Does your talent management flop? Try this!

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A fish out of water (or in highly polluted water) will flop about for a while, gasping and then give up and fade away. It does not matter how well it can swim or extract oxygen through its gills. When it is out of its element it can do nothing.

When I hear CEOs express their doubts about the value of talent management and staff development programmes, I think that perhaps they are not paying attention to the water. I wonder whether it is possible that focusing on developing individual talent has distracted us from working to improve the habitat (companies and teams) in which talent must first develop and then thrive?

This would not be surprising where there is such an emphasis on a clear line of sight from corporate strategy to individual performance, captured in performance contracts, KPIs, SMART objectives and other tools all honed to hold the individual accountable (and if need be to provide training and coaching to support the achievement of individual objectives.)

I would like to suggest a different approach – one that focuses more attention on the organisation as a whole and the teams within it, and how they inhibit or enable the growth and performance of individuals. If we do this, we will focus less on outcomes and more on the processes that produce those outcomes. If the processes are good, the outcomes will follow.

This broader “environmental” intervention will free-up and develop the capabilities of every member of staff, not just those chosen for special attention and development.

The developmental organisation

This is something that Robert Kegan and his fellow authors argue in their latest book – An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organisation.[1]

They argue that the common elements of talent management have features that undermine their function. For example:

  • The selection of “high potential” individuals for particular attention sends a message to others that they do not have high potential and are not expected to develop through their career.
  • Executive coaching is similarly for the select few.
  • “Offsite” training sessions are “too infrequent and too far away from work”. So the learnings are not sustained, and anyway get suffocated by an existing culture in which habits and policies reinforce older ways of doing things.

I would add that in my own experience of taking managers through 360° reports, there is often quite a deep anxiety about how these reports highlight their “weaknesses” and leave them feeling vulnerable in a corporate culture that is intolerant of anything but success.

Kegan and his colleagues make a similar point. They suggest that in most organisations, staff have a second job that takes as much energy as their defined job. This second job involves employees polishing their image by flaunting their strengths, and, particularly, finding ways to hide and distract attention from their weaknesses.

Their alternative is contained in the two parts of the book title:

  • “An everyone culture” tells us that the organisation focuses on the development of everyone, all the time in the daily functioning of the organisation rather than something that is offered to a few outside of the daily flow of work. It is essential that people know their strengths are acknowledged and that their weaknesses are known and not held against them, and it’s OK to make mistakes – and so neither weaknesses nor mistakes need be hidden.  People are respected and nurtured, even when they are not at their best. You are valuable even when you screw up, and even more valuable if you overcome the weakness, and the community will help you. 
  • “A deliberately developmental organisation” (DDO) tells us that within this community, everyone is expected to be “working on their edge” – harnessing and developing their strengths, and working on their weaknesses, which is now a safe thing to do, because you trust others to support you, rather than fear that they will judge and condemn you. Also everyone needs to commit to making and fixing mistakes themselves and helping others to do the same. And everyone needs to trust and create trust.

These two features will give us organisations built on care and candour, or support and challenge; where every teachable moment is used, rather than ignored to avoid embarrassing or difficult conversations; and where the CEO’s  focus is on “how do I make my space the best incubator of people?”.[2] This in turn suggests that the focus is not so much on the outcome, as on the process that delivers the outcome.

So what is this process? The authors examine three companies they consider DDOs.  In truth, there is quite a difference in practices between the companies which are also quite different kinds of companies. This seems like a good thing.  There is no template, only a commitment that people and their organisations can contribute to each other thriving.  Clearly, regular and structured feedback is essential, as is imparting skills, and frequently taking time to review how things could be done better, rather than doing this only at fixed, performance linked reviews.  All the tools we usually use are valuable, but must be deployed daily at work, rather than at times and places that are often separate from daily work procedures. This may seem time consuming. The authors argue that productivity gains from enhanced skills, strengths and motivation more than compensate for the time taken.  Also, if no-one is doing their “second job” (hiding their weaknesses), then much more time and energy can be committed to their real work.

The effective team

The developmental organisation is one important step away from the exclusive focus on individual upskilling. Many people spend most of their time at work inside a team rather than in the organisation as a whole. Here too, the notion that effectiveness is all about individual performance also needs to be modified. Most people have worked in teams that seem to stall, even though they seem to contain an abundance of talent. Teams too, need the right kind of water to swim in.

Perhaps the most important message that the DDO perspective has for teams is that the strengths and weaknesses of each team member should be known and respected by all team members. This way each task is allocated to the person who can do it best, and no-one “hides” by taking on work they are not well suited for, wasting the time and resources of the group as a whole.

Thornhill’s research and experience over years has taught us other things about teams. We recognise that there are the technical tasks that must be done by competent people. But because the team is also a living organism, there are other roles that must be played. Each team needs the person who is committed to ensuring that every detail is correct; and it also needs people who take responsibility for organising the work, for sparking new ways of doing things, for managing relations with people outside the team and for supporting team members who may be struggling, either at work or in their personal lives. In this way team members also contribute to the ecology of the team environment.

If we focus only on the individual technical tasks, then the work will not be done efficiently, no matter how well developed the capabilities are of the individual team members. The team becomes a quicksand of frustrated talent, and poorly delivered tasks. It is important to build teams that have both the competencies and the personal attributes required for effective teamwork. If this does not happen, then we prompt the CEO scepticism mentioned at the outset, “We spend all this time and money on personal development, yet the benefits are hard to see”.

On the other hand, I would like to suggest, if we build an approach to the development of all staff right into the daily functions of the organisation rather than having it as a separate and special process for special people; and if we build our teams in a way that recognises the need for a blend of organisational capabilities beyond the task oriented skills required; then we can unleash more talent from more people than we ever could imagine, and deploy that talent in well performing teams.

Thornhill has designed a Team Performance Review that enables teams as a whole and all individual members to improve their performance by reviewing how effectively they operate as a team, and provides feedback to each team member as to the roles they play and the contributions they make to the team.

For more information on Thornhill’s various products and services for all levels within your organisation, please contact us on admin@thornhill.co.za.


[1] Kegan R, et al.  An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organisation. Harvard Business Review Press, 2016

[2] Some of the language in this section is drawn from https://www.coachesrising.com/podcast/becoming-a-deliberately-developmental-organization/

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