Office Space

The Banality of Talent Management


The now-familiar tone of the Facebook messaging app on my iPad broke the stillness of a cold Kansas night. As I reached for the tablet, I saw the notification prompt that the message was from a close friend serving in the Pentagon. I swiped the screen and the messaging app came to life at my fingertips.

“Life…sure knows how to kick a man in the junk.”

A brilliant young leader with more raw talent than just about anyone I’ve known in a long career in uniform, he had spent much of the past year being courted for a series of positions that reflected the incredible potential he possesses. But at every turn, he found himself blocked, outmaneuvered, or just relegated to a corner cubicle. “You’re too valuable.”, “We can’t afford to lose you right now.”, “You’re too important to the mission.” Choose your empty platitude, we all know where they lead. Nowhere.

“Ummm, I’m gonna need you to go ahead come in tomorrow.”

In the rank and file, there are two types of talent managers: Those who contribute to our Profession, and those who contribute to the bureaucracy. We should all aspire to the former, and we fight an endless battle against the latter. One recognizes, develops, and rewards talent; the other consumes and discards it.

Early on in my career, I learned that the best way to reward talent is to let it go. Set it free. Even if it hurts, even if it means more work for others. This is how we enrich our Profession, how we improve the quality of our organizations. This is how we ensure full and fulfilling careers, how we reward and retain talent and leverage it to the benefit of the entire force.

Like many things in life, talent is a rare and finite resource. If we take the time to cultivate it, to shape it, to mature it, everyone reaps the rewards. If we consume talent without regard to the greater needs of the institution, we threaten the very fabric of our future, the foundations of our Profession.

A true leader recognizes talent and helps to guide it on a path that benefits the entire force while providing the professional rewards so important to a driven individual. A leader doesn’t simply consume talent, a leader seeks opportunities to recruit and develop new talent, to expand the talent pool for future generations. A leader shepherds talent and thus strengthens the Profession.

How we manage talent is as much a measure of our legacy as any serious contribution we offer to our Profession. If we choose to leave a legacy. Because, quite frankly, if your sole focus is consuming and discarding the talent around you, you’re not leaving any legacy that matters. Instead, you’re sucking the life blood from our Profession. That’s a hell of a legacy, don’t you think?

“Oh, oh, and I almost forgot. Ahh, I’m also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday, too…”

Consider this. The next time a subordinate comes to you to ask for assistance with a career opportunity, support them. If you have a chance to help them pursue an educational opportunity, just do it. Encourage them to read. Challenge them to write. Ask them for their ideas, their opinions on issues. When a senior leader needs an update on a topic, let them conduct the briefing. Broaden them. Develop them. Grow them.

Or you can just continue to occupy a desk, safeguard the bureaucracy, and protect your red Swingline stapler.

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