As I speak around the country I get feedback from learning professionals about many issues that impact the way organizations manage their leadership pipelines. Here are some relevant myths and facts:
Myth No. 1: The past is a good predictor of the future.
The high-potential pool historically has been the recipient of training and development expenditures intended for the development of future leaders. The assumption is that past performance is the best criteria for allocating scarce training and development resources.
This assumption needs to be examined. Few industries spend more effort to measure talent based on past performance than does the National Football League. Indeed, the past performance approach reaches all the way back to measurements of high school graduates in the hope of predicting future success. Entire groups of talent specialists examine college players, review films and click stopwatches at tryout camps for football players graduating from college.
Yet, even with these mounds of data on a fairly narrow set of performance parameters (speed, size, strength — precise measures compared with the more complex and amorphous performance parameters of organizational leadership), the record of predictive accuracy is abysmal. For example, the 2005 draft was a colossal bust for most in the NFC North. There were a combined 30 players taken by the Vikings, Bears, Lions and Packers. According to Star Tribune in Minneapolis-St. Paul, only three remain on the roster of the team that originally selected them as of April.
So what is a reasonable alternative to past performance? In the case of development of future leaders, the suggestion is to look for highly motivated and engaged employees to receive investment capital. The challenge is finding those employees. The tuition assistance benefit is a vehicle. In all organizations, the employee’s decision to get an education requires that those employees invest along with the company, certainly with their own time and energy if not with dollars. In these cases, motivation and engagement replace prior performance as key identifying factors for consideration.
Myth No. 2: “I knew of a situation where an employee ___ so ___.”
This is the tyranny of a sample size of n=1. This is the projection of a personal experience onto an entire population. The issue of investment in a talent strategy is not about past experience with a single employee, or even with a handful of employees.
The criterion for a human capital investment is the average experience with a large sample of occurrences, not the lost training dollars from an employee who got training then went to a competitor. This is in sharp contrast with tangible asset investments, in which the investment is expended on a single asset such as a plant or a piece of equipment. In human capital investments, the focus most often is on thousands of employees, not a single employee.
The focus on avoiding the loss of a single employee (risk avoidance) at the expense of creating a large pool of future leaders leads to policies that are neither sufficiently innovative, nor far-reaching in scope, to address leadership development challenges.
Conclusions about the value created from learning and development must involve data on hundreds, if not thousands, of employees receiving the intervention, not a single employee.
Myth No. 3: Employees quit their jobs over pay.
Actually, the No. 1 reason employees quit is because of actions, or lack thereof, by their immediate supervisors. This result has been verified in survey after survey. While the survey data is valuable, even more valuable are actions designed to do something about retention. Here, targeted training and education for the development of future leaders has a significant impact, a result already seen in corporate strategic relationships with senior leadership at Verizon Wireless, The Home Depot and Convergys.
In these organizations, the critical transition from individual associate to supervisor is being accomplished through a strategy of targeted learning. The education of engaged employees equipped with knowledge that makes them better managers increases the likelihood of employees who work for them staying with the company longer. It is a win-win for employees, their direct reports and the organization.
These are but a few examples of widely held myths that often block the innovation required to remain competitive in a rapidly changing global economy. Like all myths, they are easier to perpetuate than dispel. Yet it is the latter, and not the former, that enables creative and empowered responses to changes in technology and world markets.
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