You are talented enough

As a manager, I used to place people into 9-box grids with axes labeled “potential” and “performance.” It was ludicrous, of course, as we had few if any objective measures of either. But the process required it, and we went about our farcical task with all the seriousness of self-important men. We approached our search for “talent” within our organizations as if we were looking for ripe strawberries. Worse still, we chose to develop only those few we picked.

I wish I had been smart enough and brave enough back then to ask, “Potential for what?” “Performance of what?”

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit, makes the point that it’s not innate talent that matters so much as “passion and perseverance.” She quotes William James, the eminent psychologist in the early 1900s:

“The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimism.”
‘Of course there are limits,’ James acknowledged. ‘The trees don’t grow into the sky.’ But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us. ‘The plain fact remains that men the world over possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.’”

Nietzsche viewed our fixation with “talent” as an excuse: “If we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”

“Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness…They all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman.”

When I worked in big companies, our ill-conceived search for a talented few led us to largely ignore the potential of the great majority of employees. Now, I know it isn’t some rare, innate trait that’s required to do great work and live a meaningful life. It’s passion and persistence. It’s curiosity and a willingness to experiment. It’s years of small steps, deliberate practice, and resilience in the face of setbacks. 

You are talented enough. Now what? Will you wait to be picked, or will you start the long, serious work to pick yourself? 

Working Out Loud: The Accelerated Development Program

I purposefully designed Working Out Loud Circles so that anyone could start one and anyone could spread them. It doesn't require money or training or permission. As a result, WOL Circles have spread widely across countries and companies.

But some organizations want more. Working Out Loud, after all, is a 21st-century skill that all employees would benefit from developing. One company refers to the Circle process as a “guided mastery program for networking and collaboration.” Other firms see it as a way to create a more open, collaborative culture, or as part of their digital transformation. I’ve often described it as “the missing piece.” For firms that have a strategy and technology, Working Out Loud Circles help them change behavior at scale in a way that feels good for employees while providing measurable benefits.

The organic spread of circles is a great way to start. And now there’s an option for organizations that want to accelerate the spread of the practice, scale it to many more employees, and increase the average effectiveness of each Circle.

It’s the Accelerated Development Program.

Overview

The program differs from traditional training in three important ways:

  1. It’s based on custom material created specifically for your organization.
  2. Employees learn by doing, building relationships related to a goal they care about and getting coached along the way.
  3. It’s sustainable. By the end of the program, the organization has developed a new learning and development capability, having materials and trained coaches that enable them to continue spreading the practice on their own.

It’s often the Learning & Development group that sponsors this program, although the impetus for change can come from other areas. The process can vary by organization, but it generally includes the same three simple phases.

Phase 1: Customize material

The public Circle Guides are aimed squarely at individuals and mostly refer to public technology platforms. So in this first phase, I work with an organization to rewrite the guides specifically for them. By incorporating language and examples that are familiar to members of the organization - stories, goals, technology, and more - it becomes easier for people to understand it and see how it relates to work and their career.

I’ll typically do some of this work on-site with a small core team of employees. That gives me a chance to train them on all aspects of what’s about to come in the next two phases and to prepare for those phases.

Time: 2 - 3 weeks

Phase 2: Train up to 50 Circle Coaches

In addition to custom material, the best way to make Circles even more effective and consistent is to train Circle Coaches. The training equips up to 50 people to handle practically any issue or challenge that comes up in a Circle so people can keep making progress. 

Here’s how it works. The training is all done live by video, so it’s flexible and location-independent. The group goes through a 6-week condensed version of the Circle process. Each week, they receive an hour of coaching from me and then break out into their Circle meetings of 4 to 5 people. Each person receives a step-by-step Coach’s Guide with tips and techniques, and has access to online support between sessions. 

This train-the-trainer technique is what make the process both more effective and scalable.

Time: 6 - 8 weeks

Phase 3: Spread the practice to 250 people

Now, each of the 50 trained Circle Coaches forms a new Circle with up to four new people, for a total of up to 250 people that will go through the Circle process. Circles are still peer support groups in which the Circle Coach is just another member, albeit one who can handle any issues that come up. In this phase, Circles go through the full 12-week process using the custom material, and the Circles meet independently.

