15 FEBRUARY 2012
Beyond talent management: Facts, myths and implications
by Jonathan Winter
From Enron to the more recent banking crises, talent management has conspicuously failed to deliver. Is it time for a new way to release talent? Jonathan Winter gathers the evidence, blows away some myths, and – in collaboration with MLab – proposes a new organisation that will enable leaders (especially HR leaders) to help redesign the way we all work.

Why is it that only a few companies ever become famous for the way they manage people? Many become famous for their products, or for their advertising campaigns. Some – like Enron – sadly become famous for their misdeeds. But despite decades of evidence linking good people-management with good results, only a handful become famous for their management. They include Semco, W.L. Gore, Southwest Airlines, Zappos and more recently HCL and Morning Star.

In search of answers, the Ci (Career Innovation Group) research team has now – with help from many colleagues and research partners around the world – completed more than ten years of research and development. We’ve worked with some of the world’s best-known employers to track emerging trends in work and careers and to shape innovative practices. And we have repeatedly asked: Why is so much talent wasted and so many people disengaged in their work? What really motivates people? How can next-generation employers truly inspire, engage and create value through people?

Global partners in this quest have included private companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever, Boeing, UBS and Marriott together with NGOs such as Oxfam. We have published 25 research studies, convened over 40 innovation events, and pioneered research-based practices and tools used by individuals, managers and HR professionals all around the world.

Across all this work, one startling insight stands out:

Most managers rarely if ever sit down with their valued colleagues and ask this simple question: What is it that really engages you at work? What are your hopes and ambitions?

To our surprise, this proved to be true even among the most nurtured ‘top talent’ groups. We found that on average four in every ten ‘talented’ employees said there was a topic they wanted to discuss with their manager – a ‘conversation gap’. Most of these missing conversations were about the future. Many of them were about their future careers.

The more we’ve looked at this, the more significant it seems. We’ve found this single indicator – the conversation gap – predicts with remarkable accuracy people’s level of engagement and commitment to an organisation. This simple action – an honest conversation about the person first, then the business – is in many cases the most engaging thing a manager can do.

What’s going wrong? And what can be done about it?

Superficially of course the answer is very simple: Managers need to have those conversations. And in some cases, all that’s needed is a prompt. One young manager at Microsoft in Seattle read about the research and immediately scheduled time with each of his team for an agenda-free conversation about themselves and their future work. “It wasn’t difficult,” he said “and I could visibly see their energy levels rising as we talked”.

Unfortunately in most cases we have to do more than simply plead with people to have better conversations. Under pressure from imposed targets and in the context of constant change, managers prefer to avoid topics that might expose their own uncertainty. The very conversations that could engage people get squeezed out. No wonder we’re all stressed.

The conversation gap turns out to be a symptom of a much deeper malaise that is heavily embedded in the culture and practices of management, especially talent management. This malaise has at least three major causes at managerial, organisational and market-wide levels:

1. Managers misunderstand what motivates ‘knowledge workers’ who – unlike nineteenth century factory workers – cannot be managed by close supervision, and whose best creative work is not measured by hours in the office or the number of units produced. We must stop trying to ‘incentivise’ people to do things they don’t want to do, and start partnering with them – like adults – to achieve great results that have mutual benefit.

2. Organisational practices are still assuming a slow-moving environment in which planning can take place at the top and centre of organisations, and be cascaded down as objectives. Rather, today we almost all experience ‘constant change’. We therefore need to design management practices that build individual resilience and organisational agility, balancing top-down alignment with bottom-up responsiveness.

3. Business is still ignoring the globalisation of cause-and-effect. The continued focus on short-term financial return is blinding us to new ways of managing that are needed to produce longer-term returns in a connected world. This in turn undermines individual managers who want to invest time – for example – in understanding and developing their people. In today’s networked world, we need to act in new ways that create a virtuous cycle of shared value. This builds trust and promotes innovation.

To put these three things another way: The entire infrastructure of management is built on the tension between workers’ objectives and organisational objectives, rather than partnership. The problem is getting worse, because the pace of change means we can no longer manage things top-down, we have to rely on people to respond quickly to opportunities and threats. And the tension with workers parallels the wider problem business has, in which the goal of short-term profit is set against the needs of society.

What can we really do?

We need to work on the deepest problem – the mindset – if we’re ever going to create real change. That’s an ambitious goal. Newer and smaller organisations may be able to adopt this new talent philosophy immediately and without hesitation. It is intrinsically less bureaucratic, less costly and more engaging than today’s talent management practices.

For large established organisations, the journey will be longer but not impossible. We’re consulting several well-known global organisations (including MLab) about a new ‘Academy’ or ‘Lab’. This will equip a network of HR leaders with the structured tools needed to question assumptions and facilitate experiments in management. Leadership habits need challenging. Basic management assumptions and practices need re-thinking to create a positive environment in which people can do their best work.

Very quickly these experiments will start to take us beyond talent management and towards a more rewarding, creative, purposeful way to achieve great things together. Then we’ll have built a new generation of organisational communities we really want to be part of.

Winter is founder of the Career Innovation group, www.careerinnovation.com

Source: With offices in Silicon Valley and London, the Management Lab works with leading-edge firms to help them create tomorrow’s new practices today. Visit our web-site at: http://www.managementlab.org.

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