Get the pick of your own crop

2 March 2010
Britain’s got talent. That, at least, is the claim made by an unending stream of TV shows that offer a few moments of fame to some unlikely showbiz wannabes. To judge by this garish cavalcade of Saturday night “entertainment”, British talent involves derivative yodelling to over-elaborate backing tracks, accompanied by dazzling lighting effects, intense grimacing and grinning. Sourpuss, me? You may have a point. But something pretty terrible has happened to the word “talent” over the past few years, which I find highly provocative. In the good old days, talent referred to something rare. Orson Welles was talented. Shakespeare was talented, as were Mozart, Tolstoy and Picasso. But now, according to some of the management literature and HR champions, we are all talented. There has been rampant hyperinflation in talent. The word has become a synonym for people. It’s easy to see why this has happened. For almost 20 years now one of the biggest lies in management – other than “We shall be seeking to consult widely on this possible decision” – has been “Our people are our biggest asset”. That was never true. The point about organisations is that only some of our people are our biggest asset. And those are the people we are really worried about developing. I’m not saying that this is a good thing. It is just the way things are. But employers should not be so fatalistic. There is a better (and ultimately cheaper) way to develop staff. This is to invest in them, train them and try to keep hold of them. It is called “growing your own leaders”. This is a phrase popularised by Bill Byham of the consultancy DDI. Dr Byham co-founded DDI in the US 40 years ago. It remains one of the most insightful outfits as far as genuine “talent management” is concerned. One of DDI’s basic points is that succession planning, building the organisational chart – whatever you call it – can often be very badly done, even by businesses that think they are pretty sophisticated. It turns out that only one or two highly thought-of executives are earmarked to fill any number of top-level vacancies that may arise at any time. The “talent” is being stretched far too thin. Smarter employers realise that they have to offer a range of (stretching) roles and experiences, quite fast, to their future leaders if they want them to develop. This is not to say that they should just flit from one project to another, but the complicated businesses of the future require leaders who have gained as much varied experience as possible, and are happy operating in a range of environments. The individual opportunities for ambitious purchasers are clear. Seek out more responsibility. Take on challenges others are shirking. Build up an impressive CV of completed tasks and rewarding experiences. If you really do have talent, you must not hide it away. But you will probably also be wise enough to know if you are working for a company that is serious about your future or not. For organisations, the alternative to proper succession planning and talent management is barely an alternative at all. It is the costly and crude business of going out into the marketplace, with the help of those friendly headhunters, to buy in the finished product. Grow your own. You know it makes sense. Stefan Stern writes for the Financial Times (stefan.stern@ft.com)
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