When years ago McKinsey consultants produced a book entitled “The war for talent”, they successfully created the impression that talent was something “out there” that one had to fight for. Implicitly, that was, you don’t have it, or don’t have it enough, or it is in short supply. So, go to war to get it, fight hard against your competitors before it is too late. The one who fights a better war, gets the talent, and this is it! I am deliberately caricaturing the thesis, but I am not far away from the intention.
The McKinsey claim was misleading or at least missing the point. The reality is that the problem is not how to get the talent, but how to host it. The issue is how to retain the talent that you have seduced, when, perhaps, people realise after a while inside the tent that there is a whole paraphernalia of bureaucracy, corporate stiffness, opaque systems or command and control processes in which talent is often developed despite, not thanks to that culture. Seducing talent in is the easy part, surviving in the fry afterwards is the problem.
John Seddon, a UK management consultant who has gained some prominence by vocally challenging the UK government in the past in some of his policies, has made the point that training and development of people is a waste and, again, a way of missing the point. The statement is unusual enough to make you read beyond headlines or to find out more about the background for this. What Seddon is actually saying is that, to have a workforce that is fully trained, and, investing an arm and a leg per employee on this, is a total waste if the company has processes and systems that block any skill development. I agree with Seddon in that a command and control way of management, instead of enhancing the individual, blocks any brain from functioning more than 10% all the time.
Both of the above examples have something in common. Your worst enemies are usually within. Look inside! Put your house in order first, look at your ability to host talent or at the processes, systems and structures that you have, the behavioural fabric of your organisation, and then go for wars outside or, by all means, invest on those training programmes.
It reminds me of the late Irish philosopher John O’Donohue, who criticised people travelling East on a spiritual quest, meditating in the Himalayas or doing lots of New Age stuff under the banner of “spiritual journeys”. He says that the real spiritual journey is about 2 inches long: that is, going down your scalp, inside you. In corporations there is something similar. We have been taught to look outside, look at the market, listen to customers, compete, outsmart others, bring in the best people, steal them from competitors if you can etc. And that’s all very well intentioned and logical, provided, your own house is in order. Until now it has been managerially incorrect to talk a too internal-driven language. Outward looking management (usually blurred with customer-driven language) is “in”, inward looking approaches (usually mixed up with internal process language) have been out. The bimodal world we are in, forces you to choose, one or another. In the worst of the cases people tend to say you should look outside and leave the inside for HR!
R&D/Product Development organisations or divisions suffer from similar syndrome. Yes, the environment is tougher, regulations have increased, everything is disrupted, costs rocketed, time development complicated, and the external world is demanding more, bjy and more on almost everything: safety, information, transparency and higher returns on investments and shareholder values.
Lets be clear. The worst enemy is within. It is in the form of organisational structures that have hardly changed in fifty years and that are a carbon copy of each other. I work a lot with ‘regulated industries’ such as Finance, Insurance and Pharmaceuticals. Still today I hear a lot about ‘oh, we could not do that, we are a regulated industry’. I don’t take pleasure in pushing back hard: there is nothing in ‘The Regulations’ that says that you must be slow, painful, masochistic and with zero creativity. That you need to have 30 people taking a decision in 30 days when the same decision could be taken by 3 people in 3 days.
Don’t look for the enemy outside. You’ll see plenty of potential ones but you won’t fight them unless you look first inside the tent.
Next: Organizations: The Enemy Within (2/3). What the real enemies look like.