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    Entries in talent (31)

    Tuesday
    May122015

    A different view of 'Top' talent, namely that it is mostly a myth

    Caught this piece, The programming talent myth', over the weekend and if you are in the technology space at all (as a techie yourself, someone who has to attract and recruit tech talent, or simply just someone who is concerned/interested with the 'state' of technology today (particularly when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion)), then you should carve out 15 or so minutes today or soon and give the piece a read.

    It is essentially a summary of a recent keynote speech at a developer's event called PyCon given by Jacob Kaplan-Moss, a well-known contributor to the programming language Django and the director of security at Heroku.

    In the speech Kaplan-Ross took square aim at the concept of 'Top' technical talent, (although I would argue his logic would apply to other disciplines as well), and how the dangerous myth of the 'Rock Star' programmer and the terrible programmer (with nothing really in between these extremes), is detrimental on all kinds of levels. It drives people out of technical careers and studies - if you are not a 'Rock Star' you might as well not even bother. It continues to foster and support less-than-healthy norms and lifestyles - 'Rock Star' programmers work 80+ hours a week and don't think of anything other than programming. And finally, it feeds in to what can easily develop into that 'Bro culture' that is common in many smaller startups and tech companies.

    Here is a little piece from the talk:

    Programmers like to think they work in a field that is logical and analytical, but the truth is that there is no way to even talk about programming ability in a systematic way. When humans don't have any data, they make up stories, but those stories are simplistic and stereotyped. So, we say that people "suck at programming" or that they "rock at programming", without leaving any room for those in between. Everyone is either an amazing programmer or "a worthless use of a seat".

    But that would mean that programming skill is somehow distributed on a U-shaped curve. Most people are at one end or the other, which doesn't make much sense. Presumably, people learn throughout their careers, so how would they go from absolutely terrible to wonderful without traversing the middle ground? Since there are only two narratives possible, that is why most people would place him in the "amazing programmer" bucket. He is associated with Django, which makes the crappy programmer label unlikely, so people naturally choose the other.

    But, if you could measure programming ability somehow, its curve would look like the normal distribution. Most people are average at most things.

    It makes sense if you think of programming as not some mystical endeavor that somehow one is innately born with the talent for or is not. If you see programming and other technical occupations as just ones consisting of a set of skills and capabilities that can be learned over time, (like just about every other skill), then the idea of programming talent and programmers existing on a more normal distribution curve seems the most likely outcome.

    One last quote from the piece:

    The tech industry is rife with sexism, racism, homophobia, and discrimination. It is a multi-faceted problem, and there isn't a single cause, but the talent myth is part of the problem. In our industry, we recast the talent myth as "the myth of the brilliant asshole", he said. This is the "10x programmer" who is so good at his job that people have to work with him even though his behavior is toxic. In reality, given the normal distribution, it's likely that these people aren't actually exceptional, but even if you grant that they are, how many developers does a 10x programmer have to drive away before it is a wash?

    How much does the 'Rock Star' mentality and assumption play in to toxic workplaces, less inclusive workforces, and unfulfilled 'Good, but not a Rock Star' people?

    It is a really interesting piece, and Kaplan-Ross' speech is also on YouTube here, and I recommend checking it out.

    Monday
    Feb022015

    I don't want to work with companies, I want to work with people

    The hard thing about blogging sometimes is that for various and practical reasons you often can't write about stuff that actually happens in your actual life, personal or professional. Sometimes you have to change names, change details of a story, obscure some elements that might not be terribly important to the overall point, but at least give you some plausible deniability, (and protection as well, for the most part, most bloggers are not independently wealthy, i.e. we still need to make a living).

    That disclaimer serves two purposes really; one, as an acknowledgement and reminder that there have been plenty of really interesting and potentially really very good posts that I and lots of other HR/workplace type bloggers have to quash in the interests of personal protection/employability. And two, as a preface to what I wanted to really write about, (getting to that next, I promise), which is based on some actual events with real people, but with the specific names left out and some details slightly changed. Ok, here we go...

