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Engaging Talent – Sustaining Competitive Edge

Greatness is not paved by a string of successful outcomes. In fact, it is made up of failures, disappointments, and wrong turns in the road, some bad decisions, as well as high, unforgiving cliffs, and incredibly low, abysmal valleys. When I analyzed the life stories of leaders who have reached greatness in their lives, I discovered that they travelled uncharted terrains characterized by the elements I just described. In contrast, when I conducted the same analysis with those who never quite made it, I noticed that they actually gave up just when they were so close to greatness. In fact, it was Thomas A. Edison who observed that, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up”. What explains why some press on while others give up? Although my research is qualitative in nature and driven by my sheer curiosity to better serve my clients, the answer I arrived at is CHOICE. The choices we make in terms of decision and focus is related to our psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility plays a critical role in how you find your direction toward greatness as well as inspire others to do the same. Let’s begin by dispelling some myths surrounding what it takes to increase your flexibility (that is, stretch your mind) and its relation to developing the talent of those around you. Let me start by sharing an “inconvenient truth” (borrowing the title from the 2006 American documentary film directed by Davis Guggenheim): The majority of people who leave their positions walk away not from the corporation, not from HR structures, but from you. Yes, you, the leader. Leaders who have been appointed as responsible for setting the direction and inspiring people to align toward that ONE direction are often mentioned in exit interviews, qualitative interviews, career transition programs, and even in our Purposeful Career Coaching program. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: What can be done to help change the statistics when, in fact, we cannot control what other people do? Do we simply keep pointing fingers? Where will these fingers point to next? I believe a far more constructive dialogue is one that focuses on changing the way we think about our work in relation to people. As an appointed leader, your job is to “Develop the ability in others to do their work”. By changing the way you think about your role, you change the way you manage talent.

Common misconceptions that lead to finger pointing:

Talent is inherent. You either have it or you don’t. So those who leave, leave because they just didn’t have it. Nothing I could have done differently.

This comment is tantamount to saying: Leaders are born, they are not made. If you secretly believe this, you are not alone. It is easier to work with people that seem to come natural to the task of doing, making decisions, and problem-solving, than it is to work with people that don’t seem to quite fit this pattern.  And, it is less work if we convince ourselves that Mr. Jones just doesn’t have what “WE” believe he needs to succeed. Hence, we help Mr. Jones leave the organization. Well, we may not tell him just yet. But through our nonverbal behaviors, our lack of attention toward Mr. Jones, and our denial of the role we play in helping Mr. Jones reach his own decision of whether he is fit for the job, we actually convey to Mr. Jones that he is not a born leader. And, Mr. Jones either quits or becomes a disengaged employee.

Leaders know stuff more than others. I am a leader because I know better than most.

I have often heard really intelligent leaders defend this belief to the point that the more they rationalize it, the farther away they move from true leadership. And, the tighter the grip, the more barriers they create between themselves and others. Quite honestly, they are always surprised when people quit on them.

Strong leaders focus on the KPIs because that’s how you win in the marketplace.

Far too often I have watched leaders fall prey to this belief. The attractiveness lies in the practicality of it. It is easier to focus on the things we can measure than to focus on the things that don’t logically fit. Here again, leaders are disappointed when their well-thought through KPIs are just not attractive enough to their teams. And more surprised when people quit or ask to be transferred elsewhere.   So if leaders are born, they know their stuff better than others, and they focus fiercely on their KPIs, why are we collectively failing to retain our talent? Certainly, I am aware of the external factors that often work against keeping good talent. However, we can’t worry about the external variables that we cannot control no matter how brilliant we are. We must work with what IS in our control. And, growing our in-house talent is where “WE—OR YOU” gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. While others focus on blaming the external conditions for talent retention, you are deliberately bringing about a change in how you lead so that talent stays here! So that your investment stays here!

Coaching and its Role in Developing Talent

Coaching does not focus on the things that don’t work, but rather pays attention to what does work. And in doing so, it builds accountability, ownership, and meaningfulness. People feel engaged, supported, and valued when you coach them to bring forth the best they have to offer. Coaching is interested in helping people make the sharp turns in the road; forge ahead by experiencing the Ah! moments of insight in coaching, which lead to how they see themselves and subsequently the CHOICE to change.  Here are some coaching skills that you want to practice consistently: Let’s go back to the first belief: Talent is inherent. What if I tell you that people’s talents are inherently invisible to you? Would you believe me? Indeed they are. You cannot identify a person’s true potential unless you do a couple of things. Ready?

Coaching skill 1:

Notice… notice… notice… notice… Notice the behaviors that make people do the right things in line with corporate vision, team goals and reinforce them. Notice how they use words to describe their circumstances, their relationships, their challenges, and what works for them. You share what you notice. Name the behaviors. You specify the behavior that you notice working for them, for you, and for the team.

Coaching skill 2:

Help them focus their attention on the things they can control. Ask them to be specific on the outcomes they want to see. When you do this, you expand their awareness of their issues, challenges, or whatever situation they are facing: Ask them to describe what they want to accomplish compared to where they are today: “What is your intended goal given the situation you are in? What do you want to see happen?”   Now, the second belief: Leaders are leaders because they know better. Maybe. Who is going to argue if you feel this way? Certainly, appointed individuals have risen to the occasion not because they know better, that certainly wouldn’t be fair to others who feel they could do a better job. In fact, if this were true then logically people would name their leaders. Right? If leaders know better, then why are we not voting people into leadership position? You can see where I am going with this… Therefore, how do you break away from this belief?

Coaching skill 3:

See yourself as able to learn from others. Ask people around you to share with you how they plan to get to their outcomes. Help them brainstorm solutions. Ask: “Where do you want to begin? What’s your plan? What do you have in mind?”   Finally, let’s look at the belief on KPIs and how they ensure our wins in the marketplace. Here again we are faced with a similar conundrum: Do KPIs determine talent or does talent determine KPIs? Stated differently, can KPIs really decide how far people need to stretch or do people decide how far they CAN stretch their KPIs? Think about it for a moment: What good are KPIs if we are not sure of the talent we have to meet those KPIs?

Coaching skill 4:

Involve people in determining how to hold themselves accountable. Ask questions that get them to plan the process of achieving their outcomes. Ask: “How will you know you have achieved your outcome? What can I do to ensure you achieve your outcome?”

Stretch and Move Forward

Psychological flexibility, therefore, begins with you and the CHOICE you make to stretch your thinking in how you forge ahead when faced with challenges, and how you inspire those around you to do the same. The coaching conversation is about moving people forward- toward their solution and holding them to their commitment. Your job is to keep them thinking and moving forward in their work by using four simple coaching skills:

  • Name the behaviors you notice working for them, for you, and the team
  • Get people to articulate where they want to go with a particular problem
  • Help them to think about what can be done to achieve the outcome
  • Help them determine how to hold themselves accountable

It is not a complicated formula: Focus on people and you WILL have the competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Final Words

I am reminded of Gandhi’s insight that speaks to the importance of noticing and paying attention to your thoughts, your words, and most importantly to your belief(s) about people:

Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

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