You’re Not a Leader Until They Perform

“It’s all about talent,” declared the SVP of Human Resources as she announced the purchase of a new talent management technology that included selection, performance management and succession planning modules.

“This integrated talent management solution ushers in a new era for our company that’s about improving how we think about and manage talent.  These new tools will enhance our ability to identify the talent our business needs to grow and to be successful.  Acquiring, rewarding and retaining high performers are the keys to our success as a company.”

It’s hard to disagree with the above statement (except for the notion that technology will solve the problem!).  It boldly reaffirms the old homily:  People are our greatest asset.

But that’s just the point.  It’s unimaginative, overused, and as a result, rarely perceived as sincere.  And in the case of most companies, especially in the era of constant “restructuring” (see The Trouble with Layoffs), it rarely is sincere.

If you think I’m being tough, just listen to some of the quotes from employees and managers working for companies pushing the talent mind-set:

  • Across the organization, I’m not sure we do a good job of hiring.  We seem to be more impressed with credentials than capability.  What I mean is it’s more important for you to have gone to an Ivy, than to actually be able to do the job.
  • Performance management is a once a year process that managers and employees dread.
  • Performance appraisal is not really about performance.  It’s about adjusting ratings to fit the merit budget.
  • We believe in pay for performance.  High performers get significantly greater merit increases and performance bonuses.  But beyond sales, I’m not sure we measure performance well.
  • We are very proud of our succession planning process . . . but we have never promoted anyone as a result of the effort.  The information isn’t used.
  • We do not actively manage the development of our employees, even high potentials (Note:  the engagement survey data confirmed this).

The obsession with talent is a sign that executives aren’t leading.  They are failing to appreciate and nurture the potential of their existing employees.

Like love-struck teenagers, these executives are unpredictable, reactive and focused desperately on short-term gratification.  They are always on the lookout for the perfect resume, the “star,” the romance of the moment.  They seek the dream employee who is so smart that no training, motivation, supervision or coaching will be required.

Much of this obsession is based on the faulty assumption that top performance depends primarily on talent—innate, genetically-based qualities.  There is considerable evidence that hard work and intrinsic motivation—which can be supported or undermined by the social environment—also play central roles.

For example, researchers studying the impact of learning environments on cognitive skills have discovered that students who over an extended period of time are treated as if they are intelligent actually become so.  If they are taught demanding content, and are expected to explain and find connections as well as memorize and repeat, they learn more and learn more quickly. They think of themselves as learners. They are able to bounce back in the face of short-term failures.

These results are giving rise to the new idea of intelligence-in-practice:  Intelligence is the habit of persistently trying to understand things and make them function better.  Intelligence is working to figure things out, varying strategies until a workable solution is found.  Intelligence is knowing what one does, and doesn’t, know, seeking information and organizing that information so that it makes sense and can be remembered.  In short, one’s intelligence is the sum of one’s habits of mind.

Maybe in the case of executives currently obsessed with finding unicorns, intelligence is knowing that such potential is already hard at work in their own organization.  Intelligence is knowing when you lead them, they will perform.

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