Turning Talent Development on Its Ugly Head

Turning Talent Development on Its Ugly Head

In the past, and even in some cases now, the process of investing in the learning and growth of your employees and leaders is often called Talent Management or Talent Development. The job titles of the leaders in these spaces are similar – Director of Talent Management isn’t uncommon. However, when it comes to actually developing your people, there are a number of different ways to approach it – and your fundamental assumptions and values matter. There are at least two options being pushed around out there, and I want to suggest that we are in desperate need of a third option.

OPTION 1: Focus on your top 15%. This one has now lost steam as people have realized how completely offensive it is to the masses. The assumption is that talent is talent and it is all about performance as the primary driver. But, it’s also based on the assumption that only 15% of your people are your true talent (born to be good), and the rest of us are somewhere lost in the 85%. It’s a little disturbing, but still common practice for many leaders, managers and “talent” management folks.

OPTION 2: Of your top 15 to 30% most talented people, focus on the bottom portion of that group. So, focus on the lowest performance potential people among your high performing talent. In other words, don’t focus on the top of the top, but focus on the bottom of the top. Here is the assumption behind this. The bottom group among your top performers are still “performers”, but they have space to learn and grow. The huge problem with this approach is the assumption of performance as the bottom line metric for success. Everything is based on the idea that if someone is in the high performance group and has room to perform better, they are your best best because have room to grow.

THE MASSIVE PROBLEM: Performance as the primary framing mechanism is dangerous, or at the very least, reckless. Performance is important, but it’s not the only thing. In fact, it’s a really problematic thing in so many cases that we ignore. A high performer who is all about them, unwilling to learn, lacks humility, isn’t open to learning or experience, isn’t looking to better themselves for the sake of others and not just themselves is a dangerous cat in your workplace. The fact that they are performers makes them even more dangerous because they will have the clout and track record to convince followers to take that same selfish and unteachable path.

OPTION 3: Performance does matter, but it is simply a minimum qualification that can change over time. So, focus on the minimum necessary skills, knowledge and abilities to get the job done well, and then invest in those who have something different – the character to learn, to serve others, and to become better versions of themselves. The assumption behind this approach is that performance for most of us is a cycle and not an end. We go through phases where we are performing better that are impacted by other factors (timing, manager support, time to learn, new roles, burnout, etc.). Identify those high on motivation to learn, to adapt, to learn, to improve and to pull the deeper lessons from the well of challenges (including failures and mistakes) that life and work are likely to offer them. Identify those who can perform at the needed level and then identify those who are hungry to learn, on a motivated journey of becoming better versions of themselves for their sake, and more importantly, for the sake of others. If we began to think about “talent” development this way, we might see all kinds of weird things being valued – even things like love, kindness, conviction, courage, and something called editability. Editability is that willingness to have the backspace key hit on things that we may hold sacred.

-Dr. Rob McKennas


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