Talent Management: Reflections on Tom Davenport’s Observations

In the 5 February, 2011 Vancouver Sun an article titled “Strength in the middle is important to a company’s success” by Derek Sankey on page D13  outlined some perspectives by Tom Davenport on the role of supervisors to business success.

I found this article helpful and provoked some personal reflection.

Davenport’s first observation on promoting technically superior high potential people:

“The technical work still needs to be done – they’re the best after all – but now they also have to lead an entire team with probably very little training and the hours are longer.

We refer to this as the manager death spiral.”

I have observed this pattern over the years and it is one that is well recognized by many others. As readers know, I would express this as an issue about role performance expectations and Davenport seems to agree:

“…if you listen to a large percentage of employees, companies aren’t doing enough to redesign and redefine the roles of managers in today’s workplace.”

Davenport goes on to observe he is:

“…not surprised more people, particularly younger generations are becoming increasingly wary of taking on a promotion that may seem appealing at first.”

I too have observed and heard reported by others that it can be difficult to get people from within to aspire to first level managerial positions.

A final point by Davenport that echos one I have made in an earlier post is:

“The 21st century worker … want(s) the organization and their supervisor to create an environment where they can be successful and get out of the way.”

An intriguing issue for me is the dilemma regarding technical work where there is a requirement for due diligence regarding technical reviews. If the supervisor is the most senior/competent technical person in the work group and the need to do technical due diligence is expected then how does the supervisor do this in a manner that won’t in many cases be perceived and “getting in the way”? I am quite aware of how this can be done, but it also requires behaviourally anchored norms to be done well. This is good news as it it is a trainable matter.

I have also observed that organizations “top out” on how they can further recognize their most capable and proficient technical talent. At some point it means promoting them into a significantly non-technically oriented role. Going from full-time technical to even half-time will seem disorienting to many who fundamentally love the technical work.

I have observed technically oriented organizations tackle this conundrum with varying degrees of success. One approach that has demonstrated practical merit is to establish dual career path ladders: technical and non-technical.

An example I have worked on with clients is the specialist and principal engineering levels. These roles include the following:

  • From a compensation and stature perspective they mirror the first (technical specialist) and second (principal) level manager levels.
  • They take on the roles of doing due diligence and setting technical policy, thereby, reducing this need to be discharged by the managerial levels. This means the supervisor can better focus on the non-technical managerial aspects. This means that filling these roles is a matter of choosing someone who is well suited to getting into general management.
  • They formally represent the organization on technical policies and related standards at national and international levels (e.g., IEEE). They have authority in the organization on the technical aspects of business decisions.
  • They are active in the development of technical talent within the organization.
  • And, in some cases they act as a senior advisory panel (Blue Ribbon Technical Committee) on business strategy issues by commenting on the technical implications of strategic choices.

I am by inclination, somewhat partial to choices that keep role expectations as clear and simple as possible. Like Davenport I have observed (as well as heard the concerns of others) that the blending of the technical and non-technical can be very difficult especially when both aspects entail significant importance.

As attractive as this approach is there is one significant consequence that requires work:

Knowing how to share the leadership responsibility between the two leadership roles. Knowing how to “play respectfully nice together” and to establish clear understanding on how those who report in to these roles are to behave is critical.



About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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