Tackling the First T: Talent

Wisconsin faces a new challenge: The Body Gap. The demographics heading our way promise a workforce that’s not big enough to grow the economy without historic levels of productivity improvement. This productivity increase requires an integrated strategy around 3Ts: Talent, Technology, and Techniques. The normal siloed approach will not deliver the Transformation necessary to meet this challenge.

Organizations’ Talent strategies will be key to address the Body Gap – and most will need a radical change in their approach to address the competition for the best workers, the upgrades needed to implemented new solutions, and the expectations workers will have about their jobs and employers.

Demographics are changing the Skills Gap into a Body Gap. Generation X – the generation between the Boomers and the Millennials – is 20 million people smaller than it should be. The combination of these missing workers and Boomers retiring creates a crisis for Wisconsin, the U.S., and all of the developing world. The Wisconsin workforce could shrink by double-digit rates, putting tremendous pressure on all employers. Even if our workforce remains flat, we will need an average productivity increase of 30% to maintain historical growth levels.

That level of productivity growth requires radical Transformation – possible only through an integrated approach to the 3Ts – Talent, Technology, and Techniques. Incremental improvement shows diminishing returns over time and siloed approaches will just not work. Success in the past could come through singular approaches to issues. Now, the new productivity challenge requires us to leverage multiple resources across a spectrum of capabilities. Leveraging all 3Ts creates a fourth: Transformation.

Talent may be the most difficult T to embrace. Traditional approaches fall along the continuum from “Command-and-Control” to “Kumbaya.” Command-and-Control evolved from military models and was adopted by early conglomerates. The approach limits freedom, surprises, and any kind of innovation. The “Kumbaya” approach is an overreaction to Command-and-Control that creates a supportive environment, non-traditional workplace, and focuses on employee satisfaction. Neither approach truly drives performance or innovation.

Modern Talent approaches drive performance through engagement and accountability. Most employers mangle the true definition of engagement. To them, engagement means telling employees why they’re doing something. Employees receive a bit more information, but not much latitude to change their worlds. Truly engaged employees act – and are treated like – owners. Clear objectives and strict accountability to those standards drive engagement. This combination creates a strong culture with high standards.

A clear vision for the future and an iron-clad set of principles drive strong culture in the best companies. Writing this blog reminded me of my time as an intern at a major package delivery company. They had a clear vision to serve every address in the U.S. and finally reached that goal during that time. Part of the challenge involved logistical hurdles (mules delivering packages to western canyons). The other hurdle involved the challenges of complying with 50 states’ delivery regulations. That’s where the biggest delays and dilemmas existed.

One particular state maintained a set of regulations that restricted intrastate operations, designating specific carriers for certain addresses and goods. Those regulations effectively prevented UPS from reaching their delivery goals for more than two decades. During that time, they were provided multiple opportunities to buy their way around these regulations, but refused. Then they went one step further, making this story a part of their corporate lore by discussing their refusals with employees. This reinforced their values and demonstrated what they were willing to do (and not do) to make their vision a reality. The story sticks with me more than 30 years later.

Most companies fail to build this type of strong culture because they fail to go through the hard work necessary to create a clear vision and build the strength to adhere to a meaningful set of principles. That doesn’t mean these companies are run by bad people. Most are just too busy keeping their customers happy. I find that’s especially true in this entrepreneurial golden age with more market opportunities than ever before. Investing time to reflect and react is a very hard decision in most places. Done right, it provides focus for future action and the structure for a virtuous circle of beliefs and growth.

These virtuous circles create the strong, healthy cultures that foster growth and attract the best people. These people want to make a difference in companies that:
• Hold a crystal clear vision for the future, shared by the entire organization;
• Provide the freedom and independence necessary to make the vision a reality;
• Engage a set of iron-clad values and operating principles to guide and coordinate these independent actions; and
• Maintain an action bias toward truly meaningful goals.
The best players want the freedom to make a difference and be held to very high standards. Only companies with strong, healthy cultures can hold onto these employees over the long haul.

The Talent component of the 3Ts require this strong foundation. These conditions create a fertile field for growth and development, building a receptivity to change and new ideas. That’s a critical mindset necessary to integrate all 3Ts in their strategies. A strong Talent strategy is a critical – though not sufficient – condition for success.

There’s still more work to do in order to reach the 30% productivity improvement we need to grow in the future. Together – we will make it happen!

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