The ‘chosen few’ (Guest Commentary)

Why the conventional approach to leadership development isn’t a best practice

Talent and leadership development have always gone hand in hand. The understanding of talent has addictively focused on high potential based on some Darwinian notion that future leaders are created from a pool of about 20 per cent of employees who evolve into the “chosen ones.” And so employers disproportionately invest large amounts of capital on a group of “high flyers” in the hope the chosen ones will develop into future leaders. Identifying the chosen ones assumes leaders have the ability to accurately speculate on potential based on observation of demonstrated capabilities in employees’ current roles and the belief that past behaviour is a predictor of future behaviour. However, the conventional approach to talent and high potential is very limited.

It is not uncommon for leaders to be considered high potential under one manager in one business unit and then, after being transferred to another business unit, lose their royalty status as a high potential when they struggle to adjust to the finer nuances in the different business unit context. Vice-versa, duds inherited from other business units can suddenly emerge as high-potential talent in their new business unit. Nor is it uncommon to hear that leaders considered to be high-potential talent were actually not considered talent at all in their previous organizations. So what has changed? Has the employee suddenly inherited a dose of talent characteristics or has she simply found that unique combination of environment, manager and role that leverages her true potential?

The war for talent has confused employers’ understanding of talent and leadership and created a misperception that there is a limited pool of talent and that it looks and feels the same from one organization to another. Organizations often ride on a high when they poach talent from another organization and boast about their newfound intellectual capital at the expense of competitors. However, the war for talent is really just a war to find the right fit or the right context for leaders. Leadership and high potential are inspired under the right combination of role, environment and managerial response.

Limiting understanding of high potentials to a select group of employees misjudges the real potential of all employees. When everyone is considered talent, there is an underlying expectation that everyone must grow outside of their comfort zone and stretch their performance boundaries. True learning organizations aim to optimize all growth and not only that of a small group of chosen ones. A chosen one approach reinforces an expectation that growth is limited only to a few.

Talent management should also take a complex view of growth to reflect the market complexity in a globally competitive context. A more complex approach to talent management is to recognize the external market conditions that demand different strategic and organizational structure responses from organizations, which adds to the complexity of situations in which some talent can excel, while others might not. Mehrdad Baghai, author of The Alchemy of Growth: Kickstarting and Maintaining Growth in Your Company, outlined three different types of talent categories, namely operators, business builders and visionaries, to reflect the organizational structural arrangements to strategic business responses.

Talent operators, for example, have deep functional and industry expertise and a strong drive to hit targets and meet plans consistently. Talent business builders, on the other hand, have an entrepreneurial desire to create something new and have comfort with ambiguity and change. Talent visionaries are champions and unconventional thinkers.

Each category requires different talent approaches. Talent approaches for the operator category should create personal career consequences for near-team performance whereas a talent approach for the visionary category should provide psychological rewards such as recognition of ideas and freedom to experiment, and provide career advantages such as an opportunity to satisfy intellectual curiosity. All too often, visionaries who successfully launch business initiatives are expected to sustain the operations of this initiative or are expected to be the operators that squeeze costs out of the organization. No surprise that they lose interest and do not remain with the company because it is not what inspires them.

All this has implications for leadership development. Conventional approaches to leadership development have focused on developing well-rounded high potential individuals and, to be a vice-president, an employee must develop an aptitude for diverse business functions and be proficient in all areas. However, decades of research into personality and interest profiling shows leaders have primary preferences and styles, which lends some validity to the view of leadership as leveraging unique strengths and connecting to a “calling.” Therefore focusing on key strengths is the more efficient path to pursuing a calling.

So, there is a place for everyone in talent management and high potential is a term that should apply to all employees. When leaders take a complex view of organizations and recognize that talent in one context may not be talent in another, then organizations can find the right combination of role, environment and management style that leverages everyone’s true potential.

A wide variety of personality and interest assessment centres are available to get an in-depth insight into employees’ true potential. Organizations make extraordinary efforts to understand the uniqueness of their customers but rarely make the same effort to understand the uniqueness of each employee. By knowing each employee’s true potential, employers could organize talent along categories of expertise that cut across levels in the organization. All too often talent is organized along hierarchical levels and high performers are involved in cutting-edge projects that may not be their expertise. Rather, if companies could access a pool of expertise drawn from employees with strong acumen in, for example, market segmentation, regardless of hierarchical level, then it would be a better use of resources. Not everyone wants to be a director or a vice-president, but they do want challenging situations that leverages their unique expertise. Furthermore, the war for talent has also closed companies off to the learning potential of sharing talent between non-competing companies in non-competing industries to further enhance their true potential.

So, conventional approaches to talent management and leadership development disproportionately focus on the chosen few, but the chosen few reflects a limited paradigm for leveraging the full potential in a learning organization.

Malcolm Gabriel is the program director for the Toronto Organizational Development Network and an HR practitioner at a telecommunications firm. He can be reached at (416) 735-0504.

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