Staffing Management

The Talent Trifecta

By Dave Ulrich

Sep. 17, 2007

We know it matters. Some go to war for it. Professional sports teams draft for it. Actors audition to show they have it.Businessmen in suits holding a giant magnet and trying to attract young talent to their company

Others consider it the ultimate solution and try to manage it. Agents contract for it. Some are innately endowed with it, while others strive diligently to develop it. We all want it.

“It” is talent, which is evolving into a science for some HR professionals and a passion for many line managers. A multitude of programs and investments have been made to attract, retain and upgrade talent.

Yet, sometimes after stipulating that talent matters, it is easy to get lost in the myriad of promises, programs and processes and lose sight of the basics. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, let me suggest that there is actually a deceptively simple formula for talent that can help HR professionals and general managers turn their talent aspirations into actions: Talent equals competence times com- ¬mitment times contribution.

Competence means that individuals have the knowledge, skills and values required for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs. One company clarified the usual definition of competence and framed it as “right skills, right place, right job.”

Competence clearly matters because incompetence leads to poor decision-making. But without commitment, competence doesn’t count for much. Highly competent employees who are not committed are smart, but don’t work very hard.

Committed or engaged employees work hard, put in their time and do what they are asked to do. In the past decade, commitment and competence have been the bailiwicks for talent.

But my colleagues and I have found that next-generation leaders for an organization may be competent (able to do the work) and committed (willing to do the work), but unless they are making a real contribution through the work (finding meaning and purpose in their work), then their interest in what they are doing diminishes and their willingness to harness their talent in the organization wanes. Contribution occurs when employees feel that their personal needs are being met through their participation in their organization.

Organizations are the universal setting in today’s environment where individuals find abundance in their lives through their work. They want this investment of their time to be meaningful. Simply stated, competence deals with the head (being able), commitment with the hands and feet (being there), and contribution with the heart (simply being).

In this talent equation, these three terms are multiplicative, not additive. If any one is missing, the other two will not replace it. A low score in competence will not ensure talent even when the employee is engaged and contributing.

Talented employees must have skills, wills and purposes; they must be capable, committed and contributing. HR leaders can engage their general managers to identify and improve each of these three dimensions to respond to the talent clarion call.

    Competent employees have the ability to do today’s and tomorrow’s tasks. Creating competence comes by following four steps:

1. Articulating a theory or setting a standard.
Competence begins by identifying what’s required to deliver future work. Rather than focus on what has worked in the past by comparing low- and high-performing employees, more recent competence standards come from turning future customer expectations into present employee requirements. At any level in a company, an HR professional can facilitate a discussion sparked by these questions:

}What are the current social and technical competencies we have within our company?

}What are the environmental changes facing our business and what are our strategic responses?

}Given our future environment and strategic choices, what technical and social competencies must employees demonstrate?

By facilitating a discussion about these questions, HR professionals help general managers create a theory or point of view on competencies that leads to a set of employee standards. When general managers build competence models based on future customer expectations, they direct employee attention to what they should know and do. The simplest test of the competence standard is to ask target or key customers: “If our employees lived up to these standards, would they inspire confidence in our firm?” When customers answer yes, the competence model is appropriate; if they answer no, it needs more work.

  2. Assessing individuals and organizations. With standards in place, employees may be assessed on the extent to which they meet or do not meet standards. In recent years, most talent assessments have evaluated both results and behaviors. Talented employees deliver results in the right way. The right way is defined by the competence standards I described in Step 1. These behaviors may be assessed by the employee and others through a 360-degree evaluation by subordinates, peers and supervisors. But to provide a holistic view of employees who have contact outside the company, they can also be evaluated by such stakeholders as suppliers, customers, investors and community leaders. This shifts the 360 to a 720 (360 times 2 equals 720). This assessment lets the individual know what to do to improve, and it also provides valuable input to the organization about how to design and deliver HR practices to upgrade talent.

3. Investing in talent improvement. Individual and organizational gaps may be filled by investing in talent. In work my colleagues and I have done, we have found six investments that may be made to upgrade talent:

Buying: recruiting, sourcing and securing new talent into the organization.

Building: helping people grow through training, job assignments or life experiences.

Borrowing: bringing knowledge into the organization through advisors or partners.

