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Think deeply: A talented workforce is a big deal

“It’s hard to find and keep good people.”

That theme song, sung louder than ever by today’s owners and executives, is reflected in the intense competition for talent that challenges large and small businesses alike.

As companies have sought a competence edge, talent management has grown into an industry with its own language. Lifetime company employment has virtually disappeared, replaced by a plan B mindset. “On-boarding” has broadened the outdated notion of “orientation.” “Reward and recognition” has expanded on “compensation.” Consulting companies now specialize in “talent retention,” “employee engagement,” “training high-potentials” and “succession planning.”

Deeper thinking
The new emphasis on talent makes good sense. But there’s a problem: Most leaders haven’t done the deeper thinking necessary to prepare their companies for attracting and managing top talent. If a company knows what it wants to be and where it wants to go, the stage is set for a talent management process. If not, then talent management becomes another empty fad. Clear thinking —not buzzwords—should drive the process.

Before exploring the bewildering array of bandwagons to chase talent, individual owners, partners and teams should thoughtfully address seven key questions:

1. What kind of culture do you want to build? Many companies develop strategic plans, but few define their desired culture. How much do you value focus, excitement, intellectual firepower, technical know-how, strong ethics, flexibility, humor, deep thinking, autonomy and emotional maturity? What do you want it to feel like in your hallways and offices? What types of people do you want to work alongside? Too many leaders ignore cultural fit when interviewing talented candidates. The key to that assessment is defining your desired culture.

2. To what extent do you seek sameness or differentness in your talent pool? Most leaders say they want a diverse workforce, but few companies have achieved it. Sameness offers familiarity and comfort, but costs creativity, innovation and the chance to raise performance to a new level. Diversity offers rich variation and out-of-the-norm views, but costs humility (my way is not the only way) and effort (time to reach understanding and respect). It’s easy to want the benefits of diversity without the effort. Do you want to hire someone like you, or look for difference?

3. Are you seeking to hire future leaders? Senior-level interviewers often say they want to hire potential leaders. But most haven’t learned how to ask questions that select for maturity, character and the capacity for broad thinking—core elements of a leadership mindset. Owners looking for leaders can no longer afford to be more focused on technical knowledge than strategic thinking and relationship skills.

4. How will you attract and select the talent you need? The hope is that credentials and talent-brokers lead to stimulating interviews with candidates. That’s rarely the case. Selecting talent can be tremendously enhanced by conducting deeper, upfront, two-way conversations with candidates. The centerpiece of quality conversations is the interviewer’s nimbleness in verbalizing observations and challenging questionable claims in the moment. This includes a willingness to share and solicit candid opinions, noting and possibly commenting on how a candidate responds to unplanned portions of a discussion. Many candidates offer impressive credentials. It’s up to a skilled interviewer to sift the best from the good.

5. Who will mentor and coach your talent? For the purposes of distinguishing two critical growth processes, mentoring refers to “imparting knowledge or teaching a skill”; coaching refers to “helping others function with greater autonomy, maturity and responsibility.” These strategies might be the most powerful retention tools a company offers, even more potent than money. That’s because any company can offer money, but most don’t offer good mentoring or effective coaching.

6. How will your talent be compensated and rewarded? Like it or not, a worker’s wages or salary have come to be viewed as a basic minimum. Non-money factors—quality of connection with boss and co-workers, degree of variation vs. routine in a job and flexible hours, to name three—are just as likely to influence decisions about where to work and how long to stay there. Think of “rewarding” in broad terms that include the depth of relationship you build with your most talented employees.

7. If your talent disappears through choice, chance or tragedy, who will be prepared to step in? The number of unpredictable factors influencing job stability means that “succession” has become more of a permanent consideration than a short-term plan. Family businesses often re-tell succession stories—the founder who couldn’t let go, the cousins who co-ran the business, the second-generation son who took the reins based more on blood line than on talent. Now, every responsible business is talking about succession regarding every key position—not just the top leadership role. Preparing successors no longer applies to exceptional leaders; it’s become the norm for progressive companies.

Lots of initiatives begin and end because action precedes good thinking. Attracting, selecting and supporting a talented workforce is a big deal. Get yourself ready by reflecting on the above questions and asking the key leaders in your organization to do the same.

John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected]

1/30/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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