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The misdirected search for Talent

"Dear Talent, I wish I had grown a beard sitting on a mountaintop, meditating on the 101 Mantras of Talent Transformation." Prabhash Nirbhay, Founder and Director Consulting, Flipcarbon Integrated Solutions

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Dear Talent, I wish I had grown a beard sitting on a mountaintop, meditating on the 101 Mantras of Talent Transformation. Alas! Meditation calls for tranquility, patience, conquering desire - virtues that organizations seldom have. So, I did the next best thing. I created a grid. 

This grid after the plague, is perhaps the most dangerous thing lurking in the shadows. It silently creeps up on organizations, kills collaboration, instills unhealthy competition and introduces melancholy.

Don’t get me wrong. Just as the knife isn’t the killer, the hand is; the grid isn’t the killer, the hand is. I have nothing against the grid. It is our grid. In its judicious use lies our salvation.

Unfortunately, judicious is not a terminology that we can apply to frequent, absolutely unscientific and frivolous manner in which we apply our HR science that we spent two very important years of our life learning. Here are examples:

1. Performance equals potential: One of the most common fallacies. While it is true that there is a high correlation between performance and potential in so much that it is likely that you may show signs of potential if you have been performing well, correlation does not necessarily mean causality. Just because you are an excellent staff nurse does not mean that you will become a great matron and it is highly unlikely that you will become a brain surgeon. What are the chances that an excellent brain surgeon will become the President of the United States?

We know the answers, but frequently, organizations tend to promote people to their level of incompetence and in the process, lose out an excellent performer at a certain level. In fact, they make this kind of vertical growth so aspirational that they kill collaboration, bring back 9th standard competition of grades into the organizational corridors and increase toxicity.

Enjoy the performance, without unnecessarily seeking out potential. The pyramid will collapse if everyone was to become a high potential in your organization. The middle of the grid is important as that is the part that keeps the machinery running.

A corollary to this is that on occasions a high potential may show sign of fatigue and not performing at her best? This could be because of many reasons - wrong Job, absence of growth, personal issues. This is something that needs to be fixed not ignored.

What can we do differently?
Recognize performance for what it is. An ability to chase down our individual goals, which are linked very strongly to our institutional vision. An individual who is able to do this for us, day after day, year after year, complexity after complexity, is a treasure. Hold on to these individuals; nurture, respect and engage with them.
Recognize the potential for what it is. An ability to transcend the competency requirements of the current role and consistently exhibit the competency requirements of a higher-level role. An individual who is able to do this is your cover for roles which may not have empty boxes now. These roles in stable organizations may not have empty boxes for a long time. This creates your so-called band inertia. The individual is not to blame. Hold on to these individuals; nurture, respect and engage with them.

2. The grow to survive mentality: Organizations even have a name for it. They call it band inertia. What this stupidity literally means is this – we have an organization which has been shaped like a pyramid. We have a design limitation that creates bottle neck for growth. On top of that we will also have high performance, low potential people (in my book, highly respectable individuals who selflessly keep the wheels turning.) This means that we are going to have a situation where a person is performing at the top of her possibility, and has been doing it consistently and suddenly the organization drops a stink ball. “You have not grown (what they mean is that you have not grown vertically, chances are the complexity of your role has increased many fold over the years) and hence the time has come for you to seek out other employment.” What they leave unsaid is this – “In the process of this communication, I am losing a great performer (possibly higher priced) and must now need to train a replacement which comes at an opportunity cost of performance and growth which I am yet to calculate. I am topping this completely unnecessary expense with disengagement amongst other top performers.”
Let us now consider this – an employee is supposed to earn many times her current salary. So, a 20% saving in pay cost, topped up with a 10% loss in productivity (on account of new incumbent as well as other incumbents being demoralized) is likely to increase, not decrease our overall costs. The cost may just move from pay cost to other line items. Myopic or what?
In fact, band inertia is not a problem at all. We have created a monster for ourselves by telling people that there are only two parameters for recognition – consistent, disproportionate increase in cash components of our total recognition and frequent trudge up the ladder. Instead, if we can create institutions that value and recognize creativity, that value and recognize collaboration, that value and recognize commitment, and most importantly that value and recognize contribution irrespective of the role one has been and for howsoever long, then we will have a culture that will enable other dimensions of engagement that people crave – autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Why is it that a mother does not look for payments and definitely does not expect to be called Sr. Deputy Assistant General Mother in the near future!

