Build, Don’t Buy, Talent

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Businesses Need to Raise the Bar to Attract Talent. That is the title of a very nice piece in the Financial Times by Michelle Quest, head of People at KPMG. Quest makes several good points but one in particular jumped out at me. When hiring, “you need to pay attention to potential and not only past performance.” That idea in itself is pretty exceptional. But I want to add a related thought. You need to develop potential in the people you have, not just hire for it.

It is often hard to see potential in people because the systems they work in don’t reveal it. We need a different way of engaging to make potential pop out. Let me offer a couple of examples that show how to do it and what some of the pay offs are. These are stories from two companies, one, Kingsford Charcoal, seemingly low tech and the other very sophisticated, W. L. Gore of GORE-TEX® fame, which also makes medical and fire-fighting materials.

For years Kingsford Charcoal, a very dirty, dangerous business to say the least, had trouble hiring “good” people. What they got were hard workers from families disadvantaged by generations of illiteracy. Some corporate managers wanted to “upgrade” the quality of talent by changing the hiring processes. But Will Lynn took a different route and changed two things. First, he educated the people he had. Second, he challenged them to change work culture, structures, and systems, not only to bring out untapped potential but to develop even more.

At their Burnside, Kentucky facility, Kingsford hired a teacher who was willing to take an unorthodox approach to building literacy. This teacher and an internal team helped workers built capability to think while learning to read. They did that by connecting to something “worth doing,” which put the focus on the contribution and not the gap in social status that a classroom pointed to. They created a local newspaper for the Burnside community that reported on matters that people genuinely cared about.

A mix of literate and illiterate reporters pulled the newspaper together twice a month and got it distributed. The stories were drafted by those learning to read and write. They had strong incentive to learn because these were stories they chose and wanted to tell. The teacher and team members worked with the writers on copy editing and proofing. Major editorial decisions an bylines belonged to the writers, not to the editors.

Work on the newspaper led eventually to writing and rewriting manuals for improving safety in the plant. Writers and editors had to understand the chemical and mechanical processes to write and follow guidelines. This led to their becoming trainers, particularly for new hires. The demand for meaningful contributions by leaders of the change effort — John Kabler, Vice-president of Manufacturing, and Gerry Alfiero, Director of Manufacturing — awakened a reason to learn to read and write, and it then created a hunger to do more. The process quickly spread to other Kingsford facilities.

You probably won’t be surprised that new understanding of the creative and production processes led to so many improvements that production costs dropped by almost half. Some of these improvements included recreating formulas, which made them compatible with the air and water quality regulations in place today, long before they were mandated. Understanding the effects of production changed how people thought and then it changed how they worked.

Such changes are not limited to low tech, where you are starting with limited skills from lack of development. W. L. Gore is a very high-tech operation, and its approach to work is similar to the approach at Kingsford. Gore grows people and product development at a very rapid rate. Individuals are expected to know both science and markets, not only within their own businesses but also in those of their customers. For example, individuals involved in customers’ medical, sports, or safety businesses are expected to understand them as if they were involved in the R&D, strategy, and risk assessment functions for those businesses. From that understanding, they develop innovative ideas for improving customers’ lives and performances. They then gather teams of people who are willing to support new ventures and defend them to get them funded. Kingsford did the same thing with no knowledge of the Gore model.

Interviews with Kingsford and Gore employees and suppliers point to the rapid, radical personal and professional development of everyone involved. People report getting smarter, more mature, and more creative. Potential develops based on activating human agency and connecting people to things that really matter in customers’ and co-creators’ lives. This approach can produce extraordinary changes in people and it incurs no recruiting or hiring costs. The ROI is enormous — and instant. No time is lost getting up to speed.

More and more of us are working on ways to close the gap between potential and performance in American businesses and all organizations. Other thinkers with ideas for agency-based talent building include Steve Denning in The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management, Umair Haque in The New Capitalist Manifesto, and John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison in The Power of Pull.

Originally published at on March 10, 2011.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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