This wave of Circles reinforces the training of the Circle Coaches and gives them a chance to practice. Throughout their time together, all participants have online support from me and the core team of employees, and there are regularly-scheduled Q&A sessions for further help and coaching.

Time: 12 - 18 weeks

A scalable, low-cost development program

By the time the program ends, the organization has custom material, a small army of trained coaches, and up to 250 people who have gone through the process. Everyone has books and workbooks, Coaches have a reference guide, and the core team has on-going access to other practitioners around the world. 

Your organization now has a scalable, low-cost development program you can continue spreading yourself. Larger firms may choose to keep training more Circle Coaches in other locations or divisions. The more people who develop the habit of Working Out Loud, the closer you’ll get to a more agile, collaborative, engaged workplace. 

If you would like more information or want to discuss the program for your organization, please contact me at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com

5 Gifts For The HR Department

Human Resources is uniquely qualified to help spread a practice that’s good for the firm and all the individuals in it. That practice is working out loud, which has been called “a required skill for today’s digital workforce.” In a recent interview on Forbes.com titled “Working Out Loud: Better for you, Better for the firm.” I described some of the benefits that come from forming Working Out Loud circles and spreading the practice across the firm.

With the support of HR, circles can spread faster and realize even more benefits. Here’s how.

I Heart HR

I Heart HR

A free, self-organizing personal development program

Every firm wants employees who can work across silos to get things done. Instead of one-off networking events, Working Out Loud circles help people develop the habit of sharing knowledge and making purposeful connections, all while improving their digital-readiness.

Several firms around the world are organically spreading circles based on the free circle guides and other resources. HR can reach more people by making Working Out Loud one of their offerings in Learning & Development.

A different kind of talent program

As more employees work out loud, more of their work is visible along with public feedback on it. Think of it as part of the best 360-degree performance review process you could devise, complete with authentic contributions and genuine feedback throughout the year.

Working Out Loud complements HR’s existing talent management programs. It helps leaders develop the skills they need to engage and influence their organization, and makes it easier for people at any level to become more effective by teaching them how to better leverage knowledge and connections across the firm.

Peer-to-peer learning 

Most Learning & Development organizations understand that the best learning doesn’t come from a course catalog or a classroom, but from experts already in the firm. Yet how many employees have the habit of offering expertise as a contribution? Or even asking questions to a broad online audience to discover on knowledge?

Google's head of HR, Laszlo Bock, writes about building a learning organization in his excellent book, Work Rules! and he makes a case that your firm's best teachers "are sitting right next to you." By facilitating the spread of Working Out Loud circles, HR can help employees develop the habit of sharing their knowledge, making it visible, and enabling others to build on it.

A way to increase employee engagement

We’ve all have heard that most employees don’t feel engaged at work, but what can HR do about it?

Working Out Loud circles are designed to tap into an individual’s intrinsic motivations: autonomy, mastery, and purpose or sense of relatedness. It’s why the book’s subtitle is “For a Better Career and Life.” As you build your network in a circle, you have a greater sense of control, including better access to learning and to opportunities. The process builds your connections to people in your circle and then to people in your growing network. Over your 12 weeks in a circle, the process helps you feel more connected to the firm and to people in it.

A better culture

Like employee engagement, corporate culture can be wrapped up in a formal program and monitored with a few questions on the annual employee survey, but it’s too much to ask HR to change it.

Culture is the result of the collective actions of people in the firm. A few hundred people working out loud - working in an open, generous, connected way - can make a difference. A few thousand people working that way can transform an organization.

A gift for your own HR department

It’s not easy being in Human Resources. Often, they’re caught between managers who want them to optimize resources and individuals who need them to make the firm a more humane place.

If you know someone in HR, send this post to them. You can make their job easier - and make their firm better - by helping them understand Working Out Loud and the ways it can complement what they already do.

The worst performance review I ever had

The bad egg detector: How do they know?  

Even before I opened the email, I knew it was bad news. Subject: year-end review.

