Why you should send your best talent to the competition & other things you didn’t know about organizational agility
The increased tension between the ‘fluidity’ on an organizational level and that on an individual level is one of the most challenging evolutions out there. I thought that it was high time for a 'nexxworks Innovation Talks' podcast chat with organizational behaviour expert Frederik Anseel on that very topic (link to the podcast below). Multichannel overachievers that we are, I wanted to share some of the most surprising insights that came out of our conversation with you here as well, on our nexxworks blog.
One thing is certain: companies that want to attract and keep the best (innovation) talent, will need a lot of chutzpah: some of the approaches that we talked about might seem like pure madness to a lot of organizations, who would ironically hugely benefit from them.
Employees that leave, are extra valuable
I loved Frederik’s idea about companies needing to harbour a much longer-term vision on the concept of an individual’s career: “companies should sometimes admit to themselves “I do not know how to further develop this person's talents within the confines of my own organization”, set them free to another company and then maybe embrace them back again in 5 to 10 years. HR will need to think more outside the company's box when it comes to career development or nurturing an innovative workforce, even though that might seem counterintuitive."
Non-competing companies could form a talent consortium with others, building career trajectories for high-potentials so that they can move in between their separate organizations.
This is not just for the sake of the employee’s development, but for the sake of the company too. First of all, because the employees who left still add value to them from the outside, acting as connectors and boundary spanners. But secondly, because research has shown that employees who leave, and then come back, bring in new knowledge and perspectives, while at the same time still understanding and knowing what the company is (or used to be) all about. So it’s paradoxically quite positive when your best talent leaves you. That’s why it’s always tantamount to stay on good terms with ex-employees.
I really liked that we dove deeper into the subject by trying to figure out how companies could embrace this – let’s face it, pretty scary – long term approach in a structural manner. An answer could be that non-competing companies could form some kind of talent consortium with others, building career trajectories for high-potentials so that they can move in between their separate organizations. This approach could offer the talented employees a lot of freedom and learning potential, and at the same time allow the companies to entertain closely-knit ties with them.
According to Frederik, this type of approach tends to happen quite often between (competing) universities: they stimulate career trajectories where they encourage people to leave them for another institution (mostly in a different country, so they are a tad less competing) for one to three years after which they can return with new knowledge, methodologies and perspectives. It is at this exact crossroad that new inventions and intellectual property patents tend to be born.
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Career experiments, instead of promotion
So, that’s a pretty steep form of HR adventure reaching out all the way to the outside peripheries of companies. Another great way to stimulate innovation is to encourage employees to experiment with new roles. Right now, when people transition to a new function, this is regarded as an official long-term(ish) move. And when it does not work out, this shift is perceived as a failure. “Why not change that view?”, said Frederik. “Why not tell hem “you do not need to transition to this role permanently, just try it on for size”. That way you allow people to find new potential within themselves. But you also release the pressure of changing into a new role and the uncertainty that comes along with that. Going back or moving on to something else will never be perceived shameful if it's presented as an experiment. It’s a much more natural process.
There’s a lot of talk out there about how companies have to experiment with products, services and business models but we rarely say this about roles and careers. If you don’t make it frictionless and safe for employees to “reinvent” themselves – by allowing them to experiment with their own careers – how can you expect them to keep reinventing your processes, or products, or business models? It just doesn’t add up. It’s the responsibility of HR to allow for the structures inside the company to compensate for that. And too often, there’s a discrepancy there.
Don't hire people for your current “war”, hire them for the future battle that you need to fight in the future world.
Hire people for talent & then design jobs around them
According to Frederik, we also need to move beyond our obsession with fixed and all too detailed job descriptions and hunting after someone who perfectly fits that bill. “This makes it so much harder to find the ‘right’ talent in the current tight job market”, Frederik said. “We should just turn that around creatively and look for people that have a specific and unique talent instead, without knowing exactly which role they could fulfill. Sometimes you should just have the courage to say “this is a very talented person, I’ll hire him/her now and just create a role around him/her later. I've seen that happening before and it’s a very clever way outsmarting the current war for talent.”
But there’s a tricky part too, here. Do not make the mistake of hiring someone for a “perfect (culture) fit” instead, because that would endanger the cognitive diversity inside your company. If everyone inside your company has similar perspectives and mindsets, then you’ll always end up with the same solutions and innovation will silently wither. “That’s why I always tell companies to hire challengers; people with different perspectives, ideas, skills, expertise, and, again, only then find suitable roles for them. It’s a common mistake to hire for the current strengths of your company, for your current “war” or sometimes even the previous war. But you will want to hire people for the future battle that you need to fight in the future world.”