The Talent Powered Organization, by by Peter Cheese, Robert J Thomas, and Elizabeth Craig|
(Illustrated, Hardcover, 2007)
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
The major premise of this book is that the demand for highly-talented workers is greater than the supply. With layoffs occurring everywhere and people being out of work for a year or more, this seems like it must be wrong. But it isn't. Companies need employees with specific experience, attitudes, and abilities. There are huge shortages in many fields. In the USA, we have a shortage of nurses, electricians, and high-end database administrators just to name a few. In construction, the average age of senior project managers is past 60--many have stayed on well past normal retirement.
Many factors have contributed to this situation, and it didn't happen overnight. In the USA, it happened while educators were asleep at the wheel (begging the question as to why we in the USA are paying for a federal Dept of Education), while employers spent a couple of generations neglecting and abusing talent, and while the HR function became a magnet for people with few (if any) useful skills. This book doesn't address how we got here, but it does address how to move forward from here.
As you move up the economic ladder from raw materials to finished goods to intellectual property, you must increasingly rely on the talent of your workforce. Today, companies compete on a global scale. Western nations must do so while saddled with enormous regulatory burdens and other government-induced costs. Talent has now moved from being a disposable good to being a precious resource.
Companies that continue to treat talented employees like diapers are finding themselves unable to compete (example: GM). But companies that properly recruit and nurture talented employees are finding themselves able to trounce the competition (example: Google).
Those two words--recruit and nurture--embody a wealth of ideas that smart executives will tap so their companies can be competitive in a sustainable way. The target reader of this book is the senior executive, but others in the management food chain will benefit from understanding the concepts presented and advocating changes in their organizations.
This book consists of seven chapters. The first chapter explains where we are today and where we're headed. It explains the shortfalls companies have to make up for, and provides many good recommendations for doing so. The concepts are correct, according to my own experience and reading. But some of the numbers used in this text are considerably incorrect.
For example, the book states that US workers clock an average of 1,777 hours a year. Assuming two weeks of vacation and 10 holidays a year, that works out to a 37 hour week. This is about half of the typical week worked by salaried individuals in a long list of fields that includes engineering, accounting, law, project management, sales, and middle management. Perhaps the authors should have noted that figure includes part-time workers, as well. This is the problem with averages, though--they can easily give a distorted picture.
One reason most companies can't hold on to talent is they slave-drive people so the managers can make their "productivity" numbers. The book does a disservice by making this fact invisible with its 1,777 hours number. The fact is when you pay someone based on 40 hours but get 70 hours of output, you can claim a much higher productivity per 40 hours worked. This is exactly how the US Government looks at productivity, which is why the Department of Labor continues to be clueless and why Congress keeps ladling out the productivity-killing legislation such as Sarbanes-Oxley (which doesn't show up in the "40 hours" calculus because of all the unpaid overtime this useless legislation generates).
Aside from this problem with misusing numbers, the book is reliable in its research. And the authors make several very valuable points that our corporate leaders would do well to repeat 100 times a day for a few months at least. One such point is that making a disproportionate investment in the top ten percent of your workforce is not a winning strategy. In corporate America, however, this is common practice.
Another good point they make is that executives need to keep their promises. Standard operating practice, however, seems to imply that corporate executives are competing to see who can generate the most cynicism and mistrust among their employees. Contrast SOP to exceptions like Google or Garmin, where integrity is a business principle. Google and Garmin have very low turnover. They also hurt for talent, but not because people get fed up and leave (or get fed up and simply show up without really being there). They hurt for talent because they are dominating their respective markets and pushing the envelope. Theirs is one of those "good problem to have" situations.
The book has another weakness, and that is the persistent reference that HR needs to be a business partner. The authors talk about getting HR to be a strategic partner to senior management and to take a role that involves real business issues. They suggest that the HR function needs more business-qualified people. But this is asking the leopard to change its spots. HR attracts people who notably lack useful skills. The HR function has, for decades, typically been a useless, paper-pushing bureaucracy that puts on a happy face when hiring and firing people. HR people strenuously object to this characterization when made by outsiders, but their own publications talk about this very problem. In very few organizations is there any other model by which HR operates.
The authors talk about "why we hate HR" but do so in a politically correct way. The main reason department managers and people in highly-skilled areas like engineering hate HR is they find the HR people to be stupid. In some organizations, and they are small in number, where the HR function does exist to help managers deal with employees, the HR people are markedly different. For HR to step up to the plate as the authors suggest, we would be looking at a massive turnover in who works in HR. The typical HR person would be gone.
The authors present various modalities of working environment. I like this, as opposed to prescribing a one-size fits all. The balance is good. I would have preferred they bring that balance down to the next level of granularity. That is, I don't think they give a balanced presentation of each modality. For example, they present a glowing picture of "community" and the open office. They raise many good points, but there's a downside they seem to overlook.
In jobs that require concentration, this "community" approach is disastrous. It's hard to focus on difficult problems with people chatting away at you. Granted, the cube farm approach doesn't exactly aid in concentration either. Some people, when in cubicles, believe they are completely isolated. So, they sing, hum, tap their feet, gargle, hack, and make other noises. We end up listening to personal medical details, loud ripping flatulence, and other things we'd rather not be privy to. Perhaps with the "community" environment, folks are more circumspect.
The authors also talk about telecommuting. This is an ideal situation for engineers, programmers, writers, editors, designers, and others who need peace and quiet rather than nonstop collaboration. The problem here is it can make collaboration difficult, as opposed to the collaboration-enhancing community approach. So, no ideal solution.
The summary of Chapter 6 ties the major ideas of the book together. That summary is the perfect launch point for Chapter 7, which provides a framework for managing talent in a sustainable way.
For senior executives looking over the talent precipice, this book (or a similar one) isn't optional. You need to read it with highlighter in hand. I'd also recommend jotting down key page numbers inside the front cover. This way, when you've read the book, you can go back and form an action plan based on it. Otherwise, you may find key projects failing and key customers bailing. When that happens, you may find your company's board suddenly changing senior management.