“He needs to speak with you,” his assistant wrote. Though the deadline for reviews had passed months before, she seemed almost frantic, trying to schedule a call before the end of the week. He was in another city, and it was after 10pm there when he spoke to me on my mobile.

This is a true story. I write it not to solicit sympathy or embarrass anyone. Instead, my purpose is to show how management processes, however well-intended, have devolved into lotteries of a kind. Some win, most lose.

It was only years later that I learned I could change the game.

The set-up

In every firm I’ve worked in, there’s a similar process. You agree on objectives with your manager, review progress in the middle of the year, and get a formal review at the end of the year. To ensure the firm pays top performers and gets rid of low performers, the year-end ratings have to fit a curve. On the surface, it all seems reasonable, systematic, and fair.

In practice, though, behind all the spreadsheets and numbers, there's an intensely human calculus. I’ve had years where I performed poorly but had powerful sponsors and got good reviews. It’s when your connection to your manager is weak, or the network you have isn’t powerful, that you’re at risk.

A friend compared this style of management to a wolf-pack, with leaders picking on the weak, allowing the other wolves to keep going, happy it wasn’t them who was sacrificed.

The conversation

I happened to be the weak one that year. The person I had been reporting to had left earlier in the year and our team’s fate was now uncertain. We used the word “exposed.” One colleague resigned right away. Referring to rats leaving a sinking ship, he told me “This rat can swim.” Others, like me, stayed on board.

The reason for the late-night review via telephone was that the next day was when our compensation would be announced. I presume someone needed to tick a box, perhaps afraid of a lawsuit. I imagine a person in HR exhorting managers “Did you communicate to all your poor performers?” I imagine she kept a list.

The conversation didn’t last long. He was earnest, saying he wanted me to succeed. But what was success? Was he even aware of what I did? How did my work compare to others? Why single me out this year and not others?

I never asked those questions. I never asked him about the objectives I was ostensibly being rated against. I knew it was pointless.

It was years ago, but I still remember hating the firm and the system. I remember feeling ashamed.

The lesson

Ironically, not many years after my bad review, it was my boss’ turn to be the weak one after he got a new manager. I wonder if he had a similar conversation, if he felt it was unfair.

It’s only now that I see the futility of taking it all so personally. My boss, my colleagues, and I were all trapped by processes that promoted internal competition, politicized the environment, and systematically propagated mediocrity and unfairness. It’s why PwC, a major consultancy regarding HR practices in large organizations wrote:

“There’s a growing school of thought that our traditional tools for managing employee performance are outdated and in need of a radical reboot.”

You could wait for firms to change their practices. Or you could work in such a way that you build a better network now, one that gives you access to people and possibilities without having to ask for permission from your boss.

If I get a poor review in the future, I won’t be angry and I certainly won’t be ashamed. I’ll acknowledge the setback, reach out to my network, and keep going. Never again will I cede the power over my career and my happiness to someone else. You don’t have to either.

The worst performance review I ever had

The bad egg detector: How do they know?  

Even before I opened the email, I knew it was bad news. Subject: year-end review.

“He needs to speak with you,” his assistant wrote. Though the deadline for reviews had passed months before, she seemed almost frantic, trying to schedule a call before the end of the week. He was in another city, and it was after 10pm there when he spoke to me on my mobile.

This is a true story. I write it not to solicit sympathy or embarrass anyone. Instead, my purpose is to show how management processes, however well-intended, have devolved into lotteries of a kind. Some win, most lose.

It was only years later that I learned I could change the game.

The set-up

In every firm I’ve worked in, there’s a similar process. You agree on objectives with your manager, review progress in the middle of the year, and get a formal review at the end of the year. To ensure the firm pays top performers and gets rid of low performers, the year-end ratings have to fit a curve. On the surface, it all seems reasonable, systematic, and fair.

In practice, though, behind all the spreadsheets and numbers, there's an intensely human calculus. I’ve had years where I performed poorly but had powerful sponsors and got good reviews. It’s when your connection to your manager is weak, or the network you have isn’t powerful, that you’re at risk.

A friend compared this style of management to a wolf-pack, with leaders picking on the weak, allowing the other wolves to keep going, happy it wasn’t them who was sacrificed.

