How to lose a talent in a company
Nowadays, many articles focus on how to “seduce” talents into joining your company or your team.
As I had a start-up in the recruiting industry, targeting “Level-A” candidates, I found most of the companies thirsty and craving for such candidates.
Before diving deeper, it is important to tackle the concept.
A talent is a person’s proactive attitude, towards solving a problem of any kind.
A problem can be a business, technical, financial, nutritional or legal. You say this lawyer is talented, when he can find his way through the hardest cases. You say this product owner is talented when he makes deeper analysis of a feature, break it down, can well communicate with all parties, etc…
A person is known to be more talented, when he keeps his firm attitude when facing a more complex type of one problem (i.e project behind deadlines), or multiple types of problems at once (i.e technical and financial). For example, when a talented developer has to make financial estimations for a task (a nightmare, I know…).
Knowledge VS Talent
I have been to interviews with around 20 companies during my career. At the interview, you can sense in the first 5 minutes, if the interviewer is looking for a talent to get things done, or if you only have enough knowledge to finish the task he wants (aka code monkey).
In tech, we run into people who have vast knowledge about a certain framework, a certain language, a very specific approach of solving problems. Sometimes, interviewers forget about the whole product they have, and keep asking you about one specific library, and how it works.
It is great to have knowledge about your domain, however, it does not mean that you are talented.
You rarely find a company that is running on a tech stack that is older than 5 years. And when it s the case, it s called a legacy system and it damages the business on daily basis. Millions of dollars are spent to maintain legacy systems. Even though the employees know the system by heart (Knowledge), however, they cannot make a single change, fix a legacy bug, fix performance, make a single enhancement, a single step forward, as they lack talent (otherwise, legacy wouldn’t exist).
The last person you want in your team is a person who applies the same technical knowledge to every problem you face. Imagine a doctor who is specialized in brain surgery, starting an operation immediately every time a patient comes through his door with headache, flu, diarrhea.
It is great to have a nodejs expert in your team, when your entire product is based on it. However, having a team of talented people, who know how to tackle a problem, how to learn a new approach, a new technology, how to failfast and learn, is crucial if you want your company to survive economical bumps and fierce competition. They will acquire the knowledge, and they will help enhancing the product.
A talented team will be applying the appropriate medicine to the technical wound, without risking the business for a shining tech approach, and would not risk huge technical debt for a very minimum business value. A talented team will run the extra mile, think outside the box, think business, think tech, think as a team. They will tackle a problem as if they are owners of the company.
Knowledge helps a lot, but it is not a requirement. With knowledge, a talent will be solving problems faster, in a more mature way, in a sharper attitude. But knowledge alone will not solve a problem, it needs attitude, it needs talent. A talent usually acquires experience and knowledge fairly quickly, as they dive into different technical challenges. A talent also knows how to manage time accordingly, how to hunt down a bug, how to break a wall or overcome an obstacle. You can always throw a talent in an unknown environment with your eyes closed, having faith that it will overcome every technical/business obstacle. A talent knows that there is no magical solution, and it is always about making the appropriate compromises in time, effort, business, tech, etc...
If you have a team, and you cannot throw a problem at them with your eyes closed, then it is very important to revise your hiring strategies and culture. Most important, you HAVE to revise your attitude and skills, before theirs.
Throughout my 7+ years of experience, with my products deployed across 4 continents, I have met different kind of teams and people. I have met people who can tell you everything about a system, a framework, a library. Sadly, if you mention a different approach, a different language, a different framework, you can sense the tension. They even refuse to acknowledge the existence of multiple solutions for the same problem. They count on their knowledge only, and not their attitude. Be afraid of them, be very afraid on the future of your company. On the other side, there are people who are eager to learn, to try different things, to push things forward, to say YES we can, to think as a team, even to motivate other departments! These are your guardian angels, never let them go!
Steps towards losing talents
Putting a talent in a culture which does not sponsor proactive behavior will hurt badly this talent. You cannot drive a Ferrari offroad, and you cannot expect the talent to perform in a culture where innovation, speaking up, fixing things, making people happy are all Taboo. Bureaucracy and titles also block such growth and hurt the culture and the talent. It is very important to fix the culture first, then inject talents in it. If your company is not attracting talents, you must start by fixing your personal culture, then your team’s, then your company’s and at that point you will be amazed by the “Rise of the Fallen”. People will come out from within the teams, showing their shiny bright talent, as they will feel “safe” and “home” in the appropriate culture. Once this step is done, your company will automatically start being a magnet of talents.
