With all the talk about recruiting talent, it can be easy to ignore the most accessible source for valuable employees — your own company. Everyone knows the Wayne Gretzky stories about major talents who were ignored or passed over early in their careers, only to go on to be a huge success. But what about the huge talents who were passed over and as a result never reached their potential — who knows those stories? As business leaders, a major challenge is to identify top talent early, preferably when they are in their first role in your company. David Lorree, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Western University in Ontario, suggests we should pay attention to the person whose comments are “sticky” — which means you’re still thinking about what he or she said after the meeting is over. It might be the person who insists on talking about values, or the person who is willing to go against the flow to talk about product quality. These people are taking risks to share their ideas, and they are making sense. Focusing on these people and providing them with special developmental assignments and opportunities is a great way to build your company’s leadership pipeline.
When you have gone through the trouble and expense of identifying or recruiting A-players, you need to figure out how to hang on to them. One key is to focus on helping them to remain relevant. According to Deloitte’s Shift Index, professional skills acquired in 2016 will have a shelf life of about five years. A-players are all about learning new skills and staying on top of their game, so encourage them to seek out new challenges and directions. You’ll know you’re succeeding when no one in your organization is doing exactly the same job for more than three or four years.
This is why I have always been annoyed by the idea of competency models. They often seem like time-consuming exercises to identify the obvious — lists of generic positive qualities like “meets deadlines” or “treats others with respect.” Recently, I have found a new reason to distrust the competency modeling process. In several of my client companies, business leaders who are “competent” are being let go because the role demands more than competence — it demands excellence. When a company is looking to expand, to be the best, to outpace its competition, competence isn’t good enough. It’s time to start thinking about your greatness model instead of your competency model.
You also must address and remove workplace stresses so those A-players stick around and do their best work. Research from ComPsych found that the top workplace stressor is not knowing what your manager expects of you. This is especially acute in times of rapid change — but let’s face it, in most companies it’s always a time of rapid change. During the Great Recession, my team and I identified four key leadership behaviors for managing during times of uncertainty and change: Connect, Inform, Guide, and Manage Expectations. We worked with company leaders to help them model and influence the behaviors that helped their teams navigate through turbulent waters. Those leadership behaviors continue to be critical for reducing employees’ stress, gaining their buy-in and driving productivity.
Back in the day when I was a clinical psychologist, I had three separate clients coming to see me for symptoms of stress and anxiety. They all worked for the same company, in the same department, for the same boss. Because of client confidentiality, there was no way I could let the company know of my observation that this boss was wreaking havoc with her employees’ psychological well-being. This experience was one reason I became a management psychologist — so I could work with the bosses to make life better for their employees. Now there’s a whole body of research showing that working for a toxic boss damages not only your mental health, but your physical health as well. It turns out that toxic bosses are literally poisonous!