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Smart Leaders Do More Than Talk About Talent

Those of you familiar with my work know how much I detest politically correct sound-bites. Even worse – when those sound-bites are used in an attempt to make statements which embolden a corporate position that doesn’t really exist to begin with. Just because something is written in a vision or mission statement, placed on a website, included in company collateral material, or frequently espoused by corporate leadership doesn’t necessarily mean its true. In today’s post I’ll examine one of the most frequent offenders; “Talent is our biggest asset.”

Rarely do I speak with an executive who hasn’t taken more than a few sips of the talent messaging Kool-Aid. They don’t miss a beat as they speak of the quality of their talent as a key success metric. In fact, many of them will emphatically state that talent is their single biggest competitive advantage. If I only had a nickel for each time a CEO has told me “We have the best talent in the industry.” Reality check – as polished as their rhetoric tends to be, the simple truth of the matter is that their elocution doesn’t match their business practices. They often talk the talk, but rarely do they walk the walk.

The sad reality is few companies seem willing to make the requisite investments needed to successfully align their actions with their management speak. It has been my consistent experience that talent is one of the most often discussed, and least effectively actioned issues at executive leadership meetings. If CEOs spent half as much time on talent initiatives as they do complaining about talent, their organizations would see significant improvement thus obviating the need for all the grumbling.

Here’s an observation for your consideration; when an executive leadership meeting is called and there isn’t a dedicated executive level talent resource present, you don’t value talent as much a you think you do. I’m not talking about inviting your HR manager to attend the meeting for a few minutes, but rather having a C-level talent executive with a regular seat at the table. If your company doesn’t have a Chief Talent Officer, Chief People Officer etc.,  then you are likely just paying lip service to the value of talent.

If you just downsized and gave your previously “highly valued assets” their walking papers, then you might not value talent as much as you say you do. One of my mentors once cautioned me about treating people like furniture saying that “individuals are not inantimate objects to simply be moved around and discarded, but that people require a constant investment of time and money to develop to their full potential.” He strongly cautioned against short-term hires, and believed that you shouldn’t hire anyone whom you couldn’t keep and develop over the long haul.  I would encourage you to read a previous post on “Workforce Reduction.”

If recruiting, training and development is being charged to a mid-level manager whose real domain expertise lies in administration and compliance, then talent will likely become your largest contingent liability as opposed to your biggest asset. In a previous post entitled “Who Should Do The Hiring” I go into great detail as to why recruiting and hiring should not always be siloed away as an HR function.

Bottom line…if you have high employee turnover (see “Cutting Employee Churn“), a fractured corporate culture, a lack of leadership development and mentoring programs, regressive compensation programs, and a lack of C-level focus on talent then talent cannot be your biggest asset. Don’t hype…stop complaining…fix the problem.

Thoughts?

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    Thabo Hermanus

    February 10, 2011 at 9:42 am

    On the one hand, you don’t want to leave it all to HR (Talent Management) as each leader needs to ensure that they are actively driving it within their responsibility area yet on the other hand I can see your point though of the requirement of someone on the leadership team to be a Champion of the Talent Management within the organization. We all have different ideas as to what Talent Management is, and even within the company, different leadership styles make it hard to champion the how to. So a CPO would be effective if their primary role was researching and measuring what works and what doesn’t work rather than trying to standardize a one size fits all approach that gets dictated to the rest of the organization. Most organizations battle with it because they do not know how to define what Talent Management is, nor do they know what works best for their people in order to get the best results for everyone.

      Mike Myatt

      February 10, 2011 at 3:30 pm

      Agreed on all points – especially about the flawed logic of attempting to implement one-size-fits-all talent solutions. I appreciate the astute insights Thabo…

    Briankibby

    February 10, 2011 at 1:23 pm

    Great article, Mike — Senior leaders need to truly engage in the process, which also means rolling up their sleeves in both the attraction and evaluating process. That means engaging two and sometimes even three levels down.