    One of the interesting aspects of the transforming nature of work and workers from corporate lifers into more entrepreneurial, flexible, contingent, and more or less free agents (who may affiliate with a company for a time for mutual benefit), is that customer/partner loyalty is now much more often tied to people and not organizations. Said a little differently, buyers and potential business partners are more and more drawn to the actual people involved in the project or transaction, and not so much, (if at all), their current, (and likely temporary) corporate affiliation.

    The specific circumstances that caused me to think about happened last week, in two separate discussions I had with some HR industry folks. Both of these were concerning projects and initiatives where I had been working with, or at least working on collaborating with specific individuals that was interested in working with again. And in both cases, as these potential initiatives became socialized inside the corporate meeting rooms of the organizations where these folks are aligned, the geometry of the deals began to alter.

    Suddenly, more (or different) folks needed to be involved. Now more higher-ups from these organizations had to have their opinion heard, (even when I had not talked with any of them previously). There was at least some reluctance in one of the cases by management to 'allow' their person to work with me on the project, as they wanted to have their other, preferred person, (who I did not ask for), leading the effort.

    As more professionals see themselves as free agents, who affiliate with companies in more fluid, shorter, and transitory arrangements while simultaneously building their personal networks, professional portfolios, and reputations independent of any corporate overseer, these kinds of tensions will only increase. In the examples I cited above, I was led to and wanted to collaborate with specific individuals based on past experiences (prior to them arriving at their current roles), and personal conviction in these individual's ability and competence. Quite frankly, their current corporate affiliation does not really matter. At least to me.

    But it does matter, naturally, to the folks that are the executives at these places, whose job it is to build, protect, strengthen, and make more valuable their company brands. But this will be increasingly more challenging, in many relationship-driven kinds of businesses anyway, when the company brand is really only comprised of a loose affiliation of individual brands, who are going to move in and out of the company umbrella more or less on-demand, and who have many more outside connections and relationships than in the past.

    This 'free agent nation', this new world that is sometimes referred to as the 'Uber-ification' of work where most workers are essentially carving out their own personal careers, less dependent on organizational support (and protection) than before is one that puts not only these workers under more pressure than before, as they shoulder more personal risk than ever, but it also will stress their company brand owners as well. I don't think my perspective as a potential partner/customer is all that unique; I am interested in collaborating with the best people I can, and often, (and maybe soon always), I am not that interested in their 'official' titles or what their current company leadership believes how I should interact and engage with them. As sometimes I like to say, that is a 'you' problem, not a 'me' problem.

    I guess I will leave with this - the free agent nation has delivered exceeding benefits to company brands - less fixed costs, less regulations, more flexibility, and even more profits. But there are some risks too. Some of your free agents don't really need the company brand as much as the brand needs them. And some of your best customers and partners want to work with people, not with companies. And as the ties between people and companies continue to loosen, (almost always at the behest of companies by the way), the company's hold on talent and opportunity and profit will loosen as well.

    Have a great week!

    Tuesday
    Oct212014

    Talent Attraction: The Real Reason to Keep Top Talent

    A few months ago I posted a recap of 'Why Stars Matter', a recent study out of the National Bureau of Economic Research that concluded the most important contribution that so-called 'Top Talent' makes to an organization is that they increase the organization's ability to recruit even more Top Talent.

    Here is an excerpt from my piece from April, then I will hit you with the reason why I wanted to revisit this topic today:

    ------------------------------------------------

    A recent National Bureau of Economic Research study titled Why Stars Matter, has attempted to identify just what are these 'top talent' effects. It turns out that just being better at their jobs only accounts for a part of the advantage these high performers provide and that possibly the more important benefit is how the presence of top talent impacts the other folks around them, (and the ones you are trying to recruit).

