Engagement – A decade of deafness: why it’s vital to keep your people

This first appeared in Ingenious Britain on the 9th August 2013.

Falling on deaf ears

You’re very unlikely to listen to us. If Peter Drucker – one of the most influential management thinkers of the last 50 years failed to have an impact, then our chances are slight. Drucker was interviewed shortly before his death by the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s ‘In business’ programme Peter Day. His greatest disappointment was that:

“After almost 60 years of consulting my basic emphasis that human beings are a resource and not a cost has had practically no impact. Everybody says people are our greatest asset and then fires them.”

Today the problem is worse. Companies both fire people and / or allow them to leave. For example, consider the story of William (not his real name). William is the top performing employee in his cohort at a global consultancy firm. Recently, and a shock to everyone, he was denied a promotion. This was a big surprise to those around him including the partners responsible for his workload. The decision was based on a 30 minute interview by two colleagues from an unrelated part of the business. The interview, in the assessment process got it wrong. However it seems it’s more important their flawed assessment system remains adhered to than retaining a talented employee. William is talking to head-hunters and exploring other career opportunities. 4 years of very hard work on William’s part, close mentoring by senior people in the firm resulting in someone with excellent prospects walking out of the door.

William is not alone, good people enter into compromise agreements and walk on a regular basis. Consider Hugh. He’s now the co-owner of an incredibly successful business in the telecommunications industry and winner of several prestigious innovation awards. Hugh’s face was no longer a fit in the company that previously employed him and he found himself on his uppers. He left the business having created a superb, highly profitable product for which myopic short-sighted management failed to recognise and capitalise on his obvious talents. He became a victim of organisational politics. He’d been there for half a dozen years.

William and Hugh are survivors. They will have and will invest the necessary effort to establish themselves in new areas of work. Whilst this may be a temporary setback for them, or even an advantage, the cost to the organisation is the price of having to develop and grow the next William and Hugh. What a waste. They already had the best people in their hands.

Why does all this matter?

Have you ever come across a sports-person or who was able to become world champion in a sport having changed sports a dozen or more times in their career? Of course not. There are examples of people who having reached the peak of performance in one discipline were able to utilise those decades of investment to short cut their way to success in another discipline, but multiple changes in sport every few years do not make a world champion. In the same way, if we want truly world class performers in our business, having them leave your business after a few years does not strike us as a recipe for success.

The early childhood experiences of Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova provide compelling lessons for the development of employees and competitive success in the market place. Yet, these lessons are often overlooked because of short-term corporate perspectives and the frequent hiring and firing of employees.

Woods, the Williams’ sisters and Sharapova put in many hard shifts over the years in order to reach the heights of their respective fields. And, significantly, they began to practice at a very young age as the video of two year old Tiger Woods demonstrating his skills to Bob Hope on television illustrates.

The long and arduous apprenticeships experienced and endured by these sportspeople support the research by Florida State University professor K. Anders Ericsson who asserts that we need to invest 10,000 hours of focussed deliberate practice in order to reach an elite level of performance. Cramming in much more than 1000 hours of focussed deliberate practice in a year is difficult and this is why it generally takes ten years to reach this level of performance.

If it takes on average 10 years to accumulate 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and we know that in the UK the average staff turnover is approximately 15% which equates to an average employee spending 6.5 years in an organisation then this is the equivalent of a gardener investing lots of time and effort in growing some beautiful and delicious vegetables and just at the point they are ripening, ripping up the crops and starting again by either planting seed or by buying plants from elsewhere and hoping they will grow to replace what they had.

Ericsson and his colleagues were unable to find any ‘naturals’, i.e. people who were so talented that they effortlessly reached the top without any hard graft. Essentially, the telling message is that you don’t practice because you are good at something, you are good at something because you practice.

Buck the trend

In a world of rapid change, fast turnover, quick fixes and instant gratification, let’s not forget the basics. Skilled expertise takes time to develop and needs practice, coaching, mentoring and lots of graft. Start the process today and in a decade or so you will have the world class champions you would love to be leading your business. Don’t expect to have thought leaders and world class performers if you are not prepared to invest for the long term. How about developing a plan that takes people on a decade of development as the starting point? You may need to change one or two things along the way. If you measure people using 12 month objectives you may find a ten year objective difficult to achieve.

Just remember this – you can’t fire or compromise agreement your way to success. Of course you could always stick to what most firms do – invest in mediocrity – allowing people to leave before they are fully developed and have a ‘talent management’ programme that makes the erroneous assumption some people are innately ‘talented’. Or instead you could learn the lessons from elite performance. High performance takes years of sustained effort and development. Invest in people for the long term and the results will be immensely rewarding.

But as Drucker found you’re probably not listening anyway.

Dominic Irvine © Epiphanies LLP 2013 All rights asserted