What If All Employees Were Top Talents?

Please follow me in a thought experiment for a minute, ok? Here it goes: What if all employees in your organization were top talents…? Then what would your corporate processes and policies look like? My guess is, that they would look radically different from today.

What If All Employees Were Top Talents?

Isabel Monera Mortensgaard


min read

January 19, 2021

When rummaging through the toolbox of innovation workshops, you may bump into the “what if”-question. The purpose of this question is to look at the world from a different perspective. When approaching a problem, we are often unconsciously constrained by how things are today and by our assumptions about what is possible. Consequently, we may merely be adjusting existing — possibly outdated — solutions instead of exploring and rethinking the problem field. Asking a bold “what if”-question may help us do the ladder.

In this post, I ask “what if all employees in your organization were top talents?”. And before we try answering that question, we probably need to describe a top talent (or “high potential” if you prefer that term). As definitions vary (trust me: I’ve been in corporate roles struggling to make unambiguous definitions), I believe the following traits are commonly shared across corporations and academia when defining talent:

Competence — talents are good at what they do and have a track record of excellent results.

Learning agility — talents recover quickly from setbacks and demonstrate a growth mindset and ability to take on more complexity.

Interpersonal skills — talents possess social sensitivity, collaborate well with others, and build valuable relations and networks.

Strong drive — talents are ambitious and self-motivated to deliver excellent results.

Role model — talents show ethical behavior and enact the company values.

So, with that definition in mind, let’s embark on our thought experiment…

Step-by-step documentation?

What would your policies look like if they were written for top talents only? We can take the travel policy as an example. In many companies, the travel policy includes strict guidelines for maximum costs, manager approval, and time-consuming step-by-step documentation of expenditures. Sounds familiar? Would this also be the case if all employees fit the top talent description?

If you were to re-design the travel policy from a basic belief that people act responsibly and know that every minute spent on travel documentation, takes away time from value-creating activities, chances are, that you would make it much simpler.

In Netflix, which claims to have a ‘talent dense’ population, the expense policy is super simple and boiled down to the sentence: “Act in Netflix’ best interest”. No heavy processes or approvals. Instead, they demonstrate a trustful approach to employees, saving them hours of administrative work. The result? Costs declined when they introduced the policy because the responsibility was shifted to people rather than being outsourced to an impersonal company policy.

Zero-sum course budget negotiation?

What would employee development look like? Having a process based on an annual development meeting with the manager will likely not satisfy a mind hungry for development opportunities and growth. Neither will manager-controlled, tight course budgets to be negotiated in a zero-sum game. Nevertheless, these are the building blocks of employee development in many companies.

I talked to a competence development professional at Google a couple of years ago. She stated that Google has the philosophy that everyone in Google is considered a talent. Hence, they don’t have talent development programs for a selected few, instead, they invest hugely in making great development opportunities (courses, projects, mentorships, role switches, etc.) accessible to everyone, expecting people to be pro-active and self-driven in their own skills and career development. Again, an example of an approach made with a talented self-driven person in mind.

You may continue the thought experiment on your own.

What would be the role of leaders, if they regarded everyone in their team as competent, self-motivated, and hungry for learning?

Would performance management still be based on annual targets, documentation, and secretive calibration sessions, where management teams place people in 9-grid boxes determining their future opportunities in the company? Most likely not…

Do you hold a human view X or Y?

Now, I know that Netflix and Google are probably privileged with a candidate pool that most companies can only dream of. And needless to say, that all employees do not fit the talent criteria listed above. Nevertheless, what would be the consequences of (re-)designing our processes and policies with a persona of a top talent in mind?

In the late 1950s, leadership professor Douglas McGregor presented two different views on people, which he termed theory X and Y. While theory X holds the belief that people dislike work, are lazy, and motivated by money and punishment (carrot and stick), theory Y states that people are intrinsically motivated. They want to assume responsibility, perform and realize their potential given the right conditions.

Whether we hold a human view X or Y, has a huge impact on how we design our systems, processes, and policies.

A corporate blindspot

Today, most modern organizations would declare that they hold a human view Y, which is backed up by glossy posters of corporate values promoting e.g. trust, openness and respect.

However, if we start dissecting many corporate processes and policies, it becomes clear that they are in fact built on principles of control, distrust, and monetary rewards — in other words: the human view X. Corporate values are not translated into processes and systems. This creates a disconnect between what is officially communicated in vision and values statements and what is conveyed to people through the processes that they encounter on a daily basis.

It seems as if we have a corporate blind spot when it comes to what assumptions about people are actually underpinning our corporate processes. And as the work of culture guru Edgar Schein states, our underlying assumptions shape our culture. Our culture shapes our behavior. People take cues from the culture to guide their daily actions and decision making. Hence, designing for human view X may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is also backed by the Rosenthal effect (also known as the Pygmalion effect); the psychological phenomenon that articulating high expectations to people will lead to improved performance. Conversely, communicating low expectations may lead to reduced performance.

And thus, we’re back where we started. What if we designed our organization for top talents? Communicating through our processes, policies, rewards, etc. that we have high expectations to people to be self-driven, trust-worthy, collaborating, and constantly learning.

What culture and behavior could this catalyze? Would documentation and bureaucracy be reduced? And most importantly: Might we actually get organizations full of top talents?

3 places to start:

  1. Look at selected current processes and have a discussion about what they would look like, were they designed for top talents.
  2. Try a small-scale experiment. If you believe a process could be improved, try it out in a small fraction of the company to see what happens.
  3. Use a persona, or — even better — take a design thinking approach when creating a new process. The steps of design thinking help exploring the problem field, uncover hidden assumptions and clarify who you are designing for in order to create the right solutions.

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Notes & references:

  • “What if”-question are often applied in the Design Thinking framework
  • Example of talent definition: https://hbr.org/2010/06/are-you-a-high-potential
  • The Netflix culture: https://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr, or: The No Rules Rules, Hastings & Meyer, 2020
  • Theory X and Y: The Human Side of Enterprise, Douglas McGregor, 1960
  • Organizational culture: Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein, 1985
  • The Rosenthal effect: Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupil’s intellectual development, Rosenthal & Lenore, 1992
  • Image credits: Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

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