Call Me Maybe

In case you’ve been living under a rock and have been shielded from the cultural phenomenon “Call Me Maybe,” then lucky you — the song’s chorus isn’t already playing in an endless loop in your head as you read these words.

“Call Me Maybe,” which began a months-long run as Billboard’s No. 1 in June, is a sticky sweet confection of adolescent longing and insouciance sung by Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen. Like any good pop hit, it deploys ruthlessly catchy hooks and a repetitive chorus to grab a stranglehold on your attention.

After just one fleeting listen it plops down in your subconscious only to pop up at the most inconvenient of times, such as when you’re trying to write your monthly letter from the editor under deadline. It’s been helped by a veritable supernova of YouTube video covers, including one by the Harvard men’s baseball team that has more than 15 million views, and another by the U.S. Olympic swim team.

My personal favorite is the version done by the singer herself accompanied by “Late Night” host Jimmy Fallon and his house band, The Roots, using instruments apparently requisitioned from a kindergarten classroom. Amazingly, “Call Me Maybe” has united such disparate figures as Cookie Monster, Justin Bieber, U.S. troops in Afghanistan and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in homage.

No offense intended to Jepsen, who at just 26 years old may very well put out a number of subsequent chart toppers, but “Call Me Maybe” falls into a long line of one-hit wonders that explode into ubiquity before inevitably fading.

Review the last dozen years or so and you’ll see similar one-hit wonders rise and fall in talent management.

As we floundered in the depths of recession three years ago and employers shed jobs by the thousands, the No. 1 hit was engagement. Faced with doing more with less, employers tasked their HR departments with boosting employee engagement in hope of driving productivity higher without raising costs.

Since then, other hits have topped the charts. Topics like wellness and work-life balance (what cantankerous former GE boss Jack Welch called a “phenomenon of below-average performers” in his book Winning) burst on the scene. A sputtering recovery with mounting external economic pressure and rising internal temperatures pushed employers to find a way to maintain high productivity while limiting burnout.

Lately the top hit has been innovation. As bosses come to grips with the realities of the knowledge economy, they’ve turned to the generation of new ideas and products as the way to remain fresh and profitable. Talent managers have dutifully followed along. The same can be said for the other business trends of late. Big data and workforce analysis are riding high, along with social media.

Because something is a short-term hit doesn’t mean it lacks long-term value. Work-life balance, wellness, innovation, collaboration, engagement, social networking and quantitative analysis are all valuable ongoing parts of what we do. But all are merely pieces of successful talent management, which is the broader mission to find, attract, develop and deploy talented and high-performing people in pursuit of our organizational goals.

Focusing on the latest and greatest hit does a disservice to that mission. It may offer short-term gratification along with necessary justification to a skeptical stakeholder, but in the long run we risk casting ourselves as today’s here-today, gone-tomorrow pop phenomenon. Focusing on the latest hit wittingly or unwittingly reinforces the impression that what we do is short-lived, effervescent and fleeting.

Pay attention to what’s happening in the here and now for inspiration, but remember that talent management is a complex, complicated and above all long-term process. The formula for success is no simple song, no matter how much it catches the imagination.

I’m not arguing that you be your organization’s designated curmudgeon. HR too often is wrongly stereotyped as the organization’s designated buzz kill. Rather, enjoy the hits, take pleasure in the warm glow they cast, but recognize that they are fleeting. The rhythms that move the organization run much deeper and slower than any one song, no matter how catchy.

Have a thought to share? Here’s my number, call me maybe: 312-676-9900.