching Abrasive Leaders:  Using Action Research to Reduce Suffering and Increase Productivity in Organizations,’ she opens the article by writing:  “Abrasive leaders at any level can inflict deep wounds and intense suffering in employees.  The organization often experiences the pain of working with an abrasive executive, manager, or supervisor as well, eroding effectiveness and paralyzing productivity.  Few of us have escaped the pain of working under, over, or with an abrasive leader…”

What is an abrasive leader?  Ms. Crawshaw defines it as someone in a managerial position whose interpersonal behavior causes ’emotional distress in coworkers sufficient to disrupt organizational functioning.’  The intensity and extent can be wide-ranging, from minor and infrequent incidents to more extreme manifestations of aggression. Above all, abrasive leadership (though I hesitate to use the word ‘leadership’) has the potential to ‘destroy individual well-being.’  Given the value of human capital, the cost of this destruction cannot be calculated.

From Ms. Crawshaw’s research she found abrasive leaders:

  • Perceive coworker incompetence as a direct threat to their own competence
  • Employ aggression to defend against the perception of incompetence
  • Believe use of aggression is not just necessary to achieve organizational goals, but noble as well
  • Though often aware that they are perceived negatively, they deny any role in generating those perceptions
  • ‘Are entirely unaware or only minimally aware of the nature and degree of their destructive impact on coworkers.’

Based on these findings, she concludes that abrasive leaders do not intentionally commit harm as is commonly believed, and are not fully aware of their action or the wounds they inflict.

Coaching abrasive leaders is not straightforward.  Any perceived threats to their professional competence will be ‘vigorously defended against with the fight mechanism and interpersonal aggression.’  Because they need to demonstrate their superiority, in the classic coaching process ‘they experienced immediate and intense anxiety and defended against these threats with aggression.’

By the time a coach is called in, the leader’s interpersonal incompetence ‘overshadows his or her technical competence, and the organization’s negative perceptions now threaten the leader’s professional survival.’  This leads to two difficulties for the coach:  1) Forming a trusted coaching alliance; and 2) Engaging the client despite their denial of a need for coaching.’

Since abrasive leaders are generally blind to the pain they cause, they are also ‘deaf as well — hearing very little about their conduct from others, essentially functioning in a feedback vacuum.’  So what does a coach do?

The client engages the coach as his co-researcher, interviewing coworkers to discover the negative perceptions and identifying what causes them.  ‘That data…gives the [coach and client] an opportunity to develop strategies to eliminate these negative perceptions and to manage them out of existence so that they never disrupt your [client’s] effectiveness again.’  The data collected informs the client of the nature and degree of the distress generated, helping remove ‘the blinders blocking the client’s awareness of other’s emotions.’

The key difference here versus more classic executive coaching is that we’ve moved from ‘eliminating negative client behaviors to eliminating negative coworker perceptions.’  By doing so, the leader can fight against perceived threats to his competence and help them accurately monitor their own and others’ emotions, which is also known as emotional intelligence.

Talent Management: Try Something Novel

Ever since Bloomberg bought Business Week, the change in content has been significant.  The April 16th – 22nd issue contained articles that addressed talent management from two successful managers, Reed Hastings of NetFlix and Angela Ahrendts of Burberry, who have very novel ideas about how to get the best from your staff .  What drew my attention to write about them was their unusual perspectives, not what you’d typically hear from most people managers.

Mr. Hastings wrote about ‘a sense of responsibility where people care about the enterprise.’  He credits a culture of responsibility for NetFlix’s ability to endure its new pricing policy, set in 2011 to fits from subscribers.  At that time, NetFlix separated its DVD delivery and streaming services, allowing subscribers to bundle or unbundle, with many opting for the latter and dropping streaming, slamming its earning.  “When we moved too quickly for our customers and the backlash hit, there was a lot of strength and resilience on the management team.”

What surprised me even more were these beliefs, which I wish more companies would adopt:

  • Great work is what matters most, not hard work or long hours.
  • Top talent is attracted by ‘top-of-the-market compensation.’  Neither stock vesting nor delayed compensation are offered, nor are bonuses or stock grants.  Yet, that doesn’t seem to prevent them from finding extraordinary people.
  • Employees can take as much vacation as they want.  Mr. Hastings himself makes sure he takes a lot of vacation, during which time he does some of his most creative thinking.

People work at NetFlix because they are ‘well paid, challenged and excited.’  Creative talent management allowed NetFlix to weather bad times.

Ms. Ahrendts is perhaps in an even more creative business, designing and retailing high-end clothes and image creation.  Thus, ‘hiring and retaining great creative talent is a priority.’  She strives to find executives who ‘have a balance between right-brain inventiveness and left-brain analysis.’  Often she mixes left-brain and right-brain executives to see how they relate to each other — if not, they won’t fit Burberry’s culture.  “You have to build a team that respects the value that both sides bring to each new challenge.”

Like Mr. Hastings, she too has different beliefs about managing talent:

  • Feelings are valued as much as knowledge to encourage creativity.
  • “The right physical environment also creates energy.”
  • Providing free lunch to everyone in Burberry’s London headquarters has a quick ROI by ‘bringing people together and encouraging communication beyond their team or their floor.’
  • People are allowed to dream.  In fact, they established an innovation council chaired by their chief creative officer.  The remit is ‘simply, to dream.  It allows young voices to be heard.  It also helps enlighten our more seasoned executives.”

Linear thinking — which you won’t find at NetFlix or Burberry’s — is so common that when we read articles like these two, we stop and wonder why such appealing solutions are not more prevalent.  It just takes a bit of creativity.

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