In May, I posted a story of a young man who had been identified by a Fortune 100 firm as a high potential and placed into a leadership development program to prepare for the possibility of promotion into the executive ranks.
In September, I updated the story to what I thought would be a sad conclusion.
But this story has a happy ending. On Friday, the young man was offered the position of Director for a Fortune 100 company, with all the frills that go along with moving into the executive ranks.
What is so profound is how this has impacted my perspective of talent management and organizational responsibility. In reality, the reason for the promotion had little to do with the organizational talent management program, and everything to do with the courage and tenacity of someone who showed he could do the job.
For eight months, he wore the mantle of “Interim Director,” at a time of turmoil, insourcing, international operation expansion and strategic change. He fought hard battles, tentatively at first because he wasn’t “really” the Director. As time progressed, he grew strong, learned how to negotiate, and the division reached several key milestones. He stopped caring about the promotion, and started focusing on the work. He was too busy to be angry about being “led on,” and just made things happen.
What are the lessons we can take from this story? For me, and possibly for you, they are plentiful.
Talent management cannot “manage talent”
My first post was not too positive about this organization’s talent management program. Early on, it seemed as if he had been misled, so my post offered some words of wisdom for building talent management programs. They’re still good words, and worth taking seriously. But it isn’t that simple. (In my own defense, I was a bit biased)
We learn through hardship and challenge
- The ability to view life from a broader, systemic point of view
- The ability to work in social systems
- The ability to think creatively
- The ability to learn
Their research also shows that stretch assignments are a crucial element of learning to lead. In “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” Harvard Business professor Chris Argyris reported on his studies of top tier management consultants from the top business schools. These were people who had phenomenal success, and little failure. In order to learn, one must reflect on one’s own actions, and because they had not failed, reflection was seen as weakness. They had to learn how to be comfortable with failure and how to learn from it.
Part of learning to lead is learning to deal with disappointment and frustration
More than ever these days, we want to protect people from bad news, and from having their feelings hurt. This has become a part of our culture. But leadership is hard work, and if a potential leader cannot deal with disappointment and hurt feelings, how can she help her organization and team through those inevitable times of difficulty.
What is the responsibility of organizational talent management?
I think perhaps the organization has the responsibility to put the right people in the right roles, and the individuals have the responsibility to perform; we cannot forget this critical responsibility of the individual. The organization is responsible for candid and honest communication, but not for placing someone in a role for which they are not prepared.
We earn (yes, earn) through hard work
I’ve never been a fan of “auditioning” people for leadership roles, but maybe I need to rethink that. I don’t know whether the eight months of waiting was intended as an audition, or if it was simply a poor process that took too long and was poorly communicated. But the result is a new executive who is stronger and more confidence, and who has proven to himself and the organization that he can handle the job.
Would he have been as strong and confident had he been offered the position eight months ago? While we’ll never know, I’d be willing to bet he would have walked into the new executive role with far less confidence.
And if it hadn’t been the right fit, wouldn’t it be better to know, based on empirical evidence?
It makes all the difference to make the best of a bad situation
This young man was very frustrated when the situation first began to unfold. Eventually he realized that this was an opportunity to show them he could do the job. His first decision was reviewed with his boss, but quickly he realized his boss was looking to him to make the decisions, and so he did. He learned how to operate effectively in social systems, and he learned to use all of the resources available to him.
What does all this mean?
Leading people is a really hard job. It demands courage, honesty, transparency and authenticity. It means giving good news and bad, and doing both well. It means putting the organization and the people before oneself. The big lesson for me is how important it is to have courage and strength in leaders who are making crucial decisions on behalf of the organization and if there is a chance to see if the candidate has what it takes before making the move, perhaps that’s not a bad thing.
 The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development, 1998, Jossey-Bass.
 Harvard Business Review, May 1991