Blog Post

Why You're Asking the Wrong Questions About Top Talent

Cornerstone Editors

In Silicon Valley there has been a lot of talk recently about "10X-ers" or people who generate ten times the output for time spent. These people are like gold in the tech sector. However, most C-suite executives in more traditional industries remain locked in a 20th century mindset when it comes to evaluating talent, says Todd Warner, the founder of Like Minds Advisory, who recently published a piece in Harvard Business Review titled 3 Reasons Why Talent Management Isn't Working Anymore.

Too often, Warner argues, talent processes perpetuate and reinforce the status quo, instead of accelerating change and improvement. He says that, too often, the people who get tagged as "talented" are simply better at conforming to the expectations of their bosses or looking good on paper, while those who perform objectively better, but make waves or challenge their bosses, get passed over.

As the head of a consulting firm that helps organizations to develop happier, more successful teams of employees around the world, Warner has a deep well of knowledge and experience on the topic. We sat down with him to learn how leaders can use his advice to bring their talent management approaches into the 21st century.

Can you give an example that shows how leadership focuses on conformity rather than productivity?

A leadership team at a multinational corporation identified a rising star whom they collectively thought was great, lets call him "Craig." A high-pressure job emerged in Chile and he was unanimously appointed, for which he moved halfway around the world with his family. When he got there, his relationship with his new boss was strained, but he was effective and successful in saving the organization tens of millions of dollars, and was widely considered one of their top leaders. But Craig's family struggled with the relocation. When he spoke with his boss about relocating them to a nearby city, his boss refused. At the next talent discussion, the boss spoke poorly about Craig. He thought a senior executive should make sacrifices and not complain. A year prior, this same group had universally applauded Craig. Yet when one of their peers challenged his status, they fell in line and colluded to derail his career, and he was gone within six months. This is how talent processes typically work. Leaders play an unspoken game of horse-trading: "I won't challenge your impressions, and you don't challenge mine."

How can top leadership improve talent management?

First, feedback cycles need to be exponentially shorter and more visible. Leaders need mechanisms that hold them accountable for giving and receiving more feedback to and from employees. With one company I work with, we're using an app that lets leaders receive feedback at least once a week on vital routines.

Second, leaders should focus less on abstraction and more on application. Currently, when we talk about talent, we think of competency maps and defined "capabilities" that no one really understands, and that everyone interprets differently for their own purposes. Blow up competency maps and capability matrices in favor of codifying the routines that differentiate high performance. If you want to use metrics, identify the two to three metrics vital for a team, challenge the group to improve them, and measure them collectively on those targets. Leadership needs to focus on applied, observable phenomena, not a laundry list of abstraction and personal impressions.

Are analytics and metrics a better way to assess performance?

Metrics can help, but they rarely tell the whole story. Legions of companies are abandoning performance reviews, with good cause, but they need to use other tools to enable great performance. Teams can assess themselves really well. They know who they look up to and what "good" looks like. Use them. Get their input, and give them a voice in assessing performance. Also, we have a tendency to isolate talented individuals. We put them in programs with other "high potentials" and we polish them like unused toys. Instead, we should study them to find out their routines. Where do they differentiate? Why are they getting better results? Then use that to create a blueprint that improves everyone's performance. Once these variables are identified, leaders need to focus intensely on generating dialogue around the findings. Not presenting the ideas, but genuinely invoking debate and discussion. People will fix themselves, and the last thing that they need is another presentation to sit through.

What is the best way for companies to avoid these pitfalls and manage talent well?

Focus on impact, not impression. Sometimes the best talent in an organization will actually make leaders really mad, particularly if strategies are shifting, and change is afoot. By focusing on what needs to happen, not who we get along with, we can use talent to propel organizations forward.

Photo: Twenty20

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