From Spotter to listener

Executive coach and write, Douglas Board says recruitment leaders ought to excel at spotting their own future talent.

In recruitment we ought to have fantastic pipelines of future talent – our own future rainmakers and leaders-in-waiting. We understand deeply the business value which such a pipeline creates. We place nets into which lots of fish swim. We’re good at spotting potential. So why is growing our own future leaders tricky?

Three of the answers are straightforward – structural factors. We are good at spotting talent and understand its value, but certain features of our industry get in the way. In a boutique with one or two star players, one or two junior consultants and administrative support, the leap from consultant to star is too large for a single jump. To grow a rainmaker from within, the firm might (for example) have to support an exceptional junior through an executive MBA combined with a secondment into a client. The odds against this are enormous. The firm will not fund the investment. A junior that good is too necessary to delivering next month’s numbers. And if the apprentice’s eyes opened to a bigger world (the programme wouldn’t be worth paying for if that didn’t happen!) they might not return to the firm they came from.

Next, timescales. Recruitment is a fast-paced, volatile business  ̶  the downside of which is weakness in focussing on the longer term.

Finally, long-term goals may differ, especially between generations. It may suit experienced players to sell and do an earn-out with a purchaser (I had that experience). Nothing wrong with all of the above, but what should medium and larger businesses do which are focussed on the longer term and want to swim against the tide?


Uninstall McKinsey thinking

If you are a client-facing director in an agency like this, I’ll bet that you have clients of whom you are particularly fond, led by CEOs with a passionate, values-based, long term view of their own. Mini-Paul Polmans, if you will. The chances are that the talent process in those clients’ businesses – and your own – needs to be ‘de-McKinseyfied’. What does that mean?

I admire many people who are, or were, at McKinsey. But, as the Financial Times  has noted, the glitter has rusted. What have been McKinsey’s most damaging impacts on the world? Enron? South Africa? Opioids? Spare a thought for the war for talent. Having started this at the turn of the millennium, in 2018 McKinsey upped the ante, with global managing partner Dominic Barton and co-authors proposing that two per cent of any workforce delivers nearly all the business value. (McKinsey did not then downsize by 98 per cent.) To compound this, Barton et al recommended that CEOs spend their scarce time being Prince Charmings, roaming their organisations at all hierarchical levels on the lookout for hard-to-spot high potentials.

You have probably not spent the eye-watering sums required to bring McKinsey into your organisation officially. But they created a pervasive zeitgeist which can only be uninstalled with effort. Here’s how.


Wizards and muggles

After eighteen years in recruitment, I decided to study what I had been doing. I did a doctorate in how we select people into senior roles. In my latest book ‘Elites’ I divide wizards (approximately, C-suites in your clients and rainmakers in your own business) from muggles. Using sociological concepts I demystify the ‘wizard magic’ – explaining along the way why meritocracies automatically produce glass ceilings (in other words, they are more a feature than a bug).

It is language like McKinsey’s in relation to a notionally super-talented ‘two per cent’ which makes the terminology of magic so appropriate. The conclusion I reach is that our vision of talent is being distorted. We’re tricking ourselves into giving too much respect to too few people.

What talent development actions would I recommend to you or your clients who front up passionate, service-driven businesses and want to have a strong talent pipeline?

Businesses like these demand to be led by CEOs who believe in the firm’s deep values and walk the talk. These firms differ from more hierarchical corporate structures. As Professor Laura Empson at the Centre for Professional Service Firms at Cass Business School has shown, to remain credible leaders of this kind need every so often to knock the lights out with clients in difficult situations. They can’t (as the corporate management handbook would have it) delegate all that and concentrate on strategy and accountability. But they have to do this without hurling themselves into the fray all the time, or drinking the Kool-Aid which says that clients only want them. Otherwise there won’t be enough oxygen of client attention, client challenges and client dollars for other top players to grow.

What’s needed from the CEO in talent development? It’s similar to what’s needed in client interaction: a focussed commitment without hogging all the space.

  • Do be a magnet for talent – a role model who earns admiration.
  • Do hand pick a diverse group of talent-spotters, and check in with them periodically. Barton et al are right to suggest that a bureaucratic system will be too risk averse; they’re wrong to suggest that the CEO should be chief talent-spotter. You will miss the diverse individuals the firm may need precisely because they shine in your blind spot.
  • Create and rotate apprenticeship opportunities for those who are identified in this way to understudy closely your firm’s stars.
  • Do be chief coach and listening officer. Be patiently and gently curious, asking those who may not seem ambitious or confident why they aren’t pushing towards the top. Listen to their answers – something about the mystique you have created might be unappealing or dangerous. Tangibly support everyone in your field of vision to progress towards a goal of their own choosing (which might well include being a good parent).

Two conclusions in ‘Elites’ are, firstly, that wizards are made, not born; and secondly, that glass ceilings start work earlier than we think, reinforcing in some individuals the idea that they wouldn’t be wanted in the limelight, they couldn’t hack it and they wouldn’t enjoy it. For some that will be true, or will be their choice. But you’re a recruiter, aren’t you? Talent development is the same. Whatever McKinsey say, it’s not about mounting your white horse and spotting one or two princesses – it’s skilled, disciplined, work.

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