    Here is a summary of the findings of the 'top talent' effects from HBR:

    The researchers found that the superstar’s impact on recruiting was far and away the more significant driver of improved organizational productivity. Starting just one year after the superstar joins the department, the average quality of those who join the department at all levels increases significantly. As for the impact of a superstar on existing colleagues, the findings are more mixed. Incumbents who work on topics related to those the superstar focused on saw their output increase, but incumbents whose work was unrelated became slightly less productive.

    So 'top talent' (mostly) gets to be called 'top talent' because they are simply better, more productive employees. But a significant benefit of these talented individuals is that they help you recruit more people like them, who in turn also are more productive than average, continuing to raise the overall performance level of the organization.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Back to October when we have from the world of sports, specifically the NBA, this effect of 'Top Talent as a recruiting magnet' playing out with one of the league's most well-known and successful teams, the Los Angeles Lakers, and superstars, 5-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant. Except in this case, if Henry Abbott's reporting on ESPN is accurate, the 'Top Talent', i.e. Kobe, is no longer attracting talent, he is in fact, serving to repel other top players (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, etc.), from even considering joining the Lakers when all three players had that option this off season.

    In Abbott's short video he essentially concludes that at this stage of his career, Kobe's personality, need to take most of the shots, (and claim all of the spotlight), and his past history of not being able to co-exist with other top players has made the Lakers, once the destination of choice for NBA legends like Wilt Chamberlain, Shaq, and Magic Johnson, into a place where no top player will consider playing for.

    It is worth watcing the quick (1:20) report from Abbott, even if you are not an NBA fan, just because it serves as a reminder of what the NBER talked about in their research. Once 'Top Talent' stops serving as a magnet for other top talent, then it is probably time to take a long, dispassionate look at what they are contributing to the organization overall. Not just in what they are producing themselves, but how they might be holding the organization hostage so to speak, if they are keeping away the next wave of star talent you need.

    Happy Tuesday.

    Tuesday
    Aug262014

    You should never be surprised by someone that works for you

    Well, probably not 'never', but certainly not very much, and not when the 'surprise' is that the employee is really, really, really talented at something related either to their actual job or more generally to your business.

    The context of the notion that you, ('you' being a manager, leader, business owner, etc.), should have a strong sense of both the capabilities, and more importantly perhaps, the potential of the folks on your team. I know, not exactly some kind of breakthrough idea, right? HR and business leaders have been plotting folks on the 9-box Performance/Potential grid for years and years. In fact, there are at least a dozen really cool software programs that will help you automate and streamline and enhance the entire 9-box exercise.

    But so what, really? None of that matters if there aren't strategies in place to actually action the results of the exercise.

    Here's the specific example that I heard discussed recently on of all things, Bill Simmons' BS Report podcast, which is usually about sports topics. On this particular episode, Simmons and his guest were discussing TV talk shows, specifically the Daily Show on Comedy Central.

    Last Summer, The Daily Show's host John Stewart took an extended sabbatical from the show in order to work on a movie project. In his stead, Comedy Central slotted show contributor John Oliver in Stewart's place to host the show for a few months while Stewart was on leave.

    And long story short, Oliver killed it. He was funny, clever, and once his extended run was complete filling in for Stewart, he has suddenly in demand. He had many more options than perhaps he would have had he not been given this kind of showcase opportunity from Comedy Central. But once the guest run was completed, Comedy Central, perhaps surprised by how well Oliver performed in the 'top' job at the Daily Show, was left kind of stuck - at the they did not have a similar, high-profile kind of role to offer Oliver, and as was brought up by Bill Simmons on the podcast, they did not have Oliver contractually locked up into continuing on with Comedy Central at all.

    Long story short, Oliver moved on to HBO where his new show, 'Last Week Tonight with John Oliver', has launched to critical acclaim and pretty significant buzz (amongst folks who care about these things).

    And Comedy Central is left wondering just how they managed to let Oliver walk, particularly when just a few months later another network star, Stephen Colbert, announced he was leaving to eventually become the replacement for CBS legend David Letterman on his talk show.

