The Code of Talent-First Thinking

“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

— John W. Gardner, former U.S. secretary of health, education and welfare

Excellence in building an engaged workforce and a superior leadership talent pipeline sounds so exalted and glamorous.

I hear about places where CEOs spend 50 percent of their time on people. I am amazed to read about the information system that produces predictive talent analytics more powerful in forecasting tomorrow than the collective prognostications of famous futurists. I’ve learned about employee value propositions so well-delivered that Gallup is amazed.

In theory, the philosophy of talent is nearly effortless. In practice, it’s a lot of roll-up-your-sleeves and prepare to get your hands dirty as we battle leaking talent pipelines, faulty information systems and less-than-cooperative colleagues and line managers.

Our Talent Plumber’s Realities

Our daily work as a master talent plumber is filled with the brutal realities of:

• A room full of leaders resistant to telling the truth, calibrating the talent in the organization and letting top employees go to other divisions. The talent philosophy is managers will make rational assessments of performance, potential and readiness in the best interest of the organization. The plumber’s reality is that unless there is the right mindset, team trust and skill, the talent pipe is frozen.

• An inability or unwillingness to meaningfully differentiate employees. The talent philosophy is that managers will use the same capabilities used in product portfolio and strategic budgeting exercises to make high-quality decisions to best leverage limited resources. The talent plumber’s reality is that managers avoid hot and cold conversations with employees, so only lukewarm outcomes are possible.

• Battling HR data systems to produce reliable and useful insights for talent decisions. The talent philosophy is that this generation of tools for big data talent analytics will deliver great results. The plumber’s reality is the data pipes are producing a maddening drip, drip, drip of productive output.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I draw great encouragement and inspiration from the talent philosophers and their rational view of how it should all work. But after the best practice reports and conference speeches, we practitioners go back to the reality of well-intended yet mostly irrational, political organizations with short attention spans and even less interest in the latest talent philosophy.

The Code Book

So I pack my lunch every morning and head out for another day’s work of unclogging drains, quieting noisy pipes and correcting poorly laid or rusting systems. Along with a good lunch, I try to remember to bring my practical talent plumber’s code handbook.

The code is the lifetime collection of practices. It includes reminders that influence and relationship-building are the real work of the day. My primary task as the talent plumber is to make good connections — to the chief business needs, strategic priorities and interests of the people I serve. This is the humble work of organization change and influence, and takes precedence over the rational plans I might have.

The other essential code is the paradoxical balance of the need to lead with a measure of risk and boldness. Organization gravity will pull everything to the status quo. The work requires figuring out what matters most and providing a spark to move the organization upward. So the code informs me not to stand still or cave to resistance.

Thinking about such things as the right spots to push or wait and quietly building the execution infrastructure behind the scenes is the unglamorous yet essential work of talent plumbers. We strike the balance of reaching for the rational vision of the talent philosophers and practicing the daily talent plumbing to ensure it all holds water.

Kevin D. Wilde is the vice president and chief learning officer at General Mills and author of “Dancing With the Talent Stars.” He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.