A talent is needed in an environment where they can be trusted fully, and blindly. Micromanaging a talent will result in chaos and lower productivity. If you call the best taxi driver in town, and then control the steering wheel, what would that result? Just get a project, get a problem, get a challenge, shoot it at the talent, discuss the solution they want to go with to communicate the business value, and expect them to commit and deliver.
Lies and Politics
A talent is always honest with the leader. It sees honesty and transparency as a sign of respect and a morale code. Betraying that value results in losing respect of the talent, and as a result, losing compass. Politics are another form of lying, it usually jumps in and ruins the whole culture. Sometimes it is for power, or people craving accomplishment or saving the business. In some cases, leaders cannot say everything, due to business reasons and uncertainty. This is when you have to talk to your team, ask them to trust you on this explicit matter, and give them a date when you will explain everything. This will be a great chance to check your emotional bank you have invested in them, and it will surely add more credits to it. A leader’s job is to ensure that total transparency exists across all departments, to protect the company and the talents.
Unclear Vision and Goals
Talents usually run at full speed. In order to be able to do so, you will need a clear vision and goal. You will also need milestones and priorities. Many managers nowadays ignore that, shift visions and goals on daily basis, and that kills and destroys culture, business and talents. Imagine you are with the best taxi in the city, and you keep giving him different addresses every 5 minutes. After a bit, He will think you are trolling him, and ask you to leave the car, or he will quit his job. It is better to ask him to wait for 10 minutes until you give him the final destination. In moments of uncertainty, just be honest with your talents and ask them to hold ground until the vision is clearer. Make sure you do not waste their efforts.
Make them run solo
A talent hates running solo. They always like to perform within a team, as they are modest and eager to learn from others, and acquire more experience through team. They know that success comes through teams, and not individuals. Also, in many cases, it is wiser to keep synergetic talents together, united, as they perform 10x better as a group. Their loyalty for the team is an asset, as they share knowledge and lead from within the team.
Reduce their circle of influence
Talents like to push everyone forward, to explore their individual points of strength . This results in a very positive culture and more confidence cross teams. They are gifted at spotting weaknesses of other teams, and with their attitude, they tend to transform it into a stronghold, help them overcome it through proactive attitude and positive culture. It is very important to shift talents around for a temporary period, through different domains and teams, and to give them some influence to maintain, improve and take care of the culture. Do not get confused between influence, power, and titles.
A talent usually seeks recognition as a team, and not individuals. It is very important to mention the talented teams in your conferences, meetings, emails, presentations, etc… This will encourage the bonding between you and them, and the team bonding too. Give them credit for their advices, for their opinion, for their efforts, and for sticking around.
Focus on results only
In the world of business, result is what matters. However, as companies are not a one week freelance work but rather a continuity and a long term investment, there is an important part, which is the effort put in there. A talent will make a mistake, as they are always on the front lines, outside the comfort zone, hands in the dirt, and soldiers on front lines always get most bullets and injuries. It is very important to show them that you cherish the efforts, and highly appreciate them. Talents are sensitive, and that is the human factor in our day-to-day job. If a talent misses the importance of a result, or keeps making the same mistake, then it is your role as a team mate or a manager to have a talk with them, and share your perspective. After all, they might have avoided a catastrophe of other kind, or there was a problem in understanding the objective of business.
Solution and Exist
Talents usually have moral obligation towards their job, their team, and their products. It is not emotional attachment, but rather a sign of loyalty to all the things they went through, together. It is a moral code they run by it.
Sometimes, a company does not need talents, it might needs minions to perform a single task, to force the vision of the leader, to follow the order of investors, to satisfy a pure business need. If you have talents and you see these conditions existing for more than 3 months, it is very important to talk to them and find a solution, (ask them to leave the company, or give them 3 months paid leave). They will easily find a job, or wait knowing the circumstances, and they will have greater respect for you (and even come back when things are better).
Do not trap them down, using their loyalty against them. They are not created to follow orders, they are created to make your business succeed, to overcome problems, to innovate, to ride unicorns! Imagine having a Ferrari, and taking it everyday to the grocery store, filling it with tomato, cucumber, lettuce, etc… A Ferrari is made to conquer the highways, not to carry vegetables!
Once a talent is down due to such business reasons, it is super hard to bring them back up, and remind them of who they are. The slow death will get into their deepest self confidence spot, their deepest positivity, and will torture them. However, they will not leave the boat, unless you give the signal, as they all feel like captains, and captains never abandon their ships.
So save your sailors, save your leaders, and save your ship.
In the end, it is very important to assess what your team and business needs, before looking for the appropriate person. It is not bad to need a code monkey, as sometimes you just need a tiny car or bike to buy groceries, and not more. Any mistake at this point will result into destroying more than one talent, and usually it is very painful to reverse the effect of such a disaster.