How the Best Managers Identify and Develop Talent

Great managers are typically experts in their fields, with a strong performance history and an interest in being in charge. But to lead effectively they need to develop another skill, one that is often overlooked: talent management.


The ability to see talent before others see it and unlock human potential is crucial to running a top-notch team: Great managers are also great talent agents. But becoming a great talent agent is not always easy. It requires us as leaders to be open-minded and to throw away outdated, albeit popular, hiring tactics. Too many of us look for talent in the same old places, or follow the popular trend of thinking the best hire is the best culture fit. These approaches undermine efforts to boost diversity and ultimately hinder creativity and innovation.


While there is no one “best” way to hire talent, some approaches are better than others. After carefully scrutinizing the performance of many leaders, my colleagues and I have outlined seven science-based recommendations to help you update your hiring tactics, and develop your talent management skills along the way:


THINK AHEAD: Prospective employees are often asked during job interviews what their five-year career aspirations are; yet few managers ask themselves what their five-year talent strategy is. Most leaders know what kind of talent they are looking for in the moment, but fewer think far enough ahead to figure out whether or not their new hires have skills that will align with their long-term strategy. If you know where you want to go, focus your efforts on hiring someone with the skills, abilities and expertise you will need to move forward.


FOCUS ON THE RIGHT TRAITS: The World Economic Forum predicts that 65% of today’s jobs will no longer be around in 15 years. As the current educational curriculum is primarily designed to prepare people for present — rather than future — jobs, leaders should be wary of placing too much emphasis on resumes, hard skills and technical expertise. Instead, they should be focusing their attention on soft skills such as emotional intelligence, drive and learnability, which according to research can help determine new skill and knowledge acquisition.


DON’T GO OUTSIDE WHEN YOU CAN STAY INSIDE: Scientific reviews show that external hires will take longer to adapt and have higher rates of voluntary and involuntary exits — yet, they are generally paid more than internal candidates. That’s why it’s valuable to look for talent internally before you search outside your organization. Internal hires tend to have higher levels of adaptation and success rates than external hires, not least because they are better able to understand the culture and navigate the politics of the organization. They are also more likely to be loyal and committed to their company.


THINK INCLUSIVELY: Most managers have a tendency to hire people who remind them of themselves. This tendency harms diversity and inhibits team performance. When we hire people just like us, we reduce the probability of creating teams of workers with complementary skill sets, those with different and even opposite profiles. The only way to think about talent inclusively is to embrace people who are different from you. But we suggest you take it a step further and celebrate people who challenge traditional norms. The engine of progress is change, and change is unlikely to happen if you only hire people who perpetuate the status quo.


BE DATA-DRIVEN: Every human makes bad decisions from time to time. But very few are interested in acknowledging this, which is why hiring biases are often so pervasive. People in positions of power need to be self-critical to make sure unconscious bias doesn’t creep in. For instance, when you hire someone, outline clear performance goals that can be easily evaluated by others, and see whether your assessment aligns with what others think and see. Likewise, before you nominate someone as a high-potential employee, arm yourself with solid data and evidence to ensure that your decision is fair and sensible.


THINK PLURAL RATHER THAN SINGULAR: We live in a world that often glorifies individualism and bemoans collectivity. However, almost everything of value that has ever been produced is the result of a collective human effort — people with different backgrounds coming together to turn their unique talents into a high performing synergy. Thus, when you think about your talent pipeline, focus less on individuals and more on the configuration of your team: Will people work together well? Are they likely to complement each other? Do their functional and psychological roles align with what the team needs? On great teams, each individual is like an indispensable organ in charge of executing a specific function, making each part different from others and the system greater than the sum of its units. Talent agents know that for teams to be successful, the individuals on them must embrace a “we before I” attitude.


MAKE PEOPLE BETTER: Great managers recognize potential where others don’t — and so do great talent agents. No matter how skilled your employees may be, you still need to help them grow in new ways. As Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular recently noted here in the Harvard Business Review, “The role of the manager, in short, is becoming that of a coach.” This means mastering the art of giving critical feedback, including the ability to have difficult conversations and address poor performance. It also means predicting your future talent needs so that you can stay ahead of the demand and have people on your team remain relevant, valuable assets for years to come. As our ManpowerGroup research surveying nearly 40,000 organizations across 43 countries shows, almost 1 in 2 employers report that they just cannot find the skills they need, which suggests that their talent planning strategies are not effective enough.


In sum, being a great manager is, in large part, about being an expert in talent matters. Fortunately, there is a well-established science of talent management, grounded on decades of industrial-organizational and management research. But unless you know how to apply it, this science is useless. The most important part of this process is your continual attention to your employees’ potential and talent. No other factor is likely to make as big a difference when it comes to building a high-performing team.


Copyright 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.



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