What you do does matter

With unemployment declining and labor growing scarcer, companies are finding it harder to hire the talented people they need.

One chief human resources officer at a global consumer products company recently told us his organization lacked enough younger general managers to replace those who were retiring.

Another at a national financial institution confided that managers at her organization used to average two decades of experience in their positions. Now they average only two years.

Detecting a striking pattern

Not all companies are struggling. General Electric, for instance, continues to be cited for its strong “leadership engine” and for doing a good job picking successors, including in a April 2015 New York Times article.

So why do some companies compete on talent, while others struggle?

Ongoing interviews with approximately three-dozen CHRO’s at North American-headquartered global corporations uncovered a striking pattern. At the most talent-rich companies, leaders become personally involved in driving the talent agenda, and they stay involved. In companies struggling with talent, leaders leave it for others to handle.

Influencing talent strategy

Top leaders shape organizations in all kinds of ways. Yet, we’ve been struck by the sheer extent and depth of leaders’ influence on talent strategy. Our research has confirmed what we’ve observed over two decades: A near perfect correlation between leaders’ personal involvement and the talent strategy’s business value and sustainability.

Leaders who engage with their organizations’ talent strategies tend to make the talent agenda one of their top three business priorities and treat it as such throughout the year.

They actively participate in and even drive talent review discussions. They meet with every high potential leader to discuss career aspirations and share personal experiences. They personally coach direct reports to improve their effectiveness. And they ensure that their reports do the same with their direct reports.

Creating obstacles

Leaders who neglect talent development often don’t realize the obstacles they’re creating. Picture an organization where bonus and promotional decisions reflect only short-term results, not an individual’s ability to foster a talented bench while achieving results.

In this scenario, managers who devote themselves to developing talent among their teams feel unappreciated and thwarted, while managers who focus on short-term results at the expense of growing long-term talent feel little imperative to boost their talent records.

Build your bench strength

A leader’s success in strengthening the talent pool doesn’t appear overtly in the quarterly numbers, but don’t let that fool you: What you do does matter.

We recommend asking:

  • Do your organization’s senior leaders emphasize development and coaching to an extent at least commensurate with what lower level managers must do?
  • Do your senior leaders hold themselves and their direct reports accountable for talent development?
  • Do your own actions confirm for others that talent is one of your top priorities?

If you are not personally doing much about talent, don’t delay. Your ability to help your organization build superior bench strength is greater than you think, and in today’s marketplace, it’s more important as well.


Steve Jacobs is a senior adviser at CLG Inc., a business management consultancy that advises executives on how to achieve new performance, culture change and lasting competitive advantage through the principles of applied behavioral science. Steve is the lead author of “The Behavior Breakthrough — Leading Your Organization to a New Competitive Advantage.”