At Work

Don’t kill your talent, take a chance on inexperienced people

Soon after India obtained independence, Prime Minister Jawahar Nehru chaired a meeting to discuss appointing a chief general for the Indian Army. As key leaders discussed candidates and options, Nehru disappointingly claimed: “I think we should appoint a British officer as the general as we don't have anyone with enough experience to lead.” Everybody nodded their heads in support and they started discussing possible British candidates.

This same conversation Nehru had with his leaders half a century ago is the same conversation taking place in many global organisations today. There are always big vacancies to fill yet no one experienced enough to fill them. And most leaders look outside their organisation and even outside the country for that perfect “experienced” person. Nehru's story though, ends differently.

One of Nehru's officers abruptly interrupted Nehru as he started contemplating which British “expat” to bring in: “I have one point, sir. Can I interrupt?”

Nehru nodded: “Yes, gentleman. Speak.”

The officer responded: “Sir, we don't have enough experience to lead a nation, too, so shouldn't we appoint a British person as the first Prime Minister of India too?”

The meeting hall suddenly went silent. Nehru had an “aha” moment and later decided against appointing an “experienced” general but a high potential local.

Almost every business leader I meet complains to me about the same issue they don't have enough good talented people to take their businesses to the next level. According to McKinsey's “War for Talent” study, the most important corporate resource over the next 20 years will be talent. It's also the resource in shortest supply. In fact, the search for the best and the brightest has become a constant, costly battle, with no end in sight. Talent has become the prime source of competitive advantage.

Yet, most of us unknowingly “kill” our talented people. How are we “killing” our talent? By not allowing our people to fulfil their potential. And we do this by curtailing their experiences.

Real learning

Talent can only be developed through experiences and failure. You cannot send a person to a three-day classroom programme on swimming and expect them to become great swimmers. To learn to swim, you need to practice in the pool. No matter how much you listen, read or watch about swimming, without pool practice, you won't be able to swim. Real learning happens when applied in the workplace. Nehru learnt to become Prime Minister of India through the school of hard knocks and experience. Even if he was sent to a “Prime Minister School” (if that existed!), his learning would still ultimately come from doing the job. But when you block your people from the roles they crave, because of their lack of experience, we thereby ensure they never learn.

I recall going through succession planning reviews with a number of senior business leaders in my capacity as a HR leader. Each year, these business leaders would highlight specific talent they had in their teams. But much to my dismay, every single year, those highlighted were deemed “not ready” to take on bigger roles, claiming they needed a few more years to become “ready.” Four years later, the same excuses rang. The story never changed or ever will. As long as we hoard our best talent and never allow them to grow through new experiences, they will never be ready.

Thomas Edison correctly stated that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Based on research done by Anders Ericsson, we now know just how much “perspiration” is required to become a genius apparently three years at a job or 10,000 hours. Ericsson's research indicates that if you are at your job for about two to three years (depending on how many hours you put into your work), you will master the role. But once you have mastered it, your learning subsides. And for you to keep growing, you need to learn something new.

The most talented people have figured this out and so if you do not give challenging work to them, they leave. They may claim they leave for money or other reasons, but in reality, if you truly give them challenging work which forces them to learn, they hardly leave. (It may be also because they are so busy being challenged, they have no time to do up their resume!)

However, the less talented employees, who love being in their zone of comfort, will stay on (maybe forever). The job becomes easy making it “wise” to continue in this zone of comfort. The real talents, however, know that if they don't keep getting new experiences and developing themselves, they may never achieve their dream. And so they pack their bags to gain new experiences, if you don't provide them.

Final thoughts

I am not at all advocating that experience has no place in our business. In fact, experience is necessary for big roles where failure should be minimised. However, one cannot attain that experience unless someone gives these people a break. We cannot gain experiences unless given a shot at the big stage.

What I want to emphasise is that this “talent disease” which is plaguing our nation can somewhat be curtailed if we build in talent development as part of our business agenda. So, what are some practical things you can do:

1. Demonstrate your commitment to employees by preferring to develop from within versus hiring from the outside. Give your “inexperienced” people a chance. Sure they may take some time to “learn” the job, but in the long term, it will be better for your business.

2. Keep pushing your people outside their comfort zone. They need experiences. Give them projects outside their silos. And when they fail (which they will!), help them get up and learn from their failures

3. Empower your employees make them partners in their own development. Make sure they understand the importance of hard work, learning and pain.

As my three-year-old son always says: “No pain, no gain.” The same goes for all of us.

We need to go through the pain and struggle of new experiences to keep growing. And business leaders need to go through the pain of pushing their best people out to new roles and to take chances on the less experienced. Someone after all took a chance on you previously. Nehru took a chance on his general. So can you.

Extracted from 'Talking HR' by Roshan Thiran

Roshan Thiran is a firm believer that talent is developed and not genetic, and has made it his mission to build leaders in Malaysia through his social enterprise, Leaderonomics.