The conversation

I happened to be the weak one that year. The person I had been reporting to had left earlier in the year and our team’s fate was now uncertain. We used the word “exposed.” One colleague resigned right away. Referring to rats leaving a sinking ship, he told me “This rat can swim.” Others, like me, stayed on board.

The reason for the late-night review via telephone was that the next day was when our compensation would be announced. I presume someone needed to tick a box, perhaps afraid of a lawsuit. I imagine a person in HR exhorting managers “Did you communicate to all your poor performers?” I imagine she kept a list.

The conversation didn’t last long. He was earnest, saying he wanted me to succeed. But what was success? Was he even aware of what I did? How did my work compare to others? Why single me out this year and not others?

I never asked those questions. I never asked him about the objectives I was ostensibly being rated against. I knew it was pointless.

It was years ago, but I still remember hating the firm and the system. I remember feeling ashamed.

The lesson

Ironically, not many years after my bad review, it was my boss’ turn to be the weak one after he got a new manager. I wonder if he had a similar conversation, if he felt it was unfair.

It’s only now that I see the futility of taking it all so personally. My boss, my colleagues, and I were all trapped by processes that promoted internal competition, politicized the environment, and systematically propagated mediocrity and unfairness. It’s why PwC, a major consultancy regarding HR practices in large organizations wrote:

“There’s a growing school of thought that our traditional tools for managing employee performance are outdated and in need of a radical reboot.”

You could wait for firms to change their practices. Or you could work in such a way that you build a better network now, one that gives you access to people and possibilities without having to ask for permission from your boss.

If I get a poor review in the future, I won’t be angry and I certainly won’t be ashamed. I’ll acknowledge the setback, reach out to my network, and keep going. Never again will I cede the power over my career and my happiness to someone else. You don’t have to either.

How working out loud circles could transform your organization

There’s a growing chasm between what executives say they want for their organizations and the experience of their employees. If you interview management at any large company, for example, they’ll talk about their desire for building an open, collaborative culture, the importance of being a learning organization, and the need to develop talent. Now talk to individuals working in that organization and you’ll discover a competitive environment, an inability to find even basic information, and a vast number of people who simply don’t care enough to get better at what they do.

It’s not that the executives are disingenuous. It’s just that the expensive, top-down change programs they roll out - for cultural change, collaboration, talent management - simply don’t work.

So here’s a different approach, one that’s employee-centered, self-organizing, and free.

How it would work

Working Out Loud CirclesI first described working out loud circles a few months ago. They’re groups of 4-5 people who meet over 12 weeks to help each other accomplish a personal goal by working out loud. Over that time, through actual practice, circle members learn specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

Our experience with the first few circles has been extremely positive and that’s led to the idea of having entire organizations embrace them. To do that, here are the five most important things you would need to know about implementing circles in your organization:

  • Circles are employee-driven. It’s key that employees choose to participate, work on a goal that’s important to them, and trust that what happens inside the circle is confidential. If you impose manager approval or reporting requirements, you won’t realize the benefits.
  • Circles are open to anyone. Since circle members will be practicing basic 21st-century skills, access should not be restricted to only those with a certain title or those deemed to have potential. The most important criterion is the willingness to make an effort to learn.
  • Circles meet 12 times for one hour. These meetings could be outside normal business hours if necessary, depending on the organization. Individuals will also need to do work related to their goal in between meetings.
  • Instructions are provided in Circle Kits. The kits are concise guides for running each of the 12 meetings, including simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • All support for the circles is online and free. We’re developing a site that will host a rich FAQ and a range of other resources for developing specific skills. The site will also host stories and feedback from individuals and other circles.

How management could help

People could form circles outside of their company, of course. Between the Working Out Loud book due this September and the Circle Kits being released soon, independent groups would have the necessary resources to be successful.

But forming circles inside a company would have a number of advantages. The people there already have much in common, making it easier to form connections and even exchange their circle experiences. Also, if the organization uses an enterprise social network like Jive, Yammer, IBM Connections, Socialcast, Podio or similar offering, people will have a convenient platform to work out loud. Employees who work out loud at work are personally more effective, help the firm capture knowledge, and make it easier for others to access that knowledge.

