By: Lewis Garrad, Growth Markets Leader, Mercer | Sirota

Original commentary in the Winter 2018 edition of the HRPS Journal

There are very few endeavors that are as noble and important as helping people fulfill their potential. Wasted talent isn’t just a travesty for the individual, but also for the organization or society which would benefit from it. HR’s focus on understanding potential then isn’t just a good thing to do for business; it’s also the right thing to do for humanity. When the right leaders find the right jobs, they can make the world a better place.

While the study and practice of talent management has found a number of enduring principles, there are also several tensions that managers and HR functions struggle to resolve as they try to define and identify potential. Here are three important ones to think about as we consider future approaches to talent:

  • Problem solvers and problems finders:

The ability to solve novel problems is extremely desirable in a leader –it’s well established that agile learners adapt quickly to new situations and challenges. As a result they often perform well in a variety of roles and contexts. However, one significant trend that has emerged with the rise of digitization is that access to new information to solve problems is becoming easier because, to some extent, machines learn for us. As Kevin Kelly notes in his book The Inevitable, the availability of fast, cheap and accurate information via the internet, as well as new forms of analytics via digital tools, means that answers to complex questions are increasingly easy to find. The consequence of this is that defining the most meaningful problems to fix becomes an increasingly valuable skill. Indeed, I would argue that the key feature of the most prominent leaders of our time (like Musk, Bezos and even Jobs) is that they have excelled in their ability to identify the right problems to solve, quickly followed by the ability to bring the right team together to solve them. So while good problem solvers might tackle a new task or problem well, it’s possible that in future it will be even more important to be able to define problems more effectively in the first place. Finding the right problem will be what good leaders do; solving them will be a team effort.

  • Ambitious individuals and effective teams

If potential is defined in terms of the future capacity to lead effectively, then the desire to lead must be an important pre-requisite. Those who are ambitious and competitive by nature naturally display this desire and often emerge as leaders if no other selection system is in place. While leadership emergence and effectiveness are not mutually exclusive, in its most extreme forms the competitive desire that ambitious people display can often also be their biggest weakness. Highly ambitious leaders jostle for power with their coworkers, compete for airtime and attention, become more entitled and demanding, and spend more time on their personal agenda than group issues. Indeed, as effective leadership increasingly becomes a function of effective team work and cross functional collaboration, and less about individual brilliance, it becomes even more important that senior leaders put the good of the group ahead of their own personal agenda.

  • Knowing your talent and being burdened by it

While some people flourish under pressure, there are many talented people who find the spotlight overwhelming. As Jennifer Petriglieri and her colleagues at INSEAD have noted, being marked by your company as talented can be as much of a curse as it is a privilege. The result is that some people end up feeling frustrated and disengaged by carrying that additional weight of talent expectations – hardly an approach for helping people realize their potential. Indeed perhaps the problem with this is that we define talent in such broad terms that our process for developing it is inappropriate for some people – who would be better off with a lighter touch approach.

Finally, the most common complaint about talent and potential programs is that they direct a disproportionate amount of resources towards a “vital few”. As our digital footprint grows, perhaps new data streams and cheaper assessments will make talent and potential insights more freely available to all. And then maybe talent management will be less about helping a vital few to achieve their potential and more about helping the entire workforce to thrive in their own way.

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