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Ten years after publishing its research on the War for Talent, McKinsey produced follow-on work reemphasizing the need to make talent a strategic priority. Despite launching expensive programs to attract and retain talented employees, many senior executives remain frustrated with the results and admit their own failure to pay close enough attention to these issues. The following statement captures the underpinning of any effective talent strategy:
“What’s needed is a deep-rooted conviction, among business unit heads and line leaders, that people really matter — that leaders must develop the capabilities of employees, nurture their careers, and manage the performance of individuals and teams.
Ten years ago, PDI Ninth House published its research on the ability of senior-level leaders to develop their employees. The study found that as leaders move up the organization, their ability to develop others decreased — even though they readily recognize its necessity at every level. In fact, the responsibility for coaching and developing talent persists while the expectations and context for leaders change. The research sheds light on a glaring gap in what everyone agrees is one of the most important competencies of leaders: their ability to build talent.
This disconnect is caused by a set of interrelated issues, including but not limited to:
Time. It’s scarce, and urgent tasks have a tendency to consume it. Leaders who aren’t disciplined in their priorities will be subject to daily crises that interfere with activities that are part of a long-term investment in people
Focus on visible skills. As leaders rise to more senior positions, it’s natural to feel like they need to demonstrate strategic thinking, strong business acumen, and effective P&L management — noticeable skills that catch people’s attention. Building talent, on the other hand, is less obvious and has a long-term payoff.
Lack of development culture. One of the most interesting findings in the research is that even lower-level leaders who made talent development a priority start to slip when they enter the senior ranks. One-on-one coaching can be intrinsically fulfilling and, for that reason alone, leaders are more likely to set aside time for it. But senior executives make the biggest impact when they distinguish between individual coaching and organizational coaching. It’s the latter that lacks most. Call it the culture, or environment, of development that’s missing.
Diligent leaders can avoid these traps. Brian Kibby, the President of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, wakes up early to complete his personal tasks before dedicating the work day to focusing on his people, even scheduling 15 minute blocks to have conversations with everyone in his organization. Nevertheless, it’s very difficult for senior executives to spend personal time with every single employee and provide the hands-on coaching and training that is the hallmark of a great leader.
Cori Hill, the Director of High-Potential Leadership Development at PDI Ninth House and co-author of Developing Leaders and Organizations Through Action Learning, sees invulnerability to insecurity among leaders as a major stumbling block for organizations. The way Hill puts it, “Power messes up our ability to learn.” Leaders set the example of learning, which sometimes requires the admission, “I don’t know.”
She has these suggestions for senior leaders who want to create a culture of talent development:
Act as a role model. Be transparent about your own need to learn and develop and share how you’re able to do it. Embrace vulnerability: leaders are never more powerful than when they are shown to be learning.
Reinforce the value of learning. Go beyond the baseline conversation about goals. Ask about what they want to accomplish and what they feel their gaps are. When someone completes an assignment, celebrate both the outcome and the learning, especially if the assignment wasn’t completed as smoothly as everyone would’ve liked.
Build sustainable processes to support development. Managers should be expected to coach and develop their people. At a minimum, everyone knows what areas they need to improve, and for those with particularly high potential, career tracks are developed that give them a sense of where they can go inside the organization.
Reinforce shared values. Employees should be able to link their everyday tasks and responsibilities to the values in the organization. People need to understand why what they do is important.
Leverage problems as opportunities for real world learning and development. What’s an acceptable failure needs to be clarified and that way, by incorporating stretch assignments, employees can seek out challenges where they can develop without feeling like mistakes will set them back in their career or jeopardize their job. Learning organizations see problems as opportunities.
When you meet with members of your team each month, maybe a valuable question to ask them would be, “what have you learned recently?” When an entire organization is stacked — from top to bottom — in “step up” roles, everyone is learning and there’s the potential for high performance.