Too much talent? Five questions leaders need to ask themselves.

Who’s afraid of talent? I suspect a lot more people than you might first think. While organisations constantly proclaim they want more talent, many managers I meet don’t sing from the same hymn sheet. You see talented people can be as challenging as they are rewarding. And as demanding as they may be resourceful. Talent is a double-edged sword.

When I started out in personnel my first boss constantly preached the dangers of over-recruitment. Today, every time I read an article about talent shortages I think of him and wonder how much the issue is about genuine supply issues versus our own tendency to talk up the requirements. Do we demand Superwoman when Mr Dependable would do?

Some years ago when Chiumento researched Corporate Prisoners I wrote about “the Daddies” – only to be told there were lots of Mummies too. These are managers who exercise inappropriate, and often unethical, power in organisations. They have reached a level of seniority that they guard jealously.

The last thing such a manager wants is anyone who presents a threat. Like an individual who might question the organisational status quo or be capable of radical, let alone independent, thinking. Or one who’s networking skills might get them noticed. Instead they seek compliant, respectful and easily controlled reports with who they can establish a parent-child relationship. In other words “yes people”.

And that’s not the end of the story. In today’s flatter organisational structures how many of your team really want a new colleague who quickly establishes themselves as a competitor for that coveted promotion? While they won’t want a liability for a colleague, they would probably prefer someone who is just a little bit less smart and ambitious than they are.

Spare a thought too for the “oh no, not another round of graduates” cadre of managers who are exhausted by the demands these ambitious and energetic newcomers place on them year after year. I met just such a manager on holiday this year. He was literally dreading the arrival of two more new faces that would drain his time and whose “corporate nappies” he’d have to change. Mentoring burn-out was clearly beckoning.

Oh and of course there are all those C players out there whose ultimate nightmare is a new manager who is fired up and ready to go pull up trees. They’d like a new boss just like the last one. The type of manager who keeps HR happy by filling in the appraisal forms on time. One who gives them a gentle, and possibly rather awkward and not too confident, nudge along the lines of “could do better” before then leaving them alone for the next twelve months.

And then there are leaders who like the idea of having more “superheroes” on the team but haven’t thought the implications through properly.

My challenge to all leaders is to look hard in the mirror and ask yourself these five questions:-

  • Do I really need top talent for every job?Every organisation has a lot of jobs that need doing well by typical, hard-working and committed people who don’t want to set the world on fire. Many, many roles require resilience, repetition and operational devotion rather than “strategic direction” or “creative genius”.
  • How much top talent is too much top talent?You have only so many sexy projects and exciting strategic developments that can be shared around. The rest is a lot of hard graft doing the basics brilliantly well. Spread your limited development largesse too thin and you’ll quickly start losing the top talent you already have.
  • Can you stand the heat that top talent creates?Research suggests that the two factors most senior leaders crave are predictability and consensus. So just be honest and ask yourself how much challenge are you really ready for? Many hire a “catalyst for change” when all they really want is a “fixer” – the result is friction and frustration. I meet many, many talented people who joined organisations to build a brave new world and found themselves just tidying up the old one. Their new boss was really quite attached to it after all. Will you back down when the troops rebel against the new broom? Have you got the courage to see it through even if that means losing some “faithful followers” on the journey?
  • Do you personally have enough time and energy to nurture more talent?Many, many executives don’t. A players should take up the majority of your coaching and mentoring capacity. The paradox being that clearing up the customer service and quality problems created by C players can easily be more time consuming. There are only so many quality hours you can give.
  • Are you brave enough to hire someone better than you and help them rise above you?If not your succession and talent planning will always be flawed by self-preservation and self-interest.

Having too much talent can be as problematic as not having enough. You only have to look to some sports to see that’s true. Dissatisfied A players can be truly destructive in the dressing room. And, I suggest, in every other type of team.

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