      Mike Myatt

      February 10, 2011 at 3:27 pm

      Hi Brian:

      Thanks for sharing your experience. To be in leadership role and not be engaged is nothing short of leadership malpractice. Thanks again for stopping by Brian.

    Dan Rockwell

    February 10, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Mike,

    KaPow! I wish I could take issue with your power-packed observations. However, sadly I can’t. You are nailing the proverbial hide to the wall.

    Frankly, deep down in the heart of the organization, when everything is quiet and reality sets in, many hard working, talented employees know they are NOT considered their organizations most valuable asset.

    Killer!

    Best to you,

    Dan

      Mike Myatt

      February 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm

      Thanks Dan…I always appreciate your perspective Sir. Let’s make sure and catch-up again soon.

    Wally Bock

    February 10, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Another post with a lot to chew on, Mike. Thanks. The sad part is that your post says what many of us in business have been aware of for years. It’s an issue of walking the talk, or not. Most of the companies and top executives who mouth “People are our greatest asset” act like they believe that people are, at best, talent to be manipulated and at worst a flesh-covered variety of interchangeable parts.

    Leaders at every level have two jobs. One is to accomplish the mission, make the numbers. The other is to care for the people and help them succeed and grow. Every company evaluates their managers on the mission job, very few evaluate as seriously on the people job, and even fewer are willing to fire a manager who makes the numbers but destroys the people.

      Mike Myatt

      February 11, 2011 at 3:06 pm

      Great insights Wally. What’s interesting to me about the dichotomy you describe is that leaders who care for, and serve their people succeed, while those who fail in these endeavors eventually fail. Leadership is all the about the people for it is the people who accomplish the mission – not the leader. Thanks for stopping by Wally.

    Tom Schulte

    February 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    Mike, you hit this spot-on!

    The way I see it, people come to organizations with two sides to their balance sheet. If an employer or company really thinks that “people are their greatest asset,” they need to take some deep thinking time and understand what this really means.

    These “people” who provide the profits to the bottom line are not gears in a machine made of steel that churn out the goodies for shareholders and management. They are not computers that simply get upgraded and more productivity “happens.”

    “People” are wonderfully productive “things” that come to the economic table who also carry with them unfortunate things like their personal lives, emotional issues, health problems, unexpected schedule changes, and a whole lot of other “problems.” Like any other asset, they take care and maintenance to keep things running smoothly.

    Companies who can take the “good with the bad” and appropriately deal with, train, coach and nurture these “flawed” assets are the ones that will see the greatest returns on their “human resource” investment.

    Bravo, Mike! Nice piece.

    Tom Schulte
    Linked 2 Leadership | LeaderBrief
    Atlanta, GA USA

      Mike Myatt

      February 11, 2011 at 3:12 pm

      Hi Tom:

      Thanks for sharing these important thoughts. Many leaders tend to have unrealistic expectations out of the gate. The fact is no matter how well an organization is operated, business is messy and people are even messier. Vision, strategy, and implementation efforts need to be built on this understanding. Thanks for sharing Tom.

    William Powell

    February 10, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Yes Mike! Now you’re talking my language for sure. Talent needs to be led, managed and addressed based on their needs (which vary throughout the organization). If there isn’t a way to know and understand what these needs are, and where they are located in your organization, you’re just whistling up a rope.

    You have to actually give a rip in order to give it the appropriate attention. You have to have a plan and viable tool to source the challenged areas and yet know where things are going well.

    Cheers,
    William

      Mike Myatt

      February 11, 2011 at 3:14 pm

      William:

      I always appreciate the candid nature of your observations. I also appreciate the fact they’re usually spot-on. Thanks for sharing William.

    Erin Schreyer

    February 11, 2011 at 2:58 am

    Great post, Mike! It’s so true that many companies talk about this, but when it comes down to it, their actions don’t back up what they say.

    I’m a firm believer that an investment in people (not just money, but also time, attention, appreciation…) is worth it. ALWAYS. Not only does it often-times get the business results companies are hoping to achieve, but it also builds into people personally and pervades every area of their lives.

