In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.
It’s the backbone of every successful Hollywood film plot: the mysterious outsider who comes with great promise to save the day, with eyes hidden beneath a wide-brimmed hat and collar turned up to add to the mystique; dramatic music rises to a crescendo in the background. It’s an enticing image, with the promise of a shortcut to better leadership. Someone will just stroll into your town and put things right.
It’s easy to see why people fall for the myth of the hero leader. This plot gets played out daily as organizations up and down the land interview their candidates and listen to the alluring promise of a potential hire. This chapter explores the allure of the outsider: the notion that it’s automatically better to bring talent into the organization from outside than to develop the talent that’s already available.
This myth risks hiring people who, while successful in another context, fail to live up to their promise and flounder in the new environment. It also risks alienating good people who are hungry for the chance to stretch and develop their potential. It addresses the “familiarity breeds contempt” assumption and challenges readers to see their people from a fresh angle (beginners’ mind) and to find ways to tap into their latent talent.
We explore the need for organizations to ensure that the “induction” process lasts longer than the first week—and indeed starts before that. In pilot phases people get the chance to try out new roles in a supportive environment.
And, because context is everything, the solutions may not be either/or decisions, rather a blend of people. We encourage you to mine for gold. This isn’t just about decisions made in the HR department. This chapter is about actions that every manager can take to improve the success of their team and prepare for the development of everyone in it. Understanding that this is a shared task makes everyone’s life easier.
Most employers are aware that new recruits come with costs attached. Weighing up the costs with the potential benefits is an important activity in the “Discover” step of the leadership and organization development process. It’s also connected to the importance of identifying benefits and impacts, so that everyone knows what “ROI” looks like in terms of the investments you’re making in growing the organization’s leadership capabilities.
And it’s not just the costs of CV sifting or setting up assessment centers, interview panels, and reference checking. It takes up to a year for new staff to achieve optimum productivity and costs an average of £25,000 per new employee.1
For sales recruitment the payback time can be longer: 18 months to 2 years is not uncommon. And yet employers expect much faster returns, often without putting in the support structures that contribute toward successful outcomes.
In 2017, the UK CMI2 stated: “The UK currently has an estimated 2.4m accidental and unskilled managers, promoted into leadership roles because of their functional expertise but left to sink or swim when it comes to management.”
Evidence started back in 20103 and 20114 when two authors highlighted the financial value of promoting from within the existing talent pool in organizations. Organizations paid lip service to developing talent and then recruited expensive and poor-performing outsiders. These practices also encourage wage inflation, spurred on by the people, who most stand to gain from parachuting in new talent, earning commission from the headhunting process.
So, helping everyone in the organization to discover, value, and develop the talent around them is an important task, not just one for the HR department working in isolation. Every manager can improve their team performance now by taking these steps.
In the film The Hudsucker Proxy,5 there’s a fast-moving scene where the lead actor is introduced to the company policies around pay in a series of rapid explanations, each one ending with the conclusion: “Do this, or they’ll dock ya!” Exaggerated for humorous effect, it reflects the impact of new ways of working. It can feel overwhelming when you’re being introduced to a new environment, starting work for a new employer. The additional costs of external recruits are threefold:
- 1.The potential to create wage inflation
- 2.The costs of head-hunter commissions
- 3.The cost of time taken to reach optimum effectiveness.
Unless the payback can be shown to be of real benefit to the organization, this effort risks being a waste of time and money.
Now We Are Going to Contradict Ourselves…
This does not mean that recruiting and promoting from within is always the right solution. The threat from too much of the same-group thinking can create the “not invented here” syndrome, where the in-house solution is the only solution.
There are too many examples, particularly in the IT world, where budgets have been blown on hobby projects, when a turnkey solution already exists. Stories of slowly evolving projects (for example, to bring many disparate systems into a single process) have been overtaken by smaller, more flexible solutions.6 This narrow thinking shuts down the wider range of alternatives and focuses on delivering the solution (or should that be “THE solution”). This focus on delivery is admirable; however, it works best once a range of options have been explored—and openly discussed without barriers to success.
This is where a new, less subjective person can help others see things from a fresh angle, with a beginner’s mind set, and tap into the pool of talent.
Ways need to be found to both develop people from within the organization and create the optimum conditions for new hires. This is what mining for gold is about. It is about looking for what works and identifying areas of change—with the goal of supporting staff, new and old, to be successful in their roles.
