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Managing talented people: Getting on with - and getting the best from - your top talent

Book cover

by Alan Robertson and Graham Abbey, Pearson Education Ltd., 2003.

Abstract

Talented people don’t respond to command and control. The author uses Kolb’s learning cycle to structure the way to manage them, starting with reflection, via theory, to testing and ongoing experience.

(Reviewed by Kevin Barham in March 2004)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)

The word 'talent' derives originally from the Greek word for a weight or balance and hence for a unit of weight or money. Our use of this word to denote aptitude or ability comes, we are told, from the Gospel of Saint Matthew in the Bible. In the 'parable of the talents', a master gave his servants talents (i.e. money) which two of them invested to earn interest, earning their master's approval. The other less enterprising servant simply buried his in the ground, receiving a scolding from the master who threatened to cast him into the outer darkness where 'men will weep and gnash their teeth'. (Try threatening your underperformers with that one.)

Two thousand years on, we are still struggling with how to manage talent. According to the authors of this book, every manager wants a talented team but today's talented people, the so-called knowledge workers, present a significant challenge to the people who have to manage them on a daily basis. They do not respond well to a 'command and control' hierarchy and do not come to work simply because of the pay cheque - they have a different motivation and values to the majority of people. More is expected of them and they expect more in return. They are increasingly intolerant of work they find meaningless and need different kinds of challenges and a different kind of management.

Alan Robertson is an independent management consultant and Graham Abbey is HR director for the airline easyJet. They arrange their book in four parts to correspond to the four different approaches to learning in the typical learning cycle, and each of which will appeal to different readers as starting points:

  1. Reflecting on talented people considers the definition of talent (reflecting on experience).
  2. A theory on managing talented people sets out some principles for managing talent (making sense of experience).
  3. The practice of managing talent looks at what actually has to be done (making use of experience).
  4. Managing talent in action provides a framework - a 'companion' - to assist you in working through your own situation (taking part actively).

Reflecting on talented people

The main aim of this section is to get the reader thinking about the challenges. The authors contend that there is no shared understanding of what is understood by and expected of talent. This makes it difficult to manage talented people. Everybody thinks they are talented and because the talent question is political and the personal stakes are high, it is not easy to speak openly about talent in organisations.

The definition of what is talent is often seen as the preserve of managers but they tend to define talent 'hastily, personally and imprecisely' rather than giving adequate time to think about it or deepen their understanding. They usually find it easier to say who is talented rather than what they mean by that. They define talent in terms of superior performance and results because it is easier to see who achieves superior performance and much harder to understand what lies behind it and explain how they do it.

Talent is about expectations

The authors argue that talent is about a set of expectations and the problem is that these expectations are not well understood. When the authors ask people what sorts of people are talented, they invariably find that jobs where the label 'talented' is used most frequently for creative jobs such as artist or actress/actor, sportsperson or writer. They rarely find it used for jobs such as driving, clerical/administrative, managers or accountants.

Creative jobs tend to attract the label 'talented' so creativity is a central component in our expectations of talent. We expect talented people to be, not just high performers, they must also demonstrate innovativeness. This expectation, however, is not always clearly spelled out. Talent is lost to organisations because they fail to let it be known that it is OK to be innovative. The authors say that, while organisations talk about the need for innovation and creativity, in practice many managers do not give creativity a proper hearing or take time to explore new ideas put forward by their people. Even if you as a manager think you are open to new ideas, you may not come across this way to your people. When, ask the authors, was the last time you failed to make time for a talented person and failed to listen carefully enough so that they felt they had been given a fair hearing?

What do talented people say about their own expectations? What makes them tick? Talent, the authors have found, has an urge for growth, to be on the move, for the here and now, for meaning and purpose, for agency and choice (they like to be in the driving seat), for self-respect, and for fun. Ignore these urges at your peril, say the authors. Managing talented people is about providing challenges that can match and utilise these urges.

The essence of the challenge is that there is a tension between what talent wants and what management needs and expects. Talent sets and monitors its own standards and will act as it sees fit and necessary to respect itself. Each of the urges has a downside as well as an upside. The urge for personal growth makes for effective learners, for example, but it can lead to an emphasis on learning at the expense of performing. You have to be clear about what exactly you want from talent because your talented people are going to be coming at you with their expectations.

In sum, the authors say that talented people are those expected by their managers to produce superior performance now and in future. They achieve this through urgent application of their creativity while demanding personal growth with or without the support of the broader organisation. Managing talented people is therefore the continual man.

A theory on managing talented people

This section aims to provide a platform for action by setting out a few clear principles for providing leadership to talented people. They may be superior performers but they cannot simply be left to get on with it, even though they may insist on freedom of action. They need special attention. The manager of a talented team needs to learn how to spot and respond to talent, and how to enable it to grow, while gently directing its course. This involves alerting, enabling and inspiring talent.

Alerting talent.

You have to teach talent to be alert - the authors say they must be 'clued up' so they can deal with the politics and complexity of today's 'messy' organisations and can successfully turn their ideas into action. You have to alert talented people to the nature of their organisation and to clue them up to their context so they don't miss occasions to use their talent. This means you have to take the bigger picture and widen your repertoire of management styles. Alerting talent means broadening their perspective too and moving them out of their natural tendency to see things independently which can limit their ability to realise their potential.