    In theory, better planning and understanding of their talent on Comedy Central's part might have led to a much more beneficial outcome for the network all around. Their #1 star Stewart, gets a needed break to re-charge and explore some important personal projects, a highly capable team player, Oliver, gets a chance to prove himself, and eventually slot into the #2 role, Colbert's when he leaves.

    Except that is not, in fact, what is happening, and Comedy Central is left wondering how they let Oliver go to (possibly) become a bigger star somewhere else.

    Hey, it happens. Maybe Comedy Central did know just how talented Oliver was, and just did not care that much. That is pretty bad.

    But maybe they were actually surprised by how good he was, and if so, that is even worse, because if you are really managing and engaging with talent, and not just playing with names on a 9-box, you should never really be surprised by someone that works for you. 

    Tuesday
    Jul082014

    The Obligatory World Cup Post - #8ManRotation

    My annual contract with the 8 Man Rotation Group, LLC (not a real thing, but we do have an annual FREE Ebook on Sports and HR - you can get the latest version here), obliges me to post at least once about the World Cup and what similarities, parallels, or HR and workplace takeaways you might be able to glean from the tournament (which I really do enjoy), so here goes...

    Talent almost always trumps all - Despite some interesting and surprising 'upsets' in the early round matches, (the USA getting out of the 'Group of Death', the legendary Spanish side failing to play to expectations), by the later stages of the event, the best/most talented teams had risen to the occasion. In the first knockout round the 8 teams that had been on top of their opening round groups, all defeated the second place in their group teams that they were matched against. And then in the quarter-final round, the four teams that advanced (Brazil, Germany, Argentina, and the Netherlands), were among the pre-tournament top four favored sides. Winning at the World Cup, and in most every business as well, remains mostly about having a group of talented people working together towards the same goal. And since every team wants to win the World Cup, the tie-breaker is talent. Not fighting spirit, not fan support, not a 'unique' culture - it's talent.

    The more people needed to create the finished product, the less individual stars matter - Soccer is played by 11 people per side, thus making any single individual's ability to impact and influence the outcome of the match relatively less than say basketball, where a single star player is often the difference between winning teams and losing ones. Sure, each of the top 4 teams have their share of 'star' players, but in a 90 minute match these players can often go for very long stretches of play without even touching the ball, much less making game-altering plays. Soccer is often about discipline, strategy, organization as much as about singular talent. So while talent (usually) trumps all, it is really kind of a collective talent level that I'm talking about. Many of the top sides have seen their star players go down to injury, yet their overall talent level and team organization has allowed them to continue to thrive. The HR lesson here? Once about 10-15 people are involved in any project or initiative, you might be better off passing on the 'star' talent in favor of raising the overall talent level of the group. 

    Performance is relative (and a function of expectations) - Just like how for most publicly traded companies their quarterly performance in terms of absolute revenue or earnings means much less than how those figures compared to Wall Street's 'expectations' of what those results would be, a team's performance in the World Cup usually is assessed against some kind of nebulous collective expectation of what that performance would be. Case in point -the USA team played four matches in the World Cup. They won one, drew one, and lost two. The win was against probably the worst opponent of the four. The draw happened when the USA allowed a shocking goal in the 95th minute of play (essentially the last kick of the game). But yet after the USA was eliminated from the tournament, the general consensus was that the USA had a successful tournament and is on the right track for the future. But objectively, a record of 1-2-1 in four games is pretty terrible. But against expectations, it was a success. We see this effect at work all the time - someone's just sort of average performance is viewed as wonderful if they have a track record of being incompetent. Someone else's good performance is not appreciated if they had somehow done a little better in the past. We'd probably be better off trying to forget the recent past, let go of 'expectations' and try to evaluate people and performance for what they are.

    Anyway, there it is, my 8 Man Rotation 2014 World Cup post is in the books!

    Happy Tuesday.