Talent Strategies 2012: Clydesdales, Death Lizards and the Vieux Carre

I promised my oh-so-patient editors at Talent Management I would do straight reportage about Talent Strategies 2012, the conference being sponsored by this magazine this week in New Orleans. Then two things happened. First, Deanna Hartley wrote a perfect wrap-up and left me with little to add. Second, I saw Clydesdales marching down Bourbon Street. Yes, the actual Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales, the ones you see in commercials around the holidays. They showed up out of nowhere, trotting down a street cleared by police of windbreakered retirees and people drinking like it was still Mardi Gras. Everything I was going to write about the inspiring speakers, the great Talent Management staff and the fascinating attendees was washed away once I saw those huge prancing horses with their iconic Dalmatian riding on the carriage behind.

This isn’t about horses, of course, nor about the seeming randomness of New Orleans’ outbreaks of organized fun. Parades in New Orleans are like sunspots, flaring up hot here and there, then gone and forgotten. It is more about the reaction of some of the people watching, and the importance of symbols and imagery in creating employee attachment and engagement.

There are thousands of Budweiser distributors in town this week along with us, and the French Quarter hotels and restaurants are packed with them. As a group they seem happy, energetic and proud to work for Bud, and it isn’t driven by a collective  oversampling of their products. When the Clydesdales passed, I observed an emotional reaction in many (easily identifiable by their Bud Light shirts), a mixture of pride and happiness. Every company worth its salt has symbols, stories, icons and myths to which employees can relate, and when they represent something positive like the Clydesdales, they create levels of engagement for employees no training program nor retention strategy can hope to replicate. They imbue work with meaning, turning simple jobs into callings.

Meaning at work is a subtle but common theme of Talent Strategies 2012. So is the importance of “branding,” another word for symbolism. Few of the speakers and panelists made these the central focus of their talks, but if you listen carefully you will find it embedded in a majority of the data and opinions shared. First, futurist Jim Carroll highlighted the importance of meaning to tomorrow’s workforce. Economist and Day 2 keynoter Sylvia Ann Hewlett referenced case studies from companies as diverse as Pfizer and Moody’s which built talent strategies on the theme of “Re-creating Pride and Purpose.” Hewlett, who leads a project called the “Hidden Brain Drain” (which is not to be confused with the downstairs bar here at the Ritz), noted that women and minorities in particular care about the brand and symbols of where they work. Jerry Prochazka of Human Capital Media Advisory Group talked about the value of “tacit knowledge” in the workplace, a term he uses to describe employee knowledge hidden in the form of stories.

The importance of myths and symbols in human existence is well-explored by thinkers such as Joseph Campbell, the famed Sarah Lawrence professor and author. Organizational psychologist David Cooperrider, a name familiar to many of you, translates into corporate-speak why positive stories and symbols are key to having a more engaged workforce in his “Appreciative Inquiry” books and seminars. Stories and images help an organization find its “positive core.”

Remember the scene in the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” when an agitated Steve Martin asks John Candy why a weird cabbie is taking them on a circuitous drive in the middle of the night? It’s the “scenic” way, explains Candy: “He’s proud of his town.” His is a job with meaning.

The bottom line is that meaning at work is a critical component of talent development, and having visible, positive symbols and stories creates a more meaningful workplace. That is something that the Death Lizards of the Consultocracy, who think all of human existence can be reduced to process management, just don’t get. They don’t understand that meaning, stories, history and company pride – intangibles that don’t show up during some Six Sigma analysis – drive true engagement at work.

These are simple things that every company can focus upon. What are the stories and symbols of your company? What are the powerful and vivid images? What makes you proud to work for your company? What is at your positive core as an organization? Ask yourself these things and build your talent strategies upon their foundational support. You can increase engagement and your edge in talent development by returning to these basic things, and rediscovering what it MEANS to work at your company.

And you don’t need a team of Clydesdales.