While the circles are employee-centered and the resources I mentioned are free, there are still things that management could do to help. For example, by endorsing circles as an employee development offering or promoting them at employee networking events, they’d remove any doubts about whether employees are allowed to form them. They could provide time to participate in them, reducing possible interference from middle managers. They could motivate more people to participate by sharing stories of individuals and teams that are working out loud for their own benefit and that of the company.

The benefits: collaboration, learning, and engagement 

Working out loud combines the age-old principles for building meaningful relationships with the modern abilities to share your work, get feedback, and interact with others who share your interests. It wraps all of this in a mindset of generosity. You share and connect not to show off or create a personal brand but to genuinely help other people. If you were to describe someone who worked out loud, you might say she’s visible, connected, generous, curious, and purposeful.

The circles would help your employees to feel like that, to be like that. The practice over time and the peer support would enable people to finally break free of old ways of working and of thinking about work. They could finally develop new habits at work that tap into the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, purpose, mastery, and relatedness. Doing so in a visible way, together with the support of the firm, would accelerate the spread of these positive behaviors across the organization, changing the culture.

At a minimum, some circle members might learn to more readily search for people and content related to their work. Many will build a larger set of more meaningful relationships at work, enabling them to collaborate more effectively. Still others will feel, like Barbara from last week’s story, that “working out loud changed my life.” Combined, all that learning would fundamentally change how people relate to each other and to the organization.

How working out loud circles could transform your organization

There’s a growing chasm between what executives say they want for their organizations and the experience of their employees. If you interview management at any large company, for example, they’ll talk about their desire for building an open, collaborative culture, the importance of being a learning organization, and the need to develop talent. Now talk to individuals working in that organization and you’ll discover a competitive environment, an inability to find even basic information, and a vast number of people who simply don’t care enough to get better at what they do.

It’s not that the executives are disingenuous. It’s just that the expensive, top-down change programs they roll out - for cultural change, collaboration, talent management - simply don’t work.

So here’s a different approach, one that’s employee-centered, self-organizing, and free.

How it would work

Working Out Loud CirclesI first described working out loud circles a few months ago. They’re groups of 4-5 people who meet over 12 weeks to help each other accomplish a personal goal by working out loud. Over that time, through actual practice, circle members learn specific ways to make their work visible, frame what they do as contributions, and build a richer, more purposeful social network.

Our experience with the first few circles has been extremely positive and that’s led to the idea of having entire organizations embrace them. To do that, here are the five most important things you would need to know about implementing circles in your organization:

  • Circles are employee-driven. It’s key that employees choose to participate, work on a goal that’s important to them, and trust that what happens inside the circle is confidential. If you impose manager approval or reporting requirements, you won’t realize the benefits.
  • Circles are open to anyone. Since circle members will be practicing basic 21st-century skills, access should not be restricted to only those with a certain title or those deemed to have potential. The most important criterion is the willingness to make an effort to learn.
  • Circles meet 12 times for one hour. These meetings could be outside normal business hours if necessary, depending on the organization. Individuals will also need to do work related to their goal in between meetings.
  • Instructions are provided in Circle Kits. The kits are concise guides for running each of the 12 meetings, including simple exercises complete with worksheets and examples.
  • All support for the circles is online and free. We’re developing a site that will host a rich FAQ and a range of other resources for developing specific skills. The site will also host stories and feedback from individuals and other circles.

How management could help

People could form circles outside of their company, of course. Between the Working Out Loud book due this September and the Circle Kits being released soon, independent groups would have the necessary resources to be successful. [UPDATE: the book will be available in April 2015. The circle guides are here.]

But forming circles inside a company would have a number of advantages. The people there already have much in common, making it easier to form connections and even exchange their circle experiences. Also, if the organization uses an enterprise social network like Jive, Yammer, IBM Connections, Socialcast, Podio or similar offering, people will have a convenient platform to work out loud. Employees who work out loud at work are personally more effective, help the firm capture knowledge, and make it easier for others to access that knowledge.

