How to make ordinary talent extraordinary

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If leaders look after their existing employees, they may find there isn't a talent deficit after all, says Havas Worldwide's global CEO

Over the past few years, it’s been heartening to see talent management beginning to get the attention it deserves. Too often, though, the emphasis is on perceived talent shortages and the difficulty of finding qualified candidates for available positions. While we all need to be vigorous recruiters, it’s a mistake to overlook the best source of talent most of us have: the people already on our payrolls. Besides the requisite training, there are plenty of other opportunities to turn current employees into something extraordinary. I recommend the following initial steps:

Ditch the concept of "junior." The most successful businesses today are built on innovation, agility, and speed — and that means we can’t afford to sideline talent for the first few months, much less years. If you assign members of our newest generation of workers menial tasks and expect them to "pay their dues" in the traditional way, you’ll likely find they’re long gone before their first anniversary arrives.

We need to empower our best thinkers and most agile doers, regardless of age or experience. That means giving people real responsibility early on and helping them understand how their work is contributing to the company’s strategic growth.

It’s telling that W. L. Gore — a company that’s been on Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For for nearly two decades — has ended its practice of having employees state how long they’ve been with the company at the start of meetings. Employee longevity has long been a point of pride for the company, but it now recognizes that younger talent are turned off by the notion that credibility is linked to number of years logged.

Find new ways to engage. We all know we perform better when we’re passionate about something. We spend more time on the project, care more deeply about the outcome and are happier in our work. That applies to school, to hobbies and most definitely to the business world. Don’t get caught up in an employee’s title or current functions.

It may be what that person was hired for or where he or she has landed for the moment, but it doesn’t mean it’s what that person should be doing. Video game maker Valve Corp. lets employees decide for themselves how they spend their time. That puts a lot of responsibility on each person, but as the handbook says, "You were not hired to fill a specific job description. You were hired to constantly be looking around for the most valuable work you could be doing."

None of us can afford to pay people who aren’t fully engaged. And so we need to be sure everyone is assigned to the right teams, functions and projects, and has every opportunity to grow, explore, and change course. I believe in this so strongly that I now tie senior executives’ bonuses to how well they engage the people with whom they work.

Promote open access. I love the concept of Delta Air Lines' Innovation Class — that’s the program through which anyone can apply to sit next to a world-class leader on a particular flight. Participating mentors have included the likes of Pebble smartwatch founder Eric Migicovsky, Gilt co-founder Alexandra Wilson and Grammy-winning producer Ryan Lewis. Their lucky seatmates are chosen on the basis of their LinkedIn profiles. What a great way to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and insights!

In my own company, I regularly hold breakfasts with young employees, but that’s just a small part of a larger emphasis on opening lines of communication across titles and functions. I've offered advice on how up-and-comers can catch the ear of the CEO. It’s equally if not more important that senior leaders create opportunities to interact with those just starting out.

Make it real. If we want to develop our people into extraordinary talents — especially those who are new to the work world — we need to expose them to as many and as varied real-world experiences as possible. This summer, Havas Worldwide Chicago is loaning out its interns to local organizations in order to maximize the experiences each one gains over the 10 weeks of the program.

I’m also a fan of design firm Orange Sparkle Ball’s Spark Corps, which offers grad students and recent graduates in design a chance to spend two months on intensive projects for nonprofit clients — aimed both at immersing the young designers in real-world problem-solving and contributing to the greater good.

The more we do to expose young employees to new experiences, new people and new ways of thinking, the more valuable they will be.

Keep them moving. Mark Twain aptly noted that travel is "fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness." It’s also a great way to prepare your talent for more responsibility and a larger role within the company. Through its Corporate Service Corps, IBM sends 500 young employees into the developing world each year to work on service projects. It’s a way for the company to do good while also helping its young stars acquire leadership skills and a broader perspective.

Devote sufficient care to the people you already have on your roster, and you may find there isn’t a shortage of talent after all.

Andrew Benett is global chief executive officer of Havas Worldwide and Havas Creative Group. Follow him on Twitter @andrewbbenett.


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