Bounding: promoting the right people into key jobs.

Bouncing: removing poor performers from their jobs and/or the organization.

Binding: retaining top talent.

When HR professionals create choices in these six areas, they help individuals and organizations invest in future talent.

4. Following up and tracking competence. Hoping for talent won’t make it happen. Ultimately, talent measures should be derived to track how well individuals are developing their skills and how well the organization develops its talent bench. Individual employees can be tracked on their understanding of their next career step and their capacity to do it. Organizations can track the extent to which backups are in place for key positions. Or, leaders who are measured on how much money they contribute to their company can also be assessed on the extent to which they are talent producers rather than talent users. Here is what I mean: If these leaders run through an organization’s talented employees, driving them away or burning them out, there should be some accountability for such outcomes. As leaders produce money for a company, so should they be held responsible for replenishing the talent pool, and must be expected to answer to the organization if they are only tapping it out.

These four steps will help HR professionals and general managers ensure competent employees to do today’s and tomorrow’s work. In the past 20 years, almost all companies have done at least minimal work in these four areas.

    Competence alone is not enough. Commitment means that employees are willing to give their discretionary energy to the firm’s success. This discretionary energy is generally conceived as an employee value proposition that makes a very simple statement: Employees who give value to their organization should get value back from the organization. The ability to give value comes when employees are seen as able to deliver results in the right way.

Those employees who give value should get value back. In many studies of employee engagement, researchers have identified what employees get back from their work with the firm. Almost all consulting firms have engagement indexes that can be used as a pulse check to track employee engagement. Generally, these instruments suggest that employees are more committed when their organization offers them:

Vision: a sense of direction or purpose.

Opportunity: an ability to grow, develop and learn.

  Incentives: a fair wage or salary for work done.

Impact: an ability to see the outcome or effect of work done.

Community: peers, bosses and leaders who build a sense of community.

Communication: knowing what is going on and why.

Entrepreneurship or flexibility: giving employees choice about terms and conditions of work.

When these seven dimensions exist in an organization, employees have a VOI2C2E, as shown in the acronym above. They demonstrate their engagement by being at work on time, working hard and doing what is expected of them. Commitment (not just satisfaction) may be measured through surveys or productivity indexes.

One of my colleagues graduated from a top business school (a validation of competence), got her ideal job and was willing to work very hard (which demonstrates commitment). But after about a year, she left. She still savored the job and was willing to work hard, but she felt that the job was not helping her meet her needs.

In recent years, many people have been finding that traditional organizations, such as families, neighborhoods, hobby groups and churches, which had once met people’s needs, have been faltering. As employees work longer hours and with technology removing the boundaries between work and life, companies need to learn how to help employees meet their needs. When people have their needs met through their organizations, they feel that they are contributing and finding abundance—the personal fulfillment and meaning that we seek in life.

My wife, Wendy, and I have scoured theory and research from positive psychology and developmental psychology—individual motivation, personal growth and organizational theory—to figure out what organizations can do to help employees find abundance, which occurs when individuals feel they are contributing. We have identified seven questions that leaders may help employees answer so that employees experience abundance in their work:

Who am I? How does the employee identity meld with the company reputation?

Where am I going and why? How can the organization help the employee reach his or her goals?

With whom do I travel? How does the organization build a community of support so that an employee feels connected?

How well do I practice spiritual disciplines? How well does the organization practice such spiritual disciplines as humility, service, forgiveness and gratitude?

What challenges do I enjoy? How does the organization help an employee find challenges that are easy, enjoyable and energizing?

How well can I access resources? How does the organization help the employee manage health, physical space and financial requirements?

What are my sources of delight? How does the organization help the employee have fun? Fun work environments mean that employees have the ability to laugh at difficult situations, thereby becoming resilient and positive.

When managers help employees find answers to these questions through their participation in the organization, these employees will find abundance and feel that they are contributing.

Talent is not an “it”—some abstract, unknown and impersonal set of ideal principles. Nor is talent a random set of programs and policies that evolve according to the whims of talent-fashion trends. Using the simple talent formula—competence times commitment times contribution equals talent—leaders and HR professionals may join in helping talent become a reality. It is worth doing.

Workforce Management, September 10, 2007, p. 32-33Subscribe Now!

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