The Talent Wasteland
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much talent is wasted. There is talent which is never realised due to circumstance. These are often the people who weren’t lucky enough to win the birth lottery. There is talent which is misdirected away from good quests, where capable folk, many of whom have a selection of opportunities, spend their time on work that doesn’t matter, or doesn’t contribute towards moving the world in a more positive direction. Both topics could be debated at length but they are not what I’m going to focus on here. Rather, there is a third bucket of talent being wasted at extraordinary rates. That is the talent within organisations. Talent that is purposely hired, thoughtfully selected and regularly paid. Talent that accounts for a huge percentage of annual budgets. In the case of early stage startups that number can be up to 80%. Talent that is being unrealised, throttled and misused, due to internal dynamics within organisations.
It never fails to amaze me how frequently companies make it difficult for the people they’ve hired to just get their work done. It also never fails to amaze me how frequently companies lose their most ambitious, highest performing team members due to factors that are mostly within their control. These factors tend to surface at the intersection of company culture and process. They are where an organisation’s way of being, combined with its operating rules (whether verbalised explicitly or not), unintentionally, but negatively impact productivity and morale. It is these factors that lead to the talent wasteland.
There are the obviously bad actions which thwart an organisation’s ability to utilise its talent pool. Discrimination of course should be rooted out. Miss-selling company culture leads to hiring the wrong fit. A lack of a coherent strategy (and more accurately a lack of awareness of that fact) leads to an extraordinary waste of talent, time and effort. However, all the obviously bad things aside, I’d wager that the top reasons why talent is wasted is due to self-imposed bureaucracy, bad incentives and a lack of appreciation for good management. These factors are entirely within an organisation’s control.
The below is intended to be food for thought for how organisations, and people with influence within them, can redevelop some existing practices to avoid wasting talent.
Self-Imposed Bureaucracy & Bad Incentives
1. Internal rules on promotions and transfers
Career frameworks have their merit, but your <100 person startup likely doesn’t need one. I find that companies often impose rules on themselves which reduce their ability to leverage their talent. Many of these are practices adopted from large corporates (where they also don’t make a lot of sense), or are biassed relics carried over from a leader/hiring manager's past. Common examples include:
Tenure based decisions e.g. you need to be 12 months in a role before you can transfer teams, promoting the longest serving team member over the most competent
Requiring specific backgrounds for certain roles e.g. we only hire ex-consultants for BizOps, Product Managers must have a Computer Science background
Levels and performance cycles as blockers e.g. we can’t move someone into X role because it’s 2 levels above them, we can’t promote Y to Senior Z despite them operating at this level because it’s out of cycle
Some guardrails around promotions and transfers are valid and helpful. Yet, often internal rules which claim to promote fairness, have a tendency to lead to less meritocratic outcomes. If you find your organisation has built up a set of practices which limit how talent can develop, consider if they actually serve your company and teams. If not, get rid of them. When it comes to prescriptive rules, less is usually more.
2. Excessive work-around-work
Checks and balances can be a good thing. Some decisions require a cautious approach. Taking the time to ensure cross-functional alignment can be invaluable. Yet, many knowledge workers spend up to 60% of their time carrying out the rituals and practices that surround work (update meetings, status reports etc.) which they must perform before they are allowed to do their jobs or ship whatever they have been working on. Some common causes of this are:
Low trust culture: This type of environment lends itself to low autonomy and high risk averseness, which causes people to excessively discuss and plan even minor activities. They often facilitate power dynamics that infantilize employees rather than treating them as adults.
Friction in orgs: Lack of clarity of ownership, in-fighting over roles and responsibilities and interpersonal disagreements, leads to excessive internal bureaucracy as each stakeholder wants to assert influence or just keep their job...This has a tendency to both increase workload and curtail speed of execution.
Rewarding optics over delivery: Some organisations reward appearing to do the work as much as they reward doing the actual work provided the “appearing” is presented in the relevant format e.g. presentation at All-hands, workshop at offsite. This type of “appearing” work can lead to excessive processes, meetings and other workflows which take away from the work itself.
Good talent is usually allergic to performative work that delivers little value. This leads to a rise of mediocre performers in more senior positions, who go on to hire people who operate like them. It has the dual effect of lowering the talent bar overall, and discouraging others from utilising their talents in ways that are more productive. If you’re worried your organisation may have fallen prey to these follies, ask yourself, what does the company incentivise? What type of profiles are being promoted? What type of valuable work is potentially being overlooked? To change behaviour, change the incentives.
Lacking an Appreciation of Good Management
3. Bad managers demoralising teams
Most people don’t like to be managed. Management itself is a bit of an unnatural structure. However, the reality is that organisations are social systems delivering output. A good manager knows this, and nurtures talent to create a high performing team. A bad manager can squash it. Bad managers in my experience also tend to contribute greatly to the work-around-work problem. A lot has been written about what makes a good manager. I won’t rehash it here. Rather, if you're worried that your organisation has a talent deficit, or is experiencing overall low performance, ask yourself could this be a management problem rather than a talent issue? Do the managers in your org raise team performance and morale? Do you have a method for objectively gathering this type of information? Do you have any niggling concerns? Dig deeper into these. As the saying goes, people leave managers, not companies.
4.The internal penalty
Once hired, employees start to suffer from the “internal penalty”. When it comes to promotions, their real performance, which no matter how stellar, likely featured some failures along the way, is assessed against external candidates who do not have past mistakes to account for (at least not to the same extent) in interviews. Existing talent is overlooked and often starts searching for opportunities elsewhere. Sometimes hiring externally is the best solution. However, if it is the go-to solution for each new position opened, it is likely you are wasting the talent capabilities that already exist in your organisation. If as an organisation, people tend not to be given stretch opportunities ask yourself why? This answer may unmask a deeper issue e.g. lack of clarity around strategy, lack of faith in existing products/managers/teams, lack of leadership around dealing with known issues.
Hiring the best fit for your organisation and building a high performance culture is really f***king hard. Truthfully, there are always some more experienced, more talented and generally more capable people out there who could perform better in every role in your company. But, you may not be able to hire them. Every organisation can make changes to better utilise and develop existing talent. This requires some introspection, and will likely unearth some painful choices around existing people and internal practices. It will require a change. What do you have to lose?