While supporting a major public hospital complex to prepare for change, we interviewed a range of staff from senior consultants to back-office workers. Given the rate of change in that high-achieving organization, the discovery step included a review of the existing talent development processes. We found many examples of dedicated staff, finding new ways to improve patient care and introducing new ideas at the same time—ideas to ensure accurate, accessible patient records available on demand and to share learning from across the world and root out ineffective, out-of-date practices.
Yet, one overriding theme was that people were introduced to new ideas in a formal, lecture-style setting, but that the support stopped there. When these processes were taken into the real world of a busy hospital, they broke down under the reality of everyday life. But rather than evaluating the induction processes, it was assumed that the talent selection process has chosen “the wrong people.”
The cost to the organization was measured in terms of sickness and absenteeism (adapting to new environments is stressful) and staff turnover. Another issue arose: people reverted to their old ways of doing things because that was what they knew worked for them. Some leaders gave “special dispensation” to failing individuals and teams—because they thought they were being helpful.
In one department, the managers themselves distrusted the new systems and continued to use the old, manual system as well as the new automated process. This had the impact of duplicating work for their team members, whose training in the new system was discounted, which slowed the whole system down.
A key element of mining for gold is to discover the optimum working environments for the individual, the team, and the organization. It’s about planning for skills application, not just classroom learning. It’s about seeing line managers as part of the solution. It’s about making the link between the individual and the environment in which they work.
In another hospital, the building itself contributed to the separation between team members, such that processes needed to be duplicated, even triplicated. When dealing with the laboratory samples from very sick people, this was recognized as unacceptable. Speed and first-time accuracy were vital, so mining for gold included finding ways to have a single point of contact between the wards and the laboratories.
When we explored the issues, we found ourselves talking to people who were individually highly talented, sociable, and intelligent. The challenge was that they were locked in their own silos and had little awareness of what other people were—or were not—doing. The gold we uncovered was that they shared a passion for high standards. They recognized and valued it in their colleagues. They saw the commitment in the staff bringing the precious samples and were unanimous in wanting to work together to make the processes seamless.
Creating an environment for success increases the chance of successful induction, reducing the costs of introducing new people into the system.
When Does It Make Sense to Bring In Outsiders?
Going back to the first step in the FortonD4 steps, the most obvious time to bring in external talent is when what is defined as needed is something very different from what is there today: when it is time for transformation.
When organizations need to go into “turnaround” mode, requiring a focused, pacesetting style of leadership, the “Discover” step of mining for gold will tell you whether or not using existing leadership talent is going to be credible. A turnaround strategy requires a ruthless focus on a small number of vital priorities that deliver against the organization’s turnaround goals. This means that other activities will be of less importance in that bigger picture.
A turnaround strategy is easier to implement when the leader has the position of an “objective outsider” rather than that of a longstanding team member. Don’t forget that this doesn’t negate the value of the “business as usual” operational managers and leaders.
One client organization had such a focus on bringing in an outsider to turn the company around and set it up for sale that they failed to notice the levels of complaints against current contracts or to notice the loss of key business. Knowing who is best placed to keep the organization steady, while major changes are happening around, is vital. Mining for gold in this instance means knowing the following:
- •What leadership the organization needs on the operational side (“Define” step)?
- •What specific behaviors might be different between the strategic and operational elements?
- •Who already has the potential to deliver those leadership behaviors?
That flotation was canceled by the way.
Sometimes it’s necessary to bring in a leader whose preferred leadership style is different from the prevailing culture. When an organization needs to do something very different in order to be more successful in the future, an outsider is likely to be better placed to deliver that difference. Examples include start-ups that are reaching a more stable, mature phase in their development, or slow, consensus-led organizations that need to address significant change toward rapid implementation and shift the culture first.
Prevailing organizational culture is closely linked to the willingness, or otherwise, to change. It is also closely linked, emotionally, to values. It was the shared values and ethos of the laboratory team that drove the willingness to change rapidly. Once they had seen what was happening, and the impact on patients, the will to change was there. Selecting a leader that appreciates the prevailing organizational values and yet will still lead the shift toward the needed organizational culture is vital.
Mining for gold is not just about discovering untapped leadership potential in people; it’s also about ensuring that leadership development is closely aligned to cultural development. While any organization can create posters with inspiring vision statements and post them up in their foyer, the impact is nullified if staff have no say in the values statements. It takes leadership to cocreate values and explore their meaning with the team.
Communications teams often work from a belief that for the values to be taken on board, they need to be, literally, writ large. Yet, in terms of impact, the size of the letters is inversely proportional to the cultural buy-in to those values. Leadership that supports cultural buy-in actively contributes to the shifts needed in that organization’s development.
