Why You're Not Spotting Talent Earlier

Why You're Not Spotting Talent Earlier

Most organisations have a talent review process to identify and develop talent. Unfortunately, these reviews are the equivalent of going to the Grammy Awards to spot new musicians. By the time the Grammy's come around, the musicians have years of experience, a fan base, and successful records. They are attending the Grammys to be recognised, celebrate, and expand their audience. Our talent processes are the same. Leaders nominated to be high potential have a track record and are being recognised by their nominating managers. By following this process, we fail to spot talent early in their careers and fail to unearth all hidden talent. We likely lose great talent to competitors before we ever identify them as talent!

To change this dynamic, we can learn some valuable lessons from an unusual source: All Songs Considered.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, All Songs Considered is a podcast designed to help people discover music of all genres. They play new music weekly, broadcast live concerts, and stream videos of artists playing in their own offices (Tiny Desk Concerts). This US National Public Radio (NPR) programme is my primary source for finding new music. They play music from artists that have never been heard on the radio and that don't have albums. They also play new music from more well-known artists months before their new albums are released.

To celebrate their 16th anniversary, they played their favourite song for each year of the show. As I listened to the songs and stories about the show, I realised that they have been spotting talent years before that talent was successful commercially. They played Kanye West ten years before he was popular and winning Grammy awards. They played music by Adele, Regina Spektor, Alabama Shakes, Courtney Barnett, Arcade Fire, and many others years before they had commercial success. They spot great talent early.

As I listened to the stories of their early years of the show, I was struck by the following learnings that can be applied to organisations.

Proactively Look for Talent

The hosts, Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton, are passionate about music and actively search for talent every day. They attend music festivals, go to hundreds of concerts, and listen to thousands of songs. Although they play a wide variety of music on the show, this is just a fraction of what they must hear during the year. Don't get me wrong, they do play new music from artists that they know and love. However, they also are always searching for new talent.

Because of competing commitments, most managers and HR leaders never focus this much on talent. Instead, they rely on HR planning processes to review talent. Unfortunately, these processes fall short in two ways. First, they don't go deep enough into the organisation. Younger talent may not get the benefit of review by senior leaders. Second, they rely on input from managers, which may be biased or incomplete. Most managers attending a talent review don't have first-hand knowledge of the talent in review. In a musical sense, these managers never listened to the music…they are relying on someone else's feedback on the music to form their own judgments.

You can correct this!

  • Mobilise your managers and HR leaders to seek and identify new talent. Everyone needs to be a talent scout. You also can refocus your talent team to spend more time finding talent lower in the organisation. Currently, we reward talent teams for running an HR planning process. We should reward them for finding talent!
  • Identify young talent and give them management experience early in their career. It takes time to develop leadership capabilities. If you are promoting individuals to their first manager jobs in their 30s, you've wasted valuable development years.

Get Talent to Look for You

All Songs Considered has become known as a cultivator of musicians. New artists send their albums to the show hoping to be played. The show even holds competitions for new musicians to highlight their music. One of my favourite artists, Sufjan Stevens, began his career by writing into the show. Compare this to most mainstream radio stations, which don't play music from new artists unless their sales are already on the charts.

For your organisation, ask yourself: How many employees have approached me about being key talent? How many show me examples of their work? Have I asked employees to apply to be key talent? In many companies, an employee approaching a senior leader on these topics would be considered, at best, quirky. The employee might be given some information on how talent is selected or may be asked to discuss this with their direct manager.

However, this doesn't happen in all companies. Some of our clients have asked employees to volunteer to be key talent. They provide the criteria and then screen applicants. By doing this, they benefit two ways. First, they find new talent that might never surface in a review. Second, they test that talent in experiential programmes to see if the talent should proceed. This gives the individuals exposure and an opportunity to show their capabilities. Think of this as The X Factor or American Idol. Tell employees you are looking for talent and give them a process to go through and many of them will come to you and shine.

Share Talent with Others

Often, the hosts of All Songs Considered mention that they were introduced to a new band by another staff member. NPR has staff and shows that cover a variety of music genres including country, dance, hip-hop, Latino, metal, and classical. Frequently, these individuals are invited to All Songs Considered to share their favourite new music with listeners.

Your managers can review talent frequently in their organisation, but you won't find talent unless they are freely sharing with others. Many managers hoard their best talent, and many others don't expose their teams to more senior leaders. You have to give to get!

Unfortunately, this culture is hard to break. However, we have seen a few best practices. We are helping one company identify critical development experiences for their managers. During their HR planning sessions, they look at tenure in position and the leaders' experience gaps. They use this to plan moves across divisions and functions. Your leaders can also break this culture by insisting on having their skip-level reports attend meetings, present projects, and stand in for their manager. This ensures that leaders get more direct visibility one layer down in the organisation.

Know What You are Looking For

The hosts of All Songs Considered listen to and play a lot of great music. Their fans tune in because they know they will like many of the songs played. The hosts know what makes great music. They listen to the lyrics, sounds, beats, melodies, and more to find music that is unique and different but still familiar enough to our ears to sound great.

Over the years we have asked hundreds of HR leaders a simple question: Are managers in their organisations promoted based on performance? Over 80% of them respond "no"! Research supports this by showing that most leaders are promoted based on their networking and communication skills. We spend many hours defining competencies in organisations, but we don't spend enough time defining what leadership looks like and how best to assess and spot this.

This topic is too big to cover here. Suffice it to say that the best companies have a clear leadership model in their organisations that go beyond competencies. They align their assessment practices to this model and change the information they use in HR planning processes to better reflect leadership metrics. They also test leaders in experiential learning programmes to ensure they can lead and deliver results the right way. You have to know what you are looking for to spot great talent early!

Spotting great talent has been a key ingredient for the success of All Songs Considered. They find and introduce musical talent to thousands of fans every year. My greatest hope from this article is that you have gained some insight into how you can better spot and share talent in your company.

I also hope that you discover some great new music! If you are interested, you can subscribe to All Songs Considered and/or their Tiny Desk Concert series.

Of course, if you want to speak about finding talent in your organisation, you can contact Organisation Solutions!

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