    We need to stop treating employees like numbers and/or computers. They are people, and when they are valued as such, you will also get the best those people have to offer!

      Mike Myatt

      February 11, 2011 at 3:16 pm

      Well said Erin. If you treat your team as little more than a means to an end, you’ll rarely reach the end, and if you do, it won’t be what you expected. Thanks for stopping by Erin.

    Mark Oakes

    February 11, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Great post, Mike. Agree 100%.

    There have been times where I have been the poster child for how ‘not’ to do this (… and I have plenty of room for continued improvement). While I’ve espoused the ‘people first’ mantra and striven to create an environment where our folks could flourish, I didn’t fully understand why that the topic of ‘Talent Management’ had far-reaching implications for the long term success of the business. Fortunately, my scars are making me a little smarter in my old age or the wounds are still fresh enough to remember 🙂

    Here’s what I’m now working on… Talent is one leg of the 3-legged stool upon which all business success is founded. An organizations’ strategy, people, and operational missions must all be in tight alignment if a company has any chance of Executing on its’ vision/mission. Leaders MUST take ownership for all three. While some leaders like to think they are in the ‘strategy’ business and immune to the other two, they too often they forget that nothing gets done without the right people and a realistic, achievable plan (operations). Leaders should remain vigilant on all 3 fronts and this vigilance (or lack thereof) is patently obvious by what they routinely communicate as being ‘Important’

    M

      Mike Myatt

      February 11, 2011 at 3:24 pm

      Thanks for sharing in such a transparent fashion. This is the type of information that can help others who read this thought stream. Along those lines heres an observation – examine every critical aspect of a business and you’ll find at some level that it’s dependent on people. Leaders who fail to recognize this, or espouse on emphasis on systems/process/tools over caring for people are usually headed straight for the proverbial brick wall. I’m not suggesting that systems and processes aren’t important, but it’s critical to remember that the real value of infrastructure is to support, enhance, and leverage the value of talent. Thanks for sharing Mark.

    Roy Atkinson

    February 12, 2011 at 2:33 am

    Mike,
    I have worked for an organization whose CXO’s apparently read a book called “What to say to sound like you care about your people.” They talked the talk for sure. And their best people walked the walk, right out the door. Experience, commitment, reputation and innovation went zipping away as fast as possible. Those who were unable to leave found a new bottom to the morale basement. And the HR folks went right along with the whole hayride. The saddest part of the whole debacle is that the bottom line improved–at least temporarily, reinforcing their belief that their choices were correct. When the collapse happens, and I believe it will, the reason will be clear to those of us who lived through some of it:They forgot the basic premise that people matter most.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, and your clear thinking on this subject.

    Roy

      Mike Myatt

      February 12, 2011 at 5:33 am

      Hi Roy:

      Thanks for the insightful comment. I have always believed that leaders who don’t embrace talent do not deserve to retain it. Thanks for the great reminder. Have a great weekend Roy.

    Susan Mazza

    February 27, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    I absolutely agree with this statement: “The sad reality is few companies seem willing to make the requisite investments needed to successfully align their actions with their management speak.”

    Assigning a c-level exec this accountability can turn out to be more lip service because as Mark pointed out talent management must be every leaders job for it to work.

    There is another sad reality underlying this issue – most people in leadership positions today understand the importance theoretically and agree in principle but have no idea what it even means OR how to do it. Why would they? I would venture to say that most people in leadership positions found their way there in spite of a lack of effective talent management (or leadership development for that matter).

    One way to stop the lip service and get into meaningful action is to put the moose on the table – the moose in this case just might be “we don’t know how either as individuals and/or as a team.” Once the pretense is removed the real work can begin.

      Mike Myatt

      February 28, 2011 at 5:55 am

      Hi Susan:

      Thanks for sharing the great insights. Getting rid of the pretense and eliminating the lip service associated with all aspects of leadership is sound counsel Susan. Thanks again for stopping by.

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