While the circles are employee-centered and the resources I mentioned are free, there are still things that management could do to help. For example, by endorsing circles as an employee development offering or promoting them at employee networking events, they’d remove any doubts about whether employees are allowed to form them. They could provide time to participate in them, reducing possible interference from middle managers. They could motivate more people to participate by sharing stories of individuals and teams that are working out loud for their own benefit and that of the company.

The benefits: collaboration, learning, and engagement 

Working out loud combines the age-old principles for building meaningful relationships with the modern abilities to share your work, get feedback, and interact with others who share your interests. It wraps all of this in a mindset of generosity. You share and connect not to show off or create a personal brand but to genuinely help other people. If you were to describe someone who worked out loud, you might say she’s visible, connected, generous, curious, and purposeful.

The circles would help your employees to feel like that, to be like that. The practice over time and the peer support would enable people to finally break free of old ways of working and of thinking about work. They could finally develop new habits at work that tap into the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, purpose, mastery, and relatedness. Doing so in a visible way, together with the support of the firm, would accelerate the spread of these positive behaviors across the organization, changing the culture.

At a minimum, some circle members might learn to more readily search for people and content related to their work. Many will build a larger set of more meaningful relationships at work, enabling them to collaborate more effectively. Still others will feel, like Barbara from last week’s story, that “working out loud changed my life.” Combined, all that learning would fundamentally change how people relate to each other and to the organization.

A better way to identify and develop talented people

Identifying talent One of the biggest tragedies of modern management is our approach to finding and developing talented people.

For recruiting, we use top schools and other brokers to identify the talent for us. For people already inside the firm, we construct elaborate talent management systems and leadership development programs. These methods, which focus on the few and neglect the many, are extraordinarily ineffective and, worse, they're actively harming firms and their people.

There’s a better way.

What do you expect?

We tend to treat talent as something innate, something a rare few possess. We create all sorts of filters to spot those with high potential and then do special things to retain and develop those people. Identifying potential in others seems one of the basic responsibilities of management.

Everybody does it - schools, the military, corporations. But studies have shown “potential” isn’t as innate as we think. And, in “Give and Take” , Adam Grant summarizes some surprising research.

The classic study, in 1966, was done in schools. Teachers were given names of students who “had shown the potential for intellectual blooming”. Unbeknownst to the teachers, the experimenters had chosen the students randomly. And, yet, the “bloomers” did indeed score better over time on IQ tests in the following years - by an average of 15 points in the first year and 10 points in the second grade.

Why?

“Teachers’ beliefs created self-fulfilling prophecies. When teachers believed their student were bloomers, they...engaged in more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development. Teachers communicated more warmly to the bloomers, gave them more challenging assignments, called on them more often, and provided them with more feedback.”

In the 1980s, researchers discovered similar effects in the Israeli Defense Forces when trainees were randomly selected as “high-potential”. In 2000, in a meta-review of 17 studies in industries from banking to retail sales to manufacturing, researchers again found the same effects:

“Overall, when managers were randomly assigned to see employees as bloomers, employees bloomed.”

A better way to find talented people

In a previous post, I told the story of Jordi Munoz who, who grew up in Tijuana and, despite lacking a college degree or other traditional credentials, went on to become CEO of a robotics company at age 24. The person who hired Jordi was Chris Anderson, the founder and former editor of Wired magazine. He found Jordi through an online robotics community where Jordi was an active member. There, Chris could see his work, see public feedback from others, and could even collaborate with him all before ever speaking with him.

In Chris’ book “Makers”, he pointed out how he never would have found such talent if he looked in the traditional places.

“Why wouldn’t you start a company with people with whom you were already working well, who had already proven their mettle? It seems so much riskier to take a flier on someone you don’t know, just because that person has a degree from a good school.

This is the Long Tail of talent. The web allows people to to show what they can do, regardless of their education and credentials. It allows groups to form and work together easily...”

The reason Chris didn’t need to limit himself and rely on MIT or Berkeley to find talent for him is that Jordi (and all of us) now have platforms where we can make our work visible and discoverable and, importantly, where other experts can provide feedback on it. Through his contributions in the online community, Jordi was able to let his work speak for itself without the need for a broker.

