The Top Five Dos and Don’ts of Talent Development

talent development best practices
talent development best practices

To get to the heart of how to develop top leadership talent in an organization, I turned to Brian Fishel, one of the world’s leading experts and practitioners in talent management today. Brian is accountable for a wide range of organizational, individual, and team assessment and development activities across the enterprise, and serves on the Board of Directors of Best Practice Institute. From his experience comes a list of five ways that you as a leader can promote effective recruitment and development, and five tendencies to avoid, gleaned from over 20 years of managing, developing, and recruiting leaders for highly successful international corporations.

The Top Five Dos of Talent Development

1.  Develop a common organizational language for talking about talent.    It can be difficult to promote a unified talent development strategy in any organization but especially so in a large organization made up of many specialized divisions,.  Accountants measure excellence differently than salespeople, who in turn have standards of quality that are foreign to the information technology and finance divisions.  A shared set of standards for identifying individuals with leadership potential is crucial to the success of an organization-wide talent development effort.  This starts with having one performance rating scale across the company. The talent manager must have the ability to identify and assess people against the requirements that make people successful or “de-railed” within the organization. Such a standard, based on metrics for general leadership best practices identified for each level of management, allows a business to determine who the high-potential individuals are believed to be within the organization.  This approach also provides rising stars with a greater possibility of internal promotion, lessening the odds of losing promising individuals to external opportunities.

2.  Put people in environments that play to their strengths.  Effective development of leadership talent within a company depends on careful placement of emerging leaders into positions that suit their functional expertise and leadership strengths.  Recognizing that not every high-potential employee is suited to every task is necessary in order to place individuals in situations that promote gradual and sustainable improvement, allowing them to develop and expand their areas of specialization without being spread too thin across the spectrum of management competencies.  This approach is also provides the organization with a greater level of efficiency and coherence, as managers working within their element are likely to achieve greater levels of productivity.

This is not to say, however, that high-potential individuals should stay within their comfort zones.  Brian Fishel recommends placing promising employees in “stretch situations” at the edge of their abilities, which will challenge them to refine their existing skill-sets and to acquire new ones without overwhelming them with requirements that unreasonably exceed their capabilities. This allows your subordinates to utilize their professional strengths, while developing new capabilities “on the margins”.  These stretch assignments should be supported with internal or external coaches, mentors, and a skilled team dedicated to follow-on support and development of high potential leaders.

3.  Let your subordinates own their processes.  Encouraging the development of confidence, judgment and initiative in your employees is just as important as the development of specific areas of expertise.  Corporate leadership requires self-directed individuals who can act decisively within the scope of their role in the organization, and who have a sense of ownership of the processes for which they are responsible. While talent development at the central, corporate level may include placement and promotion of managers, it is important to step back and allow the managers of functional areas both the authority and the accountability for those areas.  For high-potential individuals, process ownership encourages closer engagement with the goals of the company, and more effective and collaborative connections with their peers and subordinates.  As Brian Fishel says, “Don’t hold the reigns too tight but also don’t allow a “free for all” either.”

4.  Connect people to the message. The ability to form strong and sustainable working relationships with your superiors, peers, external constituents, and subordinates is a critical skill for effective leaders and managers, and one that becomes more essential the higher a manager rises in an organizational hierarchy.  Connecting people to the message means inspiring your co-workers and conveying the shared goals of the organization on an emotional level, but it also means developing the type of sustainable relationships, built on mutual trust, that hold together when times are tough, when sacrifices and greater effort are required.  Developing leaders within your organization requires the ability to connect with them on this level, and by example to set standards of communication, engagement, and focus that will allow them to act as organizational connectors as well.

5.  Balance new perspectives with experienced veterans according to business needs.   To promote from within, or hire from outside?  Many divergent schools of thought exist on whether fresh ideas trump organizational knowledge, or whether advancing people of known character and performance is better than introducing unknown factors.  According to Brian Fishel, the balance of recruitment versus promotion in your talent development strategy must start with a close look at the needs of the business.  If the fundamentals of your industry are in a state of flux, it may be advantageous to bring in fresh perspectives and novel influences.  If the business is making consistent headway against well-understood challenges, a balance in favor of internal promotions will give you a new crop of leaders with a solid concept of the goals of the organization.  Moreover, asking what the business needs can help to identify skill sets or specializations that may exist within the organization.

Filling leadership roles with existing employees with the necessary skill sets can shorten ramp-up periods and reinforce the incentive of potential advancement for other rising stars in the company.  By the same token, the need for competencies outside the existing organizational skill inventory can be an opportunity to introduce new approaches and advancements in the industry.  Focusing on the business needs driving the decision to hire or promote can help you to arrive at the optimum balance of fresh perspectives and organizational continuity.

