How to grow talent at senior levels

May 9, 2021, 5:00 PM UTC

Growing talent is vital to the success of companies. But for leaders to really support their best employees to grow, they need to understand the gaps that exist within their companies, recognize that talent means different things to different people, and be intentional in providing support and creating a culture of trust and belonging.

Dr. Nandi Shareef, an executive coach and founder of The Shareef Group, says executive leaders should use the data available to them—inside and outside their organization—to identify where and what are the gaps that need to be filled. 

Leaders must get clear about the vision for their organization and examine the technical, organizational, and cultural capabilities someone should possess in order to help their organization reach its aims. This would result in more diverse leadership instead of companies recruiting the same archetype of leader again and again. 

She also encourages leaders to consider how they might support their colleagues to use their talent in other ways.

“There is an opportunity to take a chance on people when you go deep and explore their interests, their passions, the places where their competence and skills might be transferable even if they’ve never explicitly done the work before,” she says.

All too often, Shareef says, individuals from diverse backgrounds are recruited by companies as “talent,” only for them to leave because they are undervalued, not given the support they need to grow, and expected to be grateful that they’ve been afforded the opportunity.

“Even in the midst of everything that is happening especially with the reckoning around race in the United States, companies are still recruiting diverse talent with one job description, only to grant a deflated title and pay when issuing an offer,” Shareef says, adding that leaders are failing high potential, high performing candidates because they are not valuing their talent from the beginning.

Privilege often provides individuals with the unwritten rules of business and access to networks and connections which provide a step up.

“To grow diverse talent, you have to understand that people experience work environments differently,” says Joyce Adeluwoye-Adams, the editor for newsroom diversity at Reuters. “Most of us from diverse backgrounds, when we first enter into the workplace, have not been equipped with the tools to deal with the brutality of corporate politics. Understanding that people need to learn, as part of their development, how to navigate the corporate world and those unwritten rules are really important to their success.”

She says in order to grow and retain talent, companies should provide individuals with a career pathway they can see they are a part of, which provides them with opportunities where they can continue to excel.

“Making them feel like they can be their authentic selves is a really important factor in all of this,” she says. “You don’t want to turn up to work and feel like you are putting on an act the whole time because that [being authentic] is how you do your best work.”

Leaders who are really invested in growing and retaining talent will see the merit in creating safe spaces where people can talk about their needs, says Yamina Himeur, who was formerly the head of talent and resourcing at Oxfam GB. She suggests managers ask people from day one where they want to be in their career.

“The manager maps with the individual where they see their gaps, what are their strengths, and where do they want to go and where they see their potential,” says Himeur.

“You need to give them feedback and tell them what they need to grow, and we don’t do that properly,” she adds, noting people are often expected to assimilate when companies should be doing more to adapt themselves and become more inclusive by default.

Adeluwoye-Adams advocates for “radical candor,” a management style written about by Kim Scott in the book of the same title that is based in “criticism that is kind and clear, and praise that is specific and sincere.”

For her, there’s real merit in regular conversations that provide a safe way for people to give and receive feedback as opposed to annual appraisals where people only hear about their skills gaps once a year.

Joanne Lipman, author of That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know About Working Together, argues trust is critical to helping people fulfill their potential and ensuring a fear of failure doesn’t stifle creativity. She urges managers to encourage their colleagues to take risks with their support.

“It is about saying we are all on the same page: We want this organization to improve. You have an idea that you feel you want to try, and I am going to support you in giving that idea a try, and we all understand there are risks involved,” she says. 

As well as supporting colleagues to take risks, there are other intentional processes which can help grow talent and ensure people feel valued.

“One of the things—and this is certainly true of women and it’s certainly true of minority groups—is that we always think that our work will speak for itself, and it doesn’t. And if your work isn’t visible, then it doesn’t mean much,” says Adeluwoye-Adams.

Lipman says everyone can practice amplification—listening for those voices that are unheard and lifting up or reinforcing what they say so more people hear them. She urges leaders to recognize the dynamics of meetings where certain people might be interrupted—something that happens, she says, three times more to women than men—and suggests leaders interrupt the interrupters.

For Himeur, sponsorship is an effective means of active support, which replicates the informal connections of privileged groups.

“A lot of people with potential, they want to learn, they want to progress and go for it. They just need a bit of support, especially if they’ve got more obstacles than others,” Himeur says.

Adrian Monck, a board member of the World Economic Forum, notes it’s easier for larger organizations to implement programs for developing diverse talent.

 “I think at the SME level, there is a real need to think through how we adapt and support leaders who don’t come from traditional backgrounds and grow people, and I think the biggest barrier is networking and mentoring,” Monck says.

The first thing organizations can and should do, according to Monck, is recognize people need support and help, then create more structured and intentional mechanisms, away from the informal structures which tend to benefit certain types of people and be employed by smaller organizations.

“A lot of time, judgements in organizations are passed very informally and formed very informally, and I think a lot more self-awareness in managers is critical in how they think about their own biases and how they think about themselves and helping other people,” Monck says.

Behavioral scientist Dr. Pragya Agarwal, author of Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, says bias plays a significant role in how we perceive talent.

“I think it’s very important to reflect on our implicit biases, on the stereotypes we might carry first of all, and second of all, have very quantifiable measures of progress and accomplishment in a work place so biases are minimized,” Agarwal says.

These measures of progress should extend across company culture, embedded into policies, processes, and practice to ensure a sense of belonging for everyone.

Agarwal says leaders should consider their external profiles: how they reach people who are not being included, through the marketing, publicity, images, and networks.

“I think outreach activities are the most important—paid internships, training courses—which really bring people from diverse groups in to say, ‘Look, this is where you can fit in. Your skills and experiences are valued, and you can make a contribution, and we will really value it, as well, if you come in.’ It’s actually actively showing them what is possible,” Agarwal says.

When a culture becomes inclusive and when a company starts to walk the walk, then talent is really able to grow. When leaders create spaces for people to feel safe to be their authentic selves, then they stand the greatest chance of nurturing, growing, and retaining talent.

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