Talent Management & High-Impact Learning Organizations

After spending close to a decade studying, visiting and/or learning from high-impact schools, world-class organizations, and up-and-coming startups; the pattern became obvious. They had diverse cultures, missions, strategies, and people; but the leaders in every one of these organizations were obsessive about who they hired. They cared about talent management, creating an environment where high achievers stay, play, grow and perform at their best. I’ve yet to a see a learning organization be transformational (in a good way) when it is filled with staff who are burned out, disengaged, living for the weekend and summers, just doing enough to get by, going through the motions, or being personally satisfied with the level of performance that they would rate as a C+ among their students.

I’ve come to think of this as a non-negotiable for high-impact organizations of all types. If your organization depends upon people to accomplish its mission, then talent management matters. We can nurture and guide people in ongoing and personal development. In fact, that is what great learning organizations do. It is one thing to nurture health in a patient. It is another to hire a mediocre surgeon to do the work. Maybe we’ll hire that mediocre surgeon once (s)he reaches excellence, but I’m not aware of any organizations that have become world-class by professional development alone. I’m convinced that the path to excellence starts with an organization’s ability to identify, recruit, hire and keep world-class people. A culture of personal and professional growth among employees is critical, but it isn’t enough.

There are different types of excellence in an organization, and that is shaped by the type of excellence present in the people who work there. Steve Jobs talked about creating a place filled with some of the smartest people in the world. Google prides itself on something similar. Some organizations don’t seem to have the interest to really investigate the traits in people, so they just go with who has the nicest credentials (higher degrees, degrees from élite schools, etc.). I honestly don’t know how well that works for them, if they really do get better results that way. If they do, I suspect that they could have done it other ways too.

Brain power and skill are not enough. There is also mission fit. Maybe you are a learning organization with an élite vision. You want to recruit the best students in the world and guide them on their path to doing great things. Or, maybe you are at a completely different learning organization that aspires to help struggling students develop competence, confidence, a sense of calling, and the ability to be difference-makers in the world. Both require talented employees of excellence, but they demand people who embrace a very different mission. Put a person with an élite school vision in the other school, and you get a major disconnect. You get faculty meetings where the faculty argue that the solution to retention problems is to simply raise the admission standards. You can have the smartest people in the world, but if they don’t embrace the mission of the organization, they dilute the potency and impact of that organization in the world.

Then there is character, yet another critical part of choosing who you hire. Character is a factor that makes the difference between an ENRON and AES Corp. When I was in college, my basketball coach used to ask us this question. If you were in a fox hole and fighting for your lives, which four other people on this team would you want in there with you? Who would you trust with your life? He wasn’t just interested in who played the game the best. He was asking us to think about the character and drive that leads people to excellence and greatness, but that has many other benefits as well. Character can be developed in people, and I’ve seen success stories of taking a risk on someone, but only when it is accompanied with intense mentoring. Depending upon the role, I’m often willing to hire a strong mission fit with evidence of strong character, even when the person may be lacking in skill and experience, especially if the person shows character traits like integrity and a commitment to striving for excellence in what they do.

I’ve had several recent conversations with leaders of learning organizations who explain their vision of re-imagining what it looks like to “do education” in the 21st century. It takes many things to be successful with such an endeavor, but talent management is a non-negotiable. Achieving such a goal requires the boldness, courage and willingness to do what it takes to make sure the people working in that organization embody the excellence, character, and shared vision to do it. Professional development can help, but you don’t develop a Olympic team by taking just any athletes and putting them through rigorous training. You also need to find the right people for the task. That might mean letting some people go while searching and finding the right fit. High-impact organizations rarely compromise on this.

One of my favorite books on this subject is George Anders’s The Rare Find: Spotting Exception Talent Before Everyone Else. It is a rich read and a fantastic introduction to the world of talent management. I’ll finish with a glimpse of a few insights, some of Anders’s tips in chapter 1 for finding top talent along with a few of my own insights.

1. Start reading resumes from the bottom up. Look at hobbies, interesting accomplishments and the like. Those gives you valuable insights into what inspires and engages a person, the traits that are not clear just because you graduated from a top college or worked for other impressive employers.

2. “Look for the hidden virtues” (p. 21) – Some virtues and character traits are not easily recognized on a traditional resume. To get at this we need to be creative in the way we recruit, interview and get to know prospects…just like we read about with companies like Google and Teach for America.

3. “Find your unlikely stars by noticing what others don’t see.” (p. 21).  – Anders points out how the special forces learn to notice the details that give a glimpse into someone’s character and conviction. This might call for more than a standard interview to get at and notice such things. It calls for not only interviewing and assessing candidates, but also maybe doing some scouting and observation. In other words, this sometimes calls for recruiting, not just posting and hiring from the pool that comes to you.

4. Search for people who want the mission, not just the job. Look for how they spend their time, what goals they’ve established for themselves, how they use their time beyond formal work. What do they read? How do they stay sharp and what are the things they most want to keep sharp in themselves?

As a college student, I remember first noticing how many of the great leaders, writers, scientists and thought-leaders of the past rarely did so in isolation. They so often surrounded themselves with other great minds. They took on challenges larger than they could handle. They dared to set goals that some might have thought beyond their reach, and they associated with others who did the same. As a result, they amplified the impact of one another in the world. That is what happens when an organization commits itself to talent management. It starts with building a community of people who demonstrate excellence, character and a shared mission.