When their “talents” prevent firms from innovating

Talent management is at the heart of many HR strategies for developing high-performing organizations. Yet, the very notion of talent and the way it is managed can lead to a dead end. It’s time to rethink the concept.

Unfortunately, this is a common experience: during an executive seminar on innovation that I conducted for a large group, we outlined an innovation strategy based in particular on the development of intrapreneurship. We designed programs that would allow employees to develop their ideas, and we defined appropriate structures and tools to make it work. Then came the crucial moment when one of the participants asked the fateful question: “But do we have the people to do it?” Everyone looked horrified. The HR manager – luckily she was there – replied sheepishly, “Well, actually, no, we don’t.” Game over.

Years of HR policy devoted to recruiting and developing “talent” had led the company down a blind alley. For what is meant by “talent” in these large organizations? Most of the time, talents are good pupils; impeccable managers, from the best schools, whose success is based on their ability to learn to answer questions put to them. These questions had only one answer, and they had to find it. Year after year, they learned to find it, especially in the face of other students who were also looking for it. Their success depended on the failure of others. They learned not to take risks, not to fail, to calculate their chances, and to choose their hobbies based on the social relationships they would allow them to build. A life dedicated to minimizing their risk. Why does a good pupil want to work in a blue chip company? For the thrill? To change the world? Of course not. A good pupil works there because the company offers a rent: a good salary, social consideration, absence of risk, and some power until it is time to retire. And of course it works: by filtering out the outsiders, the marginalized, and those who do not fit in, the company gains reliability and predictability, a guarantee of its performance. Good pupils stay together, they understand each other, the company refines its model, and everything works better. At least as long as the environment does not change intermittently.

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And then one day a disruption comes. The digital revolution, big data, uberization, low cost, whatever. The barbarians are at our gates! Because all of a sudden, boom! Crack! Innovators are wanted! People who think outside the box! “Innovate!” was the message that the CEO of a large company told a meeting of stunned employees where I was speaking next. Oh, and you must also work in teams, of course! This goes against 25 years of education and training. Frogs must be turned into cows. Miraculously…

But there are no miracles in management. Only strategic decisions. And nothing is more strategic than deciding who to hire, who to keep, and who to promote. Years of nurturing “talent,” people who are fully adapted to the past, perfectly suited to fight in the last war, and who have never taken the slightest risk in their lives, and who are consumate political operators, come due the day we need people who are willing to take risks. Those who got through the filter, despite the vigilance of HR, are long gone, horrified. And with its “talents,” which in the new world are not talents at all, the company must deal with the disruptions it faces, a bit like trying to cross the Atlantic with a camel.

“There is no wealth but men,” wrote Jean Bodin, but we still need to know what men the company needs. Recruiting people who fit the current business model is a necessity, but developing diversity is essential if the company wants to evolve and change. Creating this diversity, not filtering out the outcasts, should be the strategic role of the HR function, if its manager does not want to be confronted one day with colleagues who admit that, no, the implementation of a much-needed innovation strategy is not possible for lack of the necessary people.

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