Think of Talent Development as Baking Cupcakes

Peering into the oven, I was unsure if it was time to pull the cupcakes out. Looking back at me, I imagined, were a dozen cupcakes wondering if their time was up. Wait too long and they’ll be dry and burnt. Pull too early and they’ll be an unfinished, doughy mess.

As a novice baker, there seemed to be three equally valid guidelines. The ingredient box said to wait 15 minutes with a nonstick pan. My daughter told me to ignore the box instructions and push a toothpick in a cupcake. If the toothpick comes out clean, the cupcakes are ready for frosting. My wife coached me to just look for the golden brown glow that tells a wise baker it’s time.

While contemplating my next baking move, I reflected on the similarity of conflicting bake times and quality assignment management: when is someone ready for his or her next role? Poor talent management moves employees based solely on the whims of the business. Much like the cupcake, pull too early to fill another pressing business need and the employee is still doughy and undeveloped from a short-tenured role. Hold in place too long to provide business stability, and staleness, burnout or at least missed opportunities to grow in a different role are the result. String a series of these jobs together and the cumulative result is a loyal employee who helps out a lot but isn’t really strong enough for the next level.

It’s helpful to have clear intent and guidelines when setting the timer on a developmental assignment. The approaches I heard for optimal cupcake readiness apply equally well to a job:

First, the nonstick assignment. There are often short-duration, rotational jobs found early in a career. Early testing in a variety of circumstances and exposure to different parts of the organization are the main benefits of these roles. The keys to making these assignments productive include selecting the right depth of responsibilities. They should be engaging with some challenge yet bound so that even with rapid turnover of incumbents there is minimal damage to the business and key relationships. It’s best to surround the pass-through talent with stable, experienced professionals who enjoy coaching the next generation.

Next, the toothpick role. These are the assignments that test an employee’s competence and talent. Usually longer in duration than the nonstick assignment, these roles serve up meaningful opportunities to develop skills and demonstrate a required level of ability. Some career mapping and competency architecture are usually involved in planning these jobs. The critical aspect of managing these moves well is twofold: first, be clear upfront with the employee what specific skills he or she needs to learn and master. Second, ensure adequate experiences where these new competencies can be acquired, assimilated and demonstrated to the satisfaction of career decision makers. Not holding the employee in the role long enough so he or she comes out clean with validated skills and knowledge is a waste of promising talent.

Finally, the golden brown job. There are special circumstances that go beyond nonstick and toothpick assignment timing. I recall hearing a debate between two leaders concerning the readiness of a well-regarded high potential to backfill a retiring senior executive. Yes, said the retiring executive, the replacement had demonstrated the basic job requirements. But no, he isn’t ready quite yet. He hadn’t seen enough of the unexpected elements of the job, those unplanned crisis moments and tough-call decisions which provide a different level of competence, executive judgment and humility. The performance was there, but the high potential needed to move from demonstrated competence to wisdom. It was a question of seasoning.

As talent management leaders, we operate as cooks in the corporate kitchen, pulling ingredients and recipes together to produce masterful creations for high performance and growth. Remember, one skill of a great chef and a great talent leader is timing: knowing how long is just right. Speaking of timing, I think I smell some cupcakes burning.