3. A few people are responsible for Organization’s performance: We have to put an end to this. It is a team sport people. In team sport, individual brilliance counts, it must also be rewarded. However, the team must be recognized for its contribution to the overall success. On the contrary, we call out this team as average performers, call out their performance as inadequate, at best ignore them and at worst infuse them with guilt that they did not deserve to carry, for events that did not actually take place.

Imagine playing a football match without the midfield, hoping that the striker will carry the day!

How about the cricket match without the Wicket Keeper, who seldom gets to bat, hardly ever bowls, and wins very few Man of the match awards?

Organizations work and win in teams. The team is the single most important unit to enable and nurture. The need is to kill processes that destroy teams and bring in processes which encourage people to deliver in teams. Individual brilliance must be nurtured, but not at the cost of the team.

4. We can have short term fixes to institutional problems: This is the one single biggest reason for HR flavours of the day. Last couple of years we have 3 HR flavours which have not been thought through.
a. One, the so-called myths of millennials and the need to somehow meet their needs separately. The reality is that across ages, we have always had generational gaps in the workforce which calls for greater integration, not creation of silos.
b. Two, the diversity antibiotic: Diversity has become a number. The institutional issues that causes homogeneity in workforce remain unaddressed. A large number of women don’t even enter the workforce, so the incestuous search for hiring women in even larger numbers is unlikely to solve the societal problem while it may solve one organizations problems temporarily. There are very few schools equipped to handle differently abled children. They start out at life with serious institutional disadvantages. After this, our best on intentions are unlikely to yield desired results.
c. Three, the big data opportunity: The reality is, we have inadequately handled our small data. We still do not know how to link employee engagement with organizations performance. In fact, I can bet top dollars that CEOs don’t even spend serious time on this number. It is highly unlikely that the engagement score, apart from being flavor of the season at the time of surveys, is tracked with the same rigor as Revenue, Profitability or Cost. Here is the open secret – there is a very strong correlation as well as causality between engagement and performance.

This is what was called the Frou-Frou trap by Sumantra Ghoshal. Chasing after flavours of the season without looking at correcting institutional issues and assuming that these flavours will be enough to compensate for bad recipes and worst cooking!

The need is to look at a problem deeply and use some of the concrete tools we ourselves created. How about applying the 80:20 rule to decide whether millennials are important enough to devote separate energies? How about drawing a fishbone diagram to solve the gender diversity problem? How about running a simulation to figure out whether over 10 or 20 years or maybe even a century, extended maternity leave creates a gender diversity solution or increases the gender equality problem?

5. HR decides the fate of people: Frequently, we live in the fallacy that HR is the custodian of people and must do things for and to people. HR people, in search of the water created out of this mirage chase goals which are not theirs to begin with. Attrition numbers, engagement scores, goal setting calendars.

Nothing can be further from the truth. HR is a facilitative function, like finance. Just like Finance cannot really make money for the organization, HR cannot really create engagement for the organization. We HR folks need to come out of this superiority complex and hand over the reins to well-trained managers and hold them accountable to their people performance goals. Seldom do we find a disproportionate share of a Manager’s goal sheet to be people centric whereas the reality is that they get the work done through people. Their goal sheet cannot be a sum-total of the goal sheets of their teams. It has to consist of enabling environment that they create for their teams to perform.

So, what should be HRs goals? Simple actually. Have you created opportunities for Managers to train themselves and then use those skills on people and be adequately recognized for doing so? Have you created mechanisms to call out energy sapping behavior? Have you clearly established linkages between engagement and performance and are able to highlight these frequently?

To summarize, it is important that we identify the real meaning of talent and create enabling circumstances if we hope to create a sustainable advantage which is difficult to replicate. To do this, we have to look beyond the too good to be true solutions that are being floated all around us and look our own problems deeply in the eyes and find solutions that dig deep into the root cause.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


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