Do the Best People Really Make the Best Organizations?

This article is written by Ian Taylor of Ian Taylor Consultancy our March Spotlight for CLO-ME

The ‘War for Talent’ seems to be the unquestioned mantra justifying talent management.  Talented people are rare, and getting talent “on the bus” makes a massive difference to organizational results, goes the argument. Results show that the most effective performers outperform the average by a factor of ten, and that A players also attract other A players.

The current recipe for attracting talent is quite straightforward.  Measure individuals in terms of both performance and potential, and then place them in a nine box grid. Reward and develop the A players, high potentials, or the top 10-15%. Offer more modest praise and reward to the B players, and finally manage out the C players.

HR has, lemming like, followed this formula for years.  Unfortunately, this is a house based on extremely shifting sands.

Firstly, is the assumption that talent is fixed. However, those who perform well in one environment or situation may not flourish in others. Star performers can quickly become losers – ask any soccer manager! Practice and effort is often more important than innate ability in driving performance, and   those who receive coaching and mentoring may well start to display superior performance. Talent, in short, can be developed, but is unlikely if all your development eggs are in the A player basket.

Secondly, is the idea that potential and performance can be clearly defined and objectively measured.  Even the best measurement tools only explain a relatively small difference in performance.  70% of managers claim to inflate performance assessments at the annual review to avoid demotivating staff, particularly when ratings are linked to pay.   Most managers do not adequately distinguish between performance and potential. The halo effect suggests that those who are doing a good job will also be seen as having “potential”, and so often a, single dominant characteristic drives assessment across a range of criteria. Similarly, the “horns “effect works the same way but causing negative assessment.

Thirdly, is the idea that, by simply putting the “best” people together, organizational success will follow automatically? The doyen of team effectiveness, Meredith Belbin, put paid to this idea over 40 years ago when he put a group of highflyers -the “Apollo Team”- together in a management simulation where they singularly failed to outperform their more “average” colleagues. Without the more mundane behaviours of follow through and practical down to earth application, teams will rarely be effective.   Organizations filled with the most talented individuals are never going to flourish when they have poor processes and procedures, or when “the computer says no”.

Perhaps most damning is the effect on the “untalented” , the remaining 85%. The Pygmalion effect has long been recognised in the field of education. Teachers, when told that their pupils were either high or low IQ adapted their behaviour to this situation, turning their false beliefs into a reality, a self fulfilling prophecy. Transferred to the workplace, high potentials will flourish with increased opportunity and attention, whilst the “untalented “will start to act in accordance with their label, and  hey presto! The process is defined as effective.

So what is the way forward?

Some may suggest tinkering with the process by:

  • Providing  tighter definitions of potential
    • Using third party assessments.  This  risks talent management becoming another HR initiative
    • Keeping the process anonymous- but we all know that this is practically pretty well-nigh on impossible.  What about the organizational values proclaiming openness and honesty on every office poster?
    • keeping the high potential pool fluid, by moving out those who fail to deliver.

Much braver however, would be to question and indeed overturn the whole idea of current  “best practice” and  make sure we cherish and develop the B players, ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to develop and achieve his or her potential, and  avoid simplistic labels and pigeonholing.

But maybe I’m just prejudiced as I never made the pool!