If your CFO reported last quarter’s results in dollars, this quarter’s results expressed in how many boxes of product had left the factory, and next quarter’s using the number of chocolate bars employees had consumed, you would soon be looking for a new CFO. We expect the CFO to use dollars (or pounds or rubles or whatever) as a consistent unit of measurement for the business’s financial health. That’s how we treat money. We can hang all kinds of clever stuff (within what the law permits) on the basic framework of measuring and managing the company’s money, but it matters that the accounting “backbone” is in place.

Talent wants to be treated the same way. No, not measured in dollars, but measured and managed consistently. So here are a few thoughts about measuring Talent consistently, and using that to create a backbone for Talent and its development.

First up, if you are going to measure Talent (call it potential, capacity, whatever), you need to do so using language that is at least neutral and preferably positive. I am meeting too many companies who have committed to assessing their bench-strength, using tools that are fundamentally designed to limit or label, and often in a really quite negative manner. That means you ultimately end up knowing (or thinking you know) what people can’t do - not what they could do. Even worse, individuals come to believe that they are in some way limited.

Secondly, the framework you use needs to have explanatory and predictive power. That means that correlations are not enough: you need to establish causality. You may find, for example, that successful leaders in a particular industry all wear red socks at least once a month, whereas less successful leaders are less likely to do so. Fascinating to be sure, but that is not the same as showing that wearing red socks causes success. (You know that, right?) Except, let’s replace “wearing red socks once a month” with something more plausible, such as “regularly skipping lunch”, or “challenging conventional wisdom”, and we are more likely to believe that causality has been established, when it hasn’t. Not saying we couldn’t establish causality; but we will know when we have. That will be the point where, by getting a series of unsuccessful leaders to start wearing red socks, skipping lunch or challenging conventional wisdom, a statistically significant proportion of them will become successful leaders.

Third, look to empower people. The era of developing people primarily through top-down initiatives is long gone. We should be focussed on putting people in charge of their own development. Trying to do that in a vacuum (i.e. without the individual having access to objective data about their own development potential) is dangerous. They say every clown wants to play Hamlet, (which I take to mean that clowns should get over themselves and just be satisfied with wearing baggy pants); actually, that is a false dichotomy, and there are a million other roles that might fit them better than either sad clown or gloomy Dane. The issue is, making sure they can access objective, meaningful and - yes - positive data about the roles they could successfully and sustainably take. (Not talking clowns now: employees.)

Fourthly, if you can tick the first three items, then you will have some very powerful datasets available to you. (If we left you back there trying to establish face validity for red socks as a predictor of success in leadership, this is your wake-up call…). So make good use of them - they will enable you not only to optimise the development of your Talent pipeline, but you will probably end up understanding all kinds of things about your organisational culture, mission alignment and much more besides.

Finally, if you have achieved those four, then item five is that you will be able to scale and zoom, so that Talent is a measure of every part of the organisation, and that understanding and managing potential appropriately across the organisation is a reality. One moment you can help the interns get a handle on their development opportunities; in the next breath, you can arrange appropriate coaching for the CEO and her directs; and then talk the head of sales through a map that illustrates possible capacity issues coming down the line, and what you both can do about it: and do all of that without stepping outside your central “talent accounting” system.

Final word: the order here is important, as are all of the steps. Beware the temptation of starting with large datasets and ignoring points 1-3. If you do, item 5 will be delusional, to put it mildly. 

Elaura’s expresso programme is an example of a scalable Talent and Development Backbone. You can read more at expresso.elaura.com

Originally posted on LinkedIn - Published August 12, 2016