Talent Killers

Talent killers, an article by Ascend - leading boutique talent strategy and leadership development consultancy based in London, England.

Is your organisation guilty of this?

I attended an interesting talk this week at the European HQ of Duke Corporate Education, given by an eminent author who argued that companies should not focus their development budgets on a select few ‘high potentials’ but instead treat everyone in the business as ‘talent’ on the basis that we are all unique and have special talent. I like the utopian premise behind the argument, however, being a pragmatist, I see two flaws in the argument: -

  1. Organisations have limited budget to spend on developing their people and it is difficult to really bring about positive change when spreading yourself so thinly.
  2. If you can improve the performance of your best people by 10% it will have a much bigger positive effect on organizational performance than improving the performance of your worst people by 10%. Furthermore the best people are more likely to be setting ‘the tone from the top’ and influencing the culture in the future.

If organisations decide to take a selective invest route, one fundamental issue is how to identify who to invest in. Large companies often use current and historical performance, someone having a particularly scarce but positively differentiating skills set (this might be technical or leadership related) and of course potential as a way of focusing on who they want to invest in developing and of course retaining.

Nowadays, potential seems to measured in surprising similar ways, there appear to be four key areas that people look at – personally I would like to see Courage in their too! If you have been following our Perspectives you may remember my feelings on this. Just in case you missed it, here is a link to it: Are you a role model for being courageous? Now here are those four key areas that people look at to identify who to invest in:

Drive - the capacity to get things done as well as aspiration to want to move onwards and upwards to more challenging roles;

Relationships - the ability to form strong relationships at all levels, and furthermore, to take people with you;

Judgement - the ability to make good decisions;

Learning agility - the ability to pick things up quickly but also to be agile enough to take learning from one situation/context and use it in another.

We have one client who, due to the increasingly VUCA climate it operates in, wants its leaders to ‘see around corners’ for what is coming next. I am not sure how they measure the potential (or competency) for this - perhaps by looking at the length and flexibility of the neck? That may explain why they have just recruited a heard of giraffes in the latest graduate intake! (Not true! – it was only three of the lovely creatures!).

The area I believe that many organisations either under invest in or do not pay enough attention to, is ensuring that those that they identify as high potential actually reach that potential by becoming well rounded effective leaders or technical superstars that help drive the organization forward. Below is a list of ‘talent killers’, practices within organisations that are stopping those with ‘talent’ be the best they can be:-

Bad management.
There is no need for a high potential to be managed by another high potential but they should be managed by people with a track record for nurturing high potentials (and others) with the appropriate blend of challenge and support. After all, people join companies and leave managers!

Manager churn.
If the manager of a high potential keeps changing or leaving (for whatever reasons), it is likely to have a detrimental effect on the development of that individual (though not always – especially if the high potential replaces the manager and receives the transition support – see later point in No Access to Coaches).

In order to get the best out of the best, it is necessary to take them out of their comfort zone with challenging and varied assignments. Too long in one ‘static’ role leads to narrowness, complacency and/or boredom and frustration.

Until the recent oil price slide, some of the global oil companies used to enforce job rotations for high potentials at regular 2 or 3 year intervals, but took little account of the level of learning, stretch and achievement in each rotation. It led to the term ‘enthusiastic amateur’ being used for high potentials who had completed many roles in the organization but learnt very little and achieved almost nothing. It is important to take a tailored view to job rotations: what is the specific development need; what were the particular challenges of the role; where does this fit in with the organizational and also personal aspirations of each individual?

Lack of sponsorship from senior leaders.
High potentials like to know that senior leaders know who they are and take an interest in their ideas and development - perhaps even offering to be mentors to the possible leaders of the future.

Poor development plans.
No development plan is better than a bad development plan! A written down and concise development plan based on 70:20:10 that is tailored to an individuals specific development needs and aspirations is vital.

No access to coaching.
The key to developing well-rounded leaders in exposing them to stretching assignments that take them out of their comfort zone but do not tip them into their panic zone. Transition coaching is an essential tool for supporting an individual to make the best out of any opportunity. It provides them with an external sounding board and an opportunity to ‘de-clutter their minds’, ‘decide what they need to leave behind’ in order to make a success of their new role. Businesses often make the false economy of not providing transition support and see good people fail because they are unable to make the leap to conquer the next mountain.

As the points above emphasise, turning high potentials into high impact, well rounded leaders is not just a case of focusing on the individuals themselves but ensuring that the whole surrounding ecosystem supports their development.

Ascend partners with organisations to identify, deploy and develop executives, high performers and high potentials. Please contact us if you would like more information

Christina Grieve