…And the Top Five Don’ts:  

1. Don’t ignore enterprise goals.  The culture that exists within a company plays a key role in encouraging collaboration, cooperation, and engagement for every member of that company.  This importance is even more pronounced for larger companies, where a common corporate culture can help to unify the goals of employees and principles across functional divisions, regions, and continents.  A common mistake among managers is to indulge in “lone wolf” behaviors, working toward short-term wins and personal agendas rather than keeping focus on the goals and strategies of the organization.  High-potential individuals and newly-hired talents are two groups especially prone to this tendency, being highly motivated to prove themselves and to generate quick results.  Talent managers must emphasize the importance of respect for the corporate culture of the organization, as well as the importance of partnering with others and collaborating for better results.  Managers involved with recruitment and leadership development in particular should take care not to lose focus on enterprise goals, as this can send the wrong message to high-potential individuals.

2.   Don’t lose focus on business needs.  A frequent pitfall encountered by talent management professionals, particularly those working with large organizations in a centralized corporate management model, is the tendency to over-focus on theoretical approaches at the expense of the practical needs of the business.  With so many elegant and well-developed strategies of leadership development to choose from, it is tempting to ignore or gloss over facts and observations that might call your methods into question.  The best way to avoid this trap is to stay engaged with individuals at all levels of the business, from upper management to the front line, and to constantly compare performance metrics with the intended outcomes of your decisions.  Are leaders promoted from within the company working at expected levels of competence?  Are production and efficiency goals being met?  Are you getting closer to your target numbers for retention of promising talent?  Asking yourself questions like these will help to maintain your focus on the importance of measurable benefits to the company.

3.   Don’t be afraid to develop or hire people who challenge you.  As a business leader, you take pride in your expertise and in the respect of your co-workers, and being challenged can be a threatening and uncomfortable experience for the best of us.  This understandable tendency, however, can lead you to surround yourself with people who agree with you no matter what, creating an environment that is safe, reinforcing, and stagnant.  Developing the maturity not only to accept but to encourage respectful dissent and contrary opinions is essential for leaders who want to continue to develop and refine their capabilities.  Cultivating this behavior in subordinates will also prevent a culture of fear in which employees allow business goals to suffer out of concern for their own reputations and positions.  Above all, fostering open dialogue and discussion sets an example for rising stars in your company, contributing to an overall atmosphere of constructive collaboration that will drive greater organizational flexibility and improve company performance.

4.   Don’t over-orchestrate.   The role of a talent manager at the corporate level is to establish targets for recruitment and development of effective leaders, and to create strategies that will help the organization to achieve these goals.  This thousand-foot view, however, can obscure the importance of getting involved with the operational level, so as to build a concept of the day-to-day details, issues, and concerns that managers will need to be able to address.  In order to provide meaningful leadership and connect with subordinates, managers must be willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved with the actual work.  Direct engagement with both recruited and promoted leaders will yield more effective talent development results, and will set an example that will lead to better communication between company leaders and their subordinates at all levels of the organization.  Creating a culture of cooperation and a sense that “We’re all in this together” can help to break down barriers between line personnel and managers, resulting in a more effective and coherent organization.

5.   Don’t undervalue experience and history.   In times when business conditions are uncertain or sub-optimal, particularly when there is little agreement as to what is likely to happen in coming years , many companies are more likely to hire leadership positions from outside the organization, rather than promoting from within.  This is done with the intent to bring in novel approaches and fresh ideas, but it may cause talent managers to underrate the value of the experience, context, and organizational knowledge that existing employees can bring into a new position.  Even during tough times, when current approaches and personnel don’t seem to be moving the company in the desired direction, developing leadership talent within the organization can be strategically beneficial.  Promoting existing employees helps to preserve a sense of continuity and serves as a vote of confidence in the current team, boosting morale and settling fears that arise during periods of uncertainty.  This helps show others inside the organization who have career ambition that they too have opportunity to grow. While a balance must always be maintained between bringing in new people with fresh ideas and promoting proven talent within the organization, don’t let fear of tough times blind you to the benefits of continuing to invest in employees who know the company culture and have demonstrated dedication to goals of the organization.

In a business landscape overshadowed by distressed economies and shifting balances of influence in the global marketplace, a company must have effective and capable leadership at every rung of the ladder to remain resilient, adaptable, and productive.  From great trials come great opportunities, and a proactive and engaged talent development strategy will be instrumental in positioning your company to meet current challenges and prepare for whatever future conditions may offer.

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Louis Carter
Louis Carter is CEO and founder of Best Practice Institute, social/organizational psychologist, executive coach and author of more than 11 books on leadership and management including his newest book just released by McGraw Hill: In Great Company: How to Spark Peak Performance by Creating an Emotionally Connected Workplace. He has lectured globally in the U.S., Middle East, and Asia on his work and research in organization and leadership development and is an executive coach and advisor to CEOs and C-levels of mid-sized to Fortune 500 organizations. He was named one of Global Gurus Top Organizational Culture Gurus in the world and was chosen to be one of 100 coaches to be in the MG100 (Marshall Goldsmith) out of 14,000 people as one of the top 100 coaches in the world .