You also have a responsibility to your organisation to alert it to its talent. You have to raise the profile of your talented people with senior management who may not be aware of its existence. This means succession planning and key resource reviews, including a forum for identifying and discussing talented people. Don't be defensive about holding on to talented people, say the authors. You don't own them. If you want to hold on to them, then you have to be prepared to make your case. If you try to keep talented people hidden, and you don't act in the wider interest, you will lose the respect of your talented people, of your colleagues.

Enabling talent.

The manager's role is also to enable talent by developing it. This demands a more challenging intervention. The authors point to research which shows that extraordinary performers are 'good thinkers' (i.e. they look for alternative interpretations), have strong self-awareness and are assiduous learners. The developer of talent needs therefore to encourage time for thinking and reflection, even in a busy work environment. The idea that thinking is not a valuable form of action is absurd, say the authors. The developer has to counteract the tendency of talent to think autonomously by framing - redirecting and refocusing - talent's energies so it does not turn into frustration.

Inspiring talent.

The manager must also inspire talent by backing it and being prepared to take personal risks. This has to be done by personal example and many small acts of courage in standing up to the pressures for conformity and compliance that organisational life encourages. Without this example talented people will become disillusioned and opt out either physically or psychologically. You also need to find a way to create an environment where it is seen as OK to learn, and where learning is not undermined by the idea that it is an admission of failure or incompetence. You must inspire talented people by acting like the pacemaker, the runner responsible for setting a demanding standard from the start of the race, providing leadership, even though only temporary.

The authors call on research which distinguishes between the 'entity mindset' and the 'incremental mindset'. People with the 'entity mindset' exhibit helpless responses to setbacks, become excessively self-critical and lose faith in themselves, and become uncooperative, seeing peers as competitors for self-esteem. Their learning is inhibited and their performance declines. People with the 'incremental mindset', on the other hand, remain optimistic that a way forward can be found and persevere in the face of obstacles. They re-examine their performance and redesign the strategies they are using, remaining co-operative because they value collaboration. Their learning remains robust and their performance improves. The authors suggest talented people find it hard to stay in the incremental frame of mind at work and very easy to fall into the negativity of the entity mindset. This happens when, for example, the stakes are high, a decision is risky or when it might damage career prospects. The manager must be alert for signs of the entity mindset and enable and encourage the incremental mindset.

The practice of managing talented people

This section provides a practical approach to the day-to-day challenges of managing talent. As the authors say, you can't buy a map for this sort of territory, you have to make it for yourself. But, they say, they can teach you something about map-making and help you see the patterns below the surface of managing talented people. There are three elements here:

  1. Seeing clearly what is happening.
  2. Understanding what each of you want.
  3. Delivering on it skilfully.

Seeing, they say, is about understanding how to manage the 'trilemma of management' – the difficult task of balancing and rebalancing three issues; control (the need for decision-making), co-operation (the need for teamwork) and autonomy (the need for individual action). Managers usually make the mistake of giving too much attention to one of the dimensions at the expense of the others or they lurch around ineffectively between the three. The authors introduce the 'trilemma organiser' - a lens for helping managers understand what is going on deciding on the right combination for a particular set of circumstances.

A dynamic quality is required in the relationship between talent manager and the talented person and this requires a shared understanding of the context in which they are working and of their respective roles and expectations. You need to be not only effective individually, but jointly effective, and to make sense of what is happening together. You need to use 'good thinking' together by looking for alternative solutions to problems. One way to develop talent is to involve them in thinking about some of the broader issues you are dealing with.

Delivering depends critically on the quality of conversation you have with your talent. You need to understand conversational patterns so you can use dialogue effectively to resolve the issues of managing talented people. The authors provide an organiser or map that helps keep track of where a conversation is, moment to moment. This involves two questions: 'How sure do I feel about what is going on?' and 'Do I agree with what you are saying?'

Conversation can be seen as a series of moves – these consist of the Counter (an expression of disagreement), the Reinforce (an expression of agreement), and the Probe (an expression of enquiry). To manage dialogue successfully we need to use the whole repertoire of moves and choose them carefully. The organiser helps you to recognise quickly the move the other person is making and, in turn, helps you decide yours. The key to successful dialogue is alignment, which means you find your way together to the same part of the map. The authors recommend, for example, that most conversations should start by both of you probing. The aim is to keep possibilities open rather than close down on them too soon - the Probe in particular is the principal ally of good thinking because it gives time for thinking, opens thinking up and helps to deepen understanding.

Managing talent in action

The authors say that, although this section is the shortest part of the book, it is the part that matters most and where the content becomes yours rather than theirs. They say that you will find this section particularly useful if you are currently in the middle of figuring out how to handle the challenge of a talented person and you need some questions to start to organise your thinking. To this end, they set out 36 questions covering underlying expectations, the issue, the people concerned, the dynamics of the situation, and the first steps to a 'line of march'.

The battlegrounds today may be between organisations but the outcome will be determined within organisations, by the individual managers who are responsible for managing talented people. Such managers will find plenty of sound advice and original ideas and frameworks to help them in this well-researched and attractively presented book (including a pointer to the author's website which offers further support). The danger, of course, in focusing on the more talented people in the team or organisation is that we neglect the other people who still have an important contribution to make. While reading this book, we should also be thinking about how to discover and mobilise the unique abilities of everybody in the team.

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