A better way to develop talent 

Inside firms, we can do the same thing: creating environments where people can make their work visible and discoverable.

The idea of a group of managers sitting in a room and deciding who has potential or who’s talented is grossly flawed. It’s based on relationships and similarities more than merit. And, as the studies above show, there’s no evidence that any positive results (if they’re even tracked) are anything but self-fulfilling prophecies.

Think of the kids in that 1966 study. Picture the lucky random few who, when deemed “high-potential”, excelled. And picture the remaining 80% who, through no fault of their own, never got the “more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development”.

That’s what we’re doing at work. It’s bad for individuals and it’s bad for business.

And it's time for smart managers to stop doing stupid things. Stop labeling a few people as having potential, developing them, and telling the rest not to bother. Instead, start viewing 100% of the people as having potential. (The randomness in the studies proves that’s largely true.) And start viewing your job as creating environments where anyone can contribute and learn, where anyone can become talented, and where anyone realize their potential.

A better way to identify and develop talented people

Identifying talent One of the biggest tragedies of modern management is our approach to finding and developing talented people.

For recruiting, we use top schools and other brokers to identify the talent for us. For people already inside the firm, we construct elaborate talent management systems and leadership development programs. These methods, which focus on the few and neglect the many, are extraordinarily ineffective and, worse, they're actively harming firms and their people.

There’s a better way.

What do you expect?

We tend to treat talent as something innate, something a rare few possess. We create all sorts of filters to spot those with high potential and then do special things to retain and develop those people. Identifying potential in others seems one of the basic responsibilities of management.

Everybody does it - schools, the military, corporations. But studies have shown “potential” isn’t as innate as we think. And, in “Give and Take” , Adam Grant summarizes some surprising research.

The classic study, in 1966, was done in schools. Teachers were given names of students who “had shown the potential for intellectual blooming”. Unbeknownst to the teachers, the experimenters had chosen the students randomly. And, yet, the “bloomers” did indeed score better over time on IQ tests in the following years - by an average of 15 points in the first year and 10 points in the second grade.

Why?

“Teachers’ beliefs created self-fulfilling prophecies. When teachers believed their student were bloomers, they...engaged in more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development. Teachers communicated more warmly to the bloomers, gave them more challenging assignments, called on them more often, and provided them with more feedback.”

In the 1980s, researchers discovered similar effects in the Israeli Defense Forces when trainees were randomly selected as “high-potential”. In 2000, in a meta-review of 17 studies in industries from banking to retail sales to manufacturing, researchers again found the same effects:

“Overall, when managers were randomly assigned to see employees as bloomers, employees bloomed.”

A better way to find talented people

In a previous post, I told the story of Jordi Munoz who, who grew up in Tijuana and, despite lacking a college degree or other traditional credentials, went on to become CEO of a robotics company at age 24. The person who hired Jordi was Chris Anderson, the founder and former editor of Wired magazine. He found Jordi through an online robotics community where Jordi was an active member. There, Chris could see his work, see public feedback from others, and could even collaborate with him all before ever speaking with him.

In Chris’ book “Makers”, he pointed out how he never would have found such talent if he looked in the traditional places.

“Why wouldn’t you start a company with people with whom you were already working well, who had already proven their mettle? It seems so much riskier to take a flier on someone you don’t know, just because that person has a degree from a good school.

This is the Long Tail of talent. The web allows people to to show what they can do, regardless of their education and credentials. It allows groups to form and work together easily...”

The reason Chris didn’t need to limit himself and rely on MIT or Berkeley to find talent for him is that Jordi (and all of us) now have platforms where we can make our work visible and discoverable and, importantly, where other experts can provide feedback on it. Through his contributions in the online community, Jordi was able to let his work speak for itself without the need for a broker.

A better way to develop talent 

Inside firms, we can do the same thing: creating environments where people can make their work visible and discoverable.

The idea of a group of managers sitting in a room and deciding who has potential or who’s talented is grossly flawed. It’s based on relationships and similarities more than merit. And, as the studies above show, there’s no evidence that any positive results (if they’re even tracked) are anything but self-fulfilling prophecies.

