Hands Off the Talent: Tread Carefully in Shuffling Employees

Jim Collins’ best-selling book Good to Great was published 10 years ago and quickly became a major force in leadership development, not to mention the catch phrase of the decade. It contained a number of insightful, refreshing and enduring ideas that inspired business leaders and talent development professionals everywhere. For awhile the buzz was all about Level 5 leadership, hedgehogs and bus drivers.

I am happy when a newly appointed leader aims to take an organization from good to great, applying many of Collins’ principles. But I counsel the leader not to put on the bus driver uniform too soon.

Collins used a public transportation metaphor to describe the importance of a leader selecting superior talent with his “first who, then what” principle. He asked readers to imagine organization life as driving a bus. Using this metaphor, the task of leadership is to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off and then the right people in the right seats.

In today’s talent management parlance, that would be selection, outplacement and assignment management. The Good to Great proposal was to pay attention to the talent before just about anything else.

And that’s where new leaders can get in trouble.

When a new leader arrives, there are a number of early challenges. I’ve seen leaders become bus drivers too soon and mindlessly start kicking current team members out and adding back their old teammates to the short- and long-term detriment of the organization. Of course, there are teams in need of upgrading or that could benefit from removing a negative, blocking employee. But moving people out of or around an organization or team without the right context will make the wheels fall off.

There are two critical items on a new leader’s start-up agenda. Assessing the talent is an important one but it needs to be considered in concert with other early challenges. In observing new managers who get off to an impressive start and build long-term momentum, I find they first have a good handle on establishing task clarity or getting clear on where the bus needs to go. This means assessing and developing a longer-term view of where they need to take the organization — usually a two- or three-year perspective.

Of course, they also focus on the practical near-term actions of the first 12 months. In some situations, circumstances such as a day-one crisis or a difficult turnaround dictate a singular spotlight on the present where timely actions are necessary to provide breathing room before more strategic thinking can take place. Successful leaders usually make the best use of current team talent. In other words, the bus driver needs to start heading out in the right direction with the current riders, even if the map route is only for a few miles.

The second start-up agenda item is appraising the organization’s capacity to deliver the tasks identified from the long- and short-term framework. This is where most leaders take on the bus driver role, thinking about what seats are needed on the bus — organizational structure; who needs to occupy the critical seats — position skills and experiences needed; and motivation to go along for the ride, matched against the current and available bus riders.

Good to Great thinking makes sense here, but should include a broader view of what talent systems and processes best align with strategy. Changes in talent practices can have more of an impact than just changing out the people.

Compelling, fresh approaches come around from time to time, and Good to Great was an exciting contribution to our field. But any new lens to view organizational life can be oversimplified and misused. Talent shuffling is an important way a new leader can drive the organization to great, but good driving includes following the right route and making sure the organization’s practice — in addition to its people — is in good working order and ready for the journey.

About the Author:

Kevin D. Wilde is the vice president and chief learning officer at General Mills and author of Dancing with the Talent Stars.

Reprinted from Talent Management magazine

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