By Todd Warner
Every CEO claims to struggle with the challenge of getting the right “talent,” but what does this really mean? Their real concern is: Do I have the people who will understand my agenda and be able to really change how work gets done, at pace? This is the wrong question.
Individuals can make a difference in an organization, but a social system — particularly in large organizations — is always stronger.
Fundamentally, organizations domesticate people—they condition people to work in certain ways, and they inadvertently perpetuate the status quo. People get tagged as “talented” when they fit in (or pretend to). This ends up exacerbating conformity and fear, and perpetuating the very problems that the CEO is hoping to solve.
Real change requires understanding three dilemmas about “talent management” systems:
They are tribal.
Despite the size of modern organizations, people are still very tribal — they maintain and seek out small groups of “like minded” people with whom they find comfort, and it’s through these tribes they define their work. Talent thus looks a lot more like currying favor than any deeply analytic meritocracy, even when it comes to senior team ascension. Too often, CEOs say they’re looking to promote talent but end up promoting familiarity.
Smart senior leaders understand this, and they tend to fight and work to get the exposure and familiarity to executives from their “tribes.” Until senior leaders understand their complicity in this problem, and how the tribalism of their talent conversations contributes to it, their talent systems will continue to cripple them.
They reward compliance, not creativity.
While senior leaders promote and protect their “tribes,” once you get two steps outside of the C-suite, the problem becomes worse. Talent identification becomes about minions. Leaders often promote and protect the people who make them look good; too often, there are also the people who don’t challenge leaders. “Minions,” if you have not seen the movie, are cute and dependable, but they’re not about to create your future. I have worked with talent in dozens of organizations on multiple continents, and they’re typically bright, confident, articulate people. I would propose, however, that they’re not vastly distinct from the masses that work around them.
Most of them ignore the importance of context.
Some of the most storied “talent factories” in the world — companies like Exxon, General Electric, Goldman Sachs — say that they focus on the best people, but what they really mean is that they focus on people who thrive in their context, and in their social system. All of these companies have a distinct “type” that they look for –which brings its own risks. Becoming a talent factory isn’t about hiring or promoting the best people, it is about understanding the DNA of your social system, and building from that baseline.
Understanding your social system and the people who thrive in it is exponentially more valuable, particularly if you want to drive high performance. But let’s not confuse this with “talent.”
To start, spend your next “Talent Review” writing down the descriptors used to label individuals. Here’s an example from an executive team of a global company that was trying to drive stronger execution:
They realized that the talent that they needed were pushy, demanding and delivery-focused, that their system that had a bias for privileging “niceness” and non-confrontation. The organization, even at the senior-most levels, was inadvertently reinforcing the organization’s status quo.
This happens everywhere. Organizations cultivate in their talent systems toxic ways of policing the status quo, and then they wonder why they can’t change. Smart organizations, and truly aspirational CEOs, need to own this reality and spend their resources and energies differently. Broadly, the talent lenses and approaches we use, drive us toward the wrong, backward looking, conclusions.
Before investing tens of millions of dollars in assessing and looking at individuals, organizations need to pause and understand the limitations of talent management, and build the approaches that help people understand and shape context for different levels of performance.