Think of the kids in that 1966 study. Picture the lucky random few who, when deemed “high-potential”, excelled. And picture the remaining 80% who, through no fault of their own, never got the “more supportive behaviors that boosted the students’ confidence and enhanced their learning and development”.

That’s what we’re doing at work. It’s bad for individuals and it’s bad for business.

And it's time for smart managers to stop doing stupid things. Stop labeling a few people as having potential, developing them, and telling the rest not to bother. Instead, start viewing 100% of the people as having potential. (The randomness in the studies proves that’s largely true.) And start viewing your job as creating environments where anyone can contribute and learn, where anyone can become talented, and where anyone realize their potential.

The story of Jordi Muñoz, CEO

Jordi Muñoz Jordi Muñoz was born in Ensenada, Mexico, didn’t speak English well, didn’t go to college and, at 19 years old, was newly married with a baby on the way.

5 years later, he became the the CEO of a multi-million dollar robotics company founded by Chris Anderson, best-selling author, speaker, and former editor of Wired Magazine.

How did the editor of Wired ever find a 19 year-old robotics engineer from a high school in Tijuana? How did he know he would be the right person for the job?

Answers to those questions may mean a lot for how your firm finds talent - and how you find your next opportunity.

How does your firm find talented people?

For a long time, the most common way to find talented people was to go to prestigious places, typically famous universities or companies. Everyone knew that, so there was a “War for Talent” at such places. Investment banking analysts used to refer to MBA recruiting events as “shrimp wars” as firms tried to outdo each other with bigger buffets just to attract attention.

There may be fewer shrimp now, but firms are still relying on schools, brokers, and executive search firms to filter candidates. When firms use LinkedIn or monster.com, it’s still typically HR that’s doing the searching and acting as an intermediary. And if managers hire directly, they rely heavily on their personal networks, which are incredibly small compared to the pool of qualified candidates.

So you either have the wrong people looking or you’re looking in the wrong places.

A different way

Jordi, Linden Blue (co-owner of General Atomics), and Chris

Jordi and Chris didn’t use a broker or LinkedIn. Their was no one who connected them. Instead, they were connected by their interest in robotics, more specifically in drones.

Chris had become interested in drones (auto-piloted aircraft) as a hobby and started an online community called DIYdrones.com, a place where other hobbyists could share information and learn from each other. In “Makers”, he describes how he first noticed Jordi in that community based on the designs he was contributing. (“I made an autopilot for my RC [remote-controlled] helicopter with accelerometers extracted from the NunChuck of Nintendo Wii”.) Jordi would apologize for his poor English but other hobbyists cared more about his designs which they said were “excellent” and “cool”.

Chris was impressed with his contributions, corresponded with him, and then collaborated with him on some projects. When Chris later decided to start a company, he decided to ask Jordi to co-found it. And it was only then that he learned about his background.

“Why wouldn’t you start a company with people with whom you were already working well, who had already proven their mettle? It seems so much riskier to take a flier on someone you don’t know, just because that person has a degree from a good school.

This is the Long Tail of talent. The web allows people to to show what they can do, regardless of their education and credentials. It allows groups to form and work together easily...”

The story of Jordi Munoz is an excellent example of someone working out loud and shaping their reputation (or, in this case, creating one) via their contribution; of someone  leveraging an existing community to create new possibilities.

Go where they are. See what they do.

Where are you looking for talented people?

In large companies, there’s a lot of talk about the need to attract and retain the best and the brightest. But, for the most part, the “Talent War” is a lot of sound and fury that doesn’t add up to much. The system is optimized for filling slots, not for quality of the match between the person and the job. (For many positions, excellent people are already employees of the firm but the system for filling jobs has no good way to find them.) The use of brokers combined with an outmoded, woefully simplistic interview process leads to mediocrity.

If you’re a firm, you need to go to where there are people already doing the kinds of work you’re looking for. Internally, that means role-based communities of practice. Externally, it means groups like DIYdrones or professional on-line communities. If those environments don’t exist, then you need to create them.

If you’re an individual, you need to find communities you care about and contribute. For whatever role you have at your company (or want to have), there are internal or external communities where you can contribute, shape your reputation, and build a purposeful network. Just like Jordi did.