Mining for Gold Creates the Cultural Environment
The pathology team in the hospital was physically separated by being on different floors in the building. They were brought together by developing a single system that everyone bought into. But visible structural barriers aren’t the only ones; the internal, invisible, beliefs—notably about “ways of working”—can be just as potent barriers as stairs or lab layouts.
Another role in mining for gold is to have those exploratory conversations to
- •Discover, and evaluate, the prevailing organizational culture
- •Support honest conversations about that culture
- •Uncover the organization’s lived values (as distinct from the “handed down” values statements)
- •Discover the preexisting innate talent within the organization
- •Identify the touch points or working environment contexts likely to support or hinder success
Mining for gold is about creating the right environment for successful recruitment and retention. And success can be measured in many ways.
Tim Gallwey is famous for his “Inner Game” book series, dealing with our inner beliefs and attitudes. Gallwey’s equation7 for achieving potential sums up this area: “Performance equals Potential minus Interference.” To improve performance, it’s important to remove the interference: whether that’s internal or external. This, in itself, unlocks a person’s potential.
So, if people have beliefs about the way they work that prevent optimum performance, the challenge might be to provide leadership that removes those beliefs and thus the barriers, freeing people from old ways of working to achieve at their best.
The challenge is how you do that. Is it better to start by addressing peoples’ weaknesses? Or move them out of their comfort zone first? Or support their confidence by building on their track record of success to date?
The topic of individual development will be covered more fully in step three, the “Develop” section of this book. But let’s look at other ways to remove interference from people’s working lives. The prevailing culture is a great opportunity to create an environment in which people can be successful.
The Way We Do Things Around Here
What we mean by the “prevailing organizational culture” is more than the official story. Each department will have an unwritten code about the “way we do things around here.” These are the shared beliefs about the best way of working, expressed through people’s behaviors. These beliefs, and ways of working, can act as enablers or interference to people and teams.
The emotional intelligence work of Dulewicz and Higgs8 describes these in two categories: the “Rational-brain Focus” of strategies, goals, and objectives and the “Emotional-brain Focus” of vision, mission, and values. A marketing or sales department will have a very different set of goals and objectives (such as “relationship building” as a priority) than a finance department (“accuracy”). The challenge is to integrate the higher-defined needs of the organization, against the ways of working within departments, and align those invisible, emotional elements.
Helping people see how their department’s goals, targets, and objectives play into the bigger picture is a key part of that integration. It removes barriers to performance because people feel valued and successful when they know their contribution counts—and precisely how it counts.
Supporting honest conversations about the prevailing culture and values, in the light of the defined organizational purpose, and in service of stability where necessary, is also a key part of that integration. The priority is to preserve existing values where they add value to the organization and demonstrate this as a conscious choice.
Leadership and Taking New Directions
Likewise, if the decision is to shift away from an existing value, it also needs to be both conscious and explicit. Leaders need to dig deep and draw on their communication skills to facilitate this shift. An honest conversation is itself a values-driven exchange, and while people may not agree with the decisions made, or the route chosen, the clear explanation for the new direction is itself an honest position on which people can agree to disagree.
An example might be where a young, entrepreneurial company recognizes the need to shift toward a more stable state, perhaps bringing in policies and procedures to ensure consistency when rapid growth is happening. Chances are the existing teams won’t feel comfortable with this shift toward a more “rigid” or confined environment.
Increased bureaucracy, such as booking your holidays 3 months in advance, to make sure there’s cover to deal with customers and projects might be perceived as rigid or stultifying creativity. Addressing the cultural and values-related issues in this way is particularly important for the humanitarian clients for whom we work, often necessary when, in times of straitened circumstances, budgets have to be cut and efforts focused in a particular way.
Many such organizations are also being called upon to be more transparent, particularly in the way they handle and spend donor monies. This means that just delivering financial information is no longer enough. Access to high-quality, up-to-date information and presentations that show the flow between money out and projects delivered are vital to the donor confidence.
These requirements lead the staff to question why what was previously “good enough performance” is no longer enough. A values-based conversation, aligned to the organization’s goals, is a necessity. This is more than paying lip service to an organization’s charter or values statement. It requires an approach to leadership that succeeds in engaging and involving the staff in how these values play out—in their workplace context.
Mining for gold in current team members often requires an attitudinal shift in line managers and colleagues. It’s easy to fall into the rut of looking for what’s wrong in someone rather than catching them doing things right. The mining for gold process applies equally to the hire of external talent, such that, when it’s needed, every external hire can be supported to be most successful.
