Three times in the past week I have been asked the same questions: “What are you seeing out there? What are the key issues organizations are grappling with?” I don’t claim to be an expert on all things organizational, but in my work I am seeing a clear trend: a lack of talent. This isn’t new – it is the same problem we were facing before the economic meltdown. To solve the problem we need to ask an important question: Why?
1) Organizations over-rely on accidental learning to develop people. The best way to develop people is to give them real-life learning experiences. This is well-known and forms the foundation of every serious learning and development agenda. But there is a key piece of the puzzle that is often missing: telling people what they need to develop when they take on a new role or assignment. Instead, managers will do everything possible to avoid giving critical feedback. Rarely is there a formal, explicit plan in place to guide on-the-job learning and development. Rarely is anyone monitoring the extent to which people are acquiring and integrating the learning they need to take their capabilities to the next level. That leaders will ‘pick up’ critical knowledge and skills is left mostly to chance. We end up with a lot of people who have done the right ‘things’ to climb the corporate ladder who often lack some of the essential qualities, capabilities and mindsets required to lead at a senior level.
The solution to this problem is ridiculously simple but (seemingly) impossible to implement: have a plan. Provide leaders with lots of feedback from multiple sources to increase their personal insight and develop their humility and openness to learning. Clearly define what they need to learn when they take on a job or assignment – not just the deliverables required but the leadership and personal qualities they need to hone to move to the next level. Monitor progress and don’t move them again until they have made significant progress on their development agenda. This doesn’t require a complicated HR process. What it does need is the back of a napkin and a real commitment to candid conversation.
2) People don’t move around enough. In spite of what we read about how many careers we will pursue in a lifetime, the bulk of senior leadership teams, in Canada at least, are made up of people who have been with the same company for a long time. Unlike our counterparts to the south, Canadians don’t like to move. Ask a search consultant in Edmonton or St.John’s or even Vancouver how easy it is to attract talent. We are not risk-takers by nature; the idea that moving to a new and unfamiliar city mid-career can be a life-changing adventure is lost on many of us. As a result, people pass up really good jobs that will significantly advance their careers. Instead, many stay put long after it is obvious their career aspirations will never be realized.
The solution to this dilemma is more difficult to solve. It includes a higher level of ambition and risk-taking in individuals and a stronger desire on the part of companies to create compelling places to be. By default, the recession and recovery will help this situation. I know a number of people who have been involuntarily displaced in the past two years who have gone on to successfully take on more senior roles at other companies. They finally got their promotion – but they had to leave to get it. Did their new companies see something a former employer missed? Probably not. Successful leadership succession is always about matching people to jobs, cultures and companies. A super-star in one setting will be average in another; an average employee in one situation can be a star in another. The reality is, what is required in an SVP is different at Companies A and B. Search consultants often don’t help the situation – they chase the same kind of person with the same kind of background over and over again, regardless of the context. The next time you embark on a search, ask for at least one non-traditional candidate.
The war for talent is upon us, and it will only get worse. Organizations are, and need to be, nervous; there are too many empty boxes on the succession chart. That is good news for anyone who is talented, ambitious, motivated by challenge ... and willing to move.