Taking on the quest of talent liberation

Your organisation is a veritable smorgasbord of knowledge. I know this because our content marketing agency is too. Yet when most of us are asked to rate the breadth, depth and volume of knowledge at our disposal, we score ourselves pretty low, all while rambling on about the skills shortage and how we “just can’t get the talent nowadays”. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you to stop complaining and start celebrating the knowledge you have in your company, even if it isn’t the sort you were banking on.

Here’s why: Those with the knowledge – the skills – we generally value are our top 10%. These are the people we promote first, the ones we go out of our way to keep, and the ones we shower with praise. They’re our high performers and we call them our ‘talent’.

Then there is the remaining 90%: Average employees who come and go. Organisations waste hundreds of hours each year thinking about how they can bring this group close to the standard of the 10% by correcting their faults. They make little headway in this endeavour yet they keep trying. Why? Because historically we have always focused on eradicating weakness to make ourselves stronger. This is the whole premise of evolution after all and surely the only way the average among us can hope to one day be regarded as talent, right?

Nope. No, no, no. Not at all.

Let’s take a random employee – we’ll call him Ben. Ben is struggling to work on software X. He’s becoming a dead weight to his team and is growing more and more disengaged. Every day we spend time trying to correct Ben’s flaws. Eventually, he becomes passable on software X.

Now, let’s paint a different picture. It becomes clear that Ben is rubbish on software X. However, he’s brilliant on software Y. We make the decision to let Ben spend more time using his strength. Now he’s adding loads of value and coming up with innovations right, left and centre. Ben is our talent. Ben’s good!

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We call this talent liberation and it’s pretty damn important.

Getting to grips with talent liberation

Talent liberation is a philosophy created by consultancy firm Primeast. They believe that organisations reach prime performance when they recognise, value, develop and use the unique talents of all their people in the delivery of their objectives.

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What this essentially means is focusing on strength rather than weakness and unlocking and celebrating the knowledge you actually have in your business – opposed to lusting after something else – in order to create the most value.

In his book ”Designing the purposeful organisation’, Clive Wilson, director at Primeast, explained how he interviewed professionals and chief executive officers at organisations like Google, Asa and Deutsche Bank. He found that in these big successful companies the C-suite believed that everyone in their company had talent, without exception. Their key to success was ensuring talent was recognised, valued and put to use.

When you think about it, there’s a clear logic: I’m pretty awesome at white papers (just FYI) but not so good at writing about anything to do with numbers. Give me white papers and I’m valuable. Make me write finance features and I’m average. Not to mention grumpy. It’s a no-brainer how Axonn should let me spend my time and by doing so it ‘liberates’ me from something I’m bad at.

Talent liberation vs. talent management

I want to make clear here that talent liberation isn’t the same as talent management. Talent management is a term coined in the late 90s by McKinsey and Company for what was essentially making the most of the 10%. Nowadays it is moving closer towards the concept of talent liberation but there are still some elitist overtones.

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We can see this in the definitions of ‘talent’ and ‘talent management’ created by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development:

“Talent consists of those individuals who can make a difference to organisational performance either through their immediate contribution or, in the longer-term, by demonstrating the highest levels of potential.

“Talent management is the systematic attraction, identification, development, engagement, retention and deployment of those individuals who are of particular value to an organisation, either in view of their ‘high potential’ for the future or because they are fulfilling business/operation-critical roles.”

By contrast, talent liberation is always about recognising, using and developing the knowledge and skills of all employees – not just the 10%.

Why is talent liberation so important?

So by now you might be thinking: “This sounds lovely but why should I care?” It’s a question I asked myself when I first heard of talent liberation. A firm believer in the value of the 10%, I was sceptical that we should abandon correcting our weaknesses. However, after speaking to Primeast, doing a bit of reading and thinking about our own people at Axonn Media, I started to change my mind.

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I did this for a few simple reasons:

  1. My industry has a skills shortage. Adobe’s Digital Roadblock Report 2015 found that 40% of marketers feel they don’t have the skills to perform their jobs successfully. This got me thinking: “How can anyone train up this many people to not only be competent but become ‘talent’?”

  2. I’m not superwoman. As the learning and education coordinator it would be my job to upskill people. If the skills shortage is as bad as they say it is, there would be no way I could get everyone to the level of competency that would add value.

  3. I realised our people are super talented. I hear people who work at our content marketing agency talk about the projects they’re doing and what’s going on in the industry all the time. I listen to them in training sessions sharing intelligent answers and ideas with the group. I read the thought leadership content they create. What I’m struck by every time is how talented they actually are. They know so many things and add value in different, unique ways. How could we undermine this by trying to make them all carbon copies of each other, rather than letting them do what they’re good at?

  4. When I force people to do things they’re miserable. Generally when I make people learn how to do things they’re not good at or don’t enjoy, they get disheartened, disengaged, and mad at me.

I’m sure the above sounds familiar to a lot of you, and if you don’t decide to abandon your plans to address weakness, you’ll never get out of this loop. By working instead on developing people’s strengths, you’ll find that employees are much happier, more motivated and engaged. Consequently, output will improve and you’ll find your business is able to do things you never even thought of, whether that’s a new product coming to market or a different way of working.

How can you liberate talent?

For talent liberation to work, the belief that everyone has talent has to be an intrinsic part of your organisation, woven into your purpose, philosophy and vision. At Axonn this has manifested in the recognition that in order to make content marketing simple (our purpose as an organisation) we need every single person who works for us. They each add value in different ways and help us achieve our goals. By building talent liberation into the fabric of who you are as a company like this, you are committing to the quest.

You then need processes to facilitate talent liberation. For example, if you believe it’s important to identify and develop strengths, you can’t have an appraisal process that focuses on weaknesses. Similarly, you can’t pay lip service to strength development and not offer training or progression opportunities.

This all links to hiring too. It’s important you don’t bring people into the company who believe only in the 10% and protect their own knowledge to increase personal value. At Axonn one of our company values is ‘love to learn and share‘, which means we have a culture where everyone is eager to share their expertise with everyone else. It’s all about wanting each other to flourish and for success to involve everyone, not just a small few.

Finally, you need to make sure leaders liberate themselves first. Those at the top need to be able to map their own strengths to the purpose of the business before they can start helping everyone else. Once they understand where they add value, they can liberate others.

Of course, this isn’t a one-off task. Talent liberation is an ongoing process and you constantly need to review how everyone’s knowledge is helping the company deliver against its purpose. Without this check in, there is a risk that people could go off on a tangent. For instance, I could be writing white papers long after they’ve failed to be an effective form of content if I didn’t have my managers to reel me back in.

And the quest begins…

With the business environment only getting more and more competitive, we need to find approaches for challenging ways of working that simply don’t work anymore. Focusing on weaknesses has got us as far as we can go and now it’s time for strength.

My advice is this: stop trying to do the impossible and learn to work with what you have. It’s a journey I’m only beginning myself but I’m fully bought into it and I know that if we stick with it the places we could go as a company are endless.

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