Recruiters often talk about the “right fit” to the organization and to the team; what often happens is that this is more about “recruiting people in my image” than real cultural “fit.” Mining for gold as a process of discovery is about uncovering what a new hire can really bring—as distinct from them presenting what you want to see. It’s not hard for an astute interviewee to see what’s going on over on the other side of the table and play to their audience.
It’s also possible to anticipate true “alignment”—at a deep level—long before the interview stage through situational profiling. One approach is to offer online situational judgment assessments, even before the CV-sifting process.
You can identify people likely to fit the organizational profile and reject those whose values really don’t fit. Or, if you’re looking for someone whose approach meets the need of the change, you’re better placed to consciously recruit someone outside of the current culture.
This is a practical way to filter people in or out by their attitude, not just aptitude. CVs, assessment centers, and interviews can all come later. One word of caution though: if the organization needs this kind of cultural shift, whether it’s the rapid turnaround of the organization or the maturing of an entrepreneurial start-up business, one leader alone won’t be enough.
I’ve seen too many solo, would-be hero leaders fail because they don’t have the support around them. This is why abundant leadership is vital. You need a team of leaders, fully on board, to make transformational organizational shifts. People who feel alone are less likely to succeed. Look at women at the board level; where there is a group of women sufficient to create comradeship and critical mass, success happens.
A study of corporate boards9 found it takes three women to really change the dynamic in the board room. A lone woman is made to feel she represents the “woman’s point of view and can be left out of decision making discussions and even social gatherings.” Adding a second woman helps. But the “magic seems to occur when three or more women serve on a board together,” the study concludes.
Suddenly, women are no longer seen as outsiders and their influence on the content and process of discussions increases substantially.
And, by mining for gold, you can discover who in your organization has the attitude and capacity to work well together and deliver the type of leadership you need.
Relentless Exploration, Simple Steps
Key to the discovery step is the need to mine for gold. The miners in the 1849 Gold Rush had simple tools to pan for nuggets of gold in the rivers and streams of California and the persistence to keep looking. In the FortonD4 method, mining for gold is relentlessly exploring what’s already available to the team and the organization before recruiting from outside.
This may take a change of attitude, and fresh thinking, to be reminded of the resources that already exist, identifying what’s untapped and then evaluating what’s really needed. It takes broad exploration rather than rushing into action and narrow thinking. It also takes realism, and yes, sometimes the right answer might well be that the external hire really is needed.
Worksheet: Stimulus Questions
This chapter is about digging a little deeper in the discovery phase, looking at the strategic needs of the organization, and, at the same time, maintaining business as usual. This means discovering the leadership talents and qualities needed for both types of role and uncovering the abundance of talent that already exists.
It also means looking at the culture and values of the organization and whether they’re fit for purpose in the future: whether that’s a turnaround situation or moving toward organizational maturity, such as from an entrepreneurial environment to one of more controlled growth.
Recap the Need from the “define” Step
- •What are the defined needs of the organization in terms of strategic leadership, that is, the future direction of the organization?
- •What are the defined leadership needs in terms of “business as usual?”
Optimize Your Induction Programs
- •How are you supporting people to be successful in new roles in terms of induction?
- •What’s working in your induction programs?
- •What needs to be different?
Review the Organization Values and Culture
- •Which values, that are important to people today, need to shift to deliver the future organizational vision?
- •What conversations do leaders need to have with their teams to support cultural change and transformation?
Mine for Gold
- •What tools do you already have, to identify the gold that already exists in your organization?
- •What more do you need to meet these needs?
2.Leadership Centre. n.d. Leadership for Change (London, UK: Chartered Management Institute).
3.B. Groysberg. 2010. Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
4.M. Bidwell. 2011. “Paying More to Get Less: The Effects of External Hiring versus Internal Mobility.” Administrative Science Journal 56, no. 3, pp. 369–407.
5.Cohen Bros. 1994. The Hudsucker Proxy (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros).
6.R. Syal. 2013. “Abandoned NHS IT System has Cost £10bn So Far,” Guardian.
7.W.T. Gallwey. 1999. The Inner Game of Work (New York, NY: Random House).
8.V. Dulewicz and M. Higgs. 2000. “Emotional intelligence—A review and evaluation study.” Journal of Managerial Psychology 15, no. 4, pp. 341–72.
9.V.W. Kramer, A.M. Konrad, and S. Erkut. 2006. Critical Mass and Corporate Boards: Why Three or More Women Enhance Governance (Wellesley, MA: Wellesley Centers for Women).