How to Handcuff Your Talent

Talent waste is a leadership issue…

Have you ever walked around an under-performing business and marveled at the level of individual talent it has?

Have you ever seen a team comprised of “A” level talent deliver a “C” level result?

If you haven’t, keep looking. You’ll see it.

In a gross over-generalization of what constitutes “talent” it’s a proven fact that you can walk around some organizations and see hordes of squandered university degrees, MBAs, and PhDs; not to mention mountains of practical experience sitting shelved, squashed, and frozen.

We waste talent.  It’s a fact of life.  Sometimes that’s a conscious thing; and sometimes it’s accidental.

The curious case of Barbara the sales leader…

Let me tell you about Barbara.  Barbara is a deeply experienced professional in the technical materials field she has worked in for her entire career.  She has spent time across disciplines and functions, spanning engineering, manufacturing, customer services, product development, and–at the midpoint of this story–sales.

Barbara the sales leader was comfortable.  She had been working for Kenneth for a long time; and Kenneth called the shots.  Barbara learned when to speak up, and when to shut up. She was a good soldier.

When I engaged in a strategic planning project with Kenneth’s organization at the request of another sponsoring executive, Barbara was a distant figure–the sales leader who sat in the back of the room and didn’t say much.

On the one hand, I’d say Barbara was a good listener and perhaps a bit of an introvert.

On the other hand, I would call her disengaged.

She wasn’t under-performing.  She was “fine” as an employee.  She had good experience and used it well; but was a wallflower when it came to strategic thinking.

Then…Kenneth left the company.

And, Barbara, as the most senior person on the team, was named as the interim executive.

Guess what happened?

Barbara blossomed.

In one of the better examples of a senior person grabbing the bull by the horns that I have ever witnessed, she suddenly became a highly thoughtful, engaged, and action-oriented leader.  She has subsequently led the business to several successful years of performance, largely on the back of her own strategic and customer-centric mind.

It seems that all it took was to ask her to lead.  That, and to perhaps get out of her way.

Barbara was an A player just waiting to be asked to be what she was.  In a sort of sad reality, Barbara was only asked to be a C-level contributor; and her talents as a business leader were squandered for years because she was exceptionally loyal and remarkably under-led. 

What we can learn from the Barbara case

Just as Barbara was an A-player only tasked with a C result; sometimes, a team of “A” players can play like a team of C players.  They can produce a C result through a combination of disengagement and disenchantment.

I’ll go even further:  “A” talent is squandered when it isn’t tested.  In corporate cultures built on stability and loyalty, “A” talent waste can become acute.

Why?  Because in those cultures the employees with “A” talent are docile enough to let an organization squander their talent.

Shockingly, my experience has been that organizations that are exceptionally stable do more to squander talent than those that engender some turnover.  That’s why a talent performance management is a critical strategic tool.

In an odd and maybe counter-intuitive reality, organizations with high churn squander talent, but rarely squander careers.

Careers get squandered in stable cultures.  And it happens because of loyalty and leadership. These two powerfully valuable facets of culture combine to waste talent every day.

5 ways A-level talent can be led to C-level results.

I’ve alluded to all of these in the case above, but let me outline a few of the reasons great talent can combine into under-performing results.

1. Managers don’t systematically stretch their followers – They never figure out that they have A-level talent on their team.  They run a system based on time vs. one based on effectiveness.

2.  Managers know they have A-Level talent, but don’t want to let it go – A players are systematically hoarded by savvy bureaucrats who won’t open their hands and let talented people find their level in the organization.  A lot of bad leaders focus on talent having to “pay dues” in the organization; which is usually just code speak for “don’t take my job.”

3.  Managers are scared of good talent – Yep, it happens.  Insecure leaders will bury talented people in the organization. Ask around your organization, you will find stories of managers who have “killed careers” of talented people who have either taken a risk or shown up their manager (even accidentally).  As organizations approach the “cult of personality” archetype, this factor tends to be the dominant one.  Managers only promote those who promote them.  Ugh.

4.  Managers respond with indignance or confusion when A-players ask for “more” – Whenever a manager pooh pooh’s a talented subordinate’s desire to do more, he or she inadvertently puts a cap on what people will ask for in the future.  Pretty soon, people stop asking to be stretched.

5. Loyal followers learn the game and stop asking – Just as in factor 4, where people are subtly ridiculed for asking for more and stop asking, loyal people who “like their jobs” and “like the people” will understand that asking to be tested as an A-player comes with consequences.  So, they stop asking.  Pretty soon, they look at their careers and a decade has passed.

It’s sad.

When all of these things come together, you find yourself walking around the organization and marveling at the juxtaposition of amazing talent and middling performance.  You see brilliant people watching the clock.

And, you see senior managers with shocking blind spots about how they have kneecapped good talent.

The bottom line on this article is this:  All organizations squander some talent; but organizations that get a C result from A talent have a special combination of leadership myopia and organizational inertia.

Don’t let talent waste be a part of your company’s social contract.

3 replies

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] the heels of my article on how organizations handcuff their talent (link here); and my use of the “A Player” meme in that article to boot, I find an article that […]

  2. […] the heels of my article on how organizations handcuff their talent (link here); and my use of the “A Player” meme in that article to boot, I find an article that […]

  3. […] the heels of my article on how organizations handcuff their talent (link here); and my use of the “A Player” meme in that article to boot, I find an article that […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *