By Todd Warner
EVERY CEO claims to struggle with the challenge of getting the right “talent,” but what does that really mean? A CEO’s real concern is: Do I have the people who will understand my agenda and change how work gets done?
Fundamentally, organizations domesticate people—they condition employees to work in certain ways, and they inadvertently perpetuate business as usual. People get tagged as “talented” when they fit in (or pretend to). This ends up perpetuating the very problems that the CEO hopes to solve.
Real change requires understanding three dilemmas about talent management systems:
THEY ARE TRIBAL. Despite the size of modern organizations, people are still very tribal—they maintain and seek out small groups of like-minded people, and they define their work through these tribes. Talent then can look more like currying favor than showing true merit. CEOs say they’re looking to promote talent but end up promoting familiarity.
THEY REWARD COMPLIANCE, NOT CREATIVITY. Leaders tend to promote and protect the people who make them look good; too often, these are also the people who don’t challenge leaders.
MOST IGNORE THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT. Some of the most storied “talent factories” in the world—companies like Exxon, General Electric and Goldman Sachs—say that they focus on the best people. But they really focus on people who thrive in their social systems. All of these companies have a distinct “type” that they look for.
Becoming a talent factory isn’t about hiring or promoting the best people; it’s about understanding the DNA of your social system, and building from that baseline.
In their talent systems, organizations police the status quo—and then wonder why they can’t change. Smart organizations, and truly aspirational CEOs, need to own this reality and spend their resources differently. Conventional talent management can drive them toward the wrong conclusions.
Todd Warner is the founder of Like Minds Advisory, a consultancy.