The Bottom Third

Elite sporting teams build a development culture because they know their performance can be dramatically influenced by the bottom third of players.

Discussing the many upsets and surprises in the 2016 AFL season with friends I was reminded that the performance of an elite team can be heavily influenced by the bottom third of its players. A champion forward is of little value if the ball never gets there due to errors on the way.  A champion midfielder loses value when their disposals are wasted. Even the best backs in the world can’t stop a consistent flood of attack due to the weakness of their peers.

Teams over Stars

Everyone has stars. Great stars will take you a long way. However exceptional talent is hard to come by and harder to retain. When it comes to the games that matter, great talents are also likely to be matched by great talent in the opposing teams. Everyone focuses on recruiting, rewarding and developing their stars. 

When you get to the games that matter, team performance will win you the game. Team performance is about collaboration, people playing their role and outperforming the entire other team, not one or two individuals. In that scenario, where star power is usually closely matched, consistently high performance is about the performance of all players. The game can be shaped by the relative performance of the two bottom thirds in how well they execute, learn and collaborate.

Now many use this rationale to adopt ruthlessness to drive performance edge, cut poor performers and replace them with new talent. At GE, Jack Welch was famous for recommending the bottom 10% of performers be cut, a practice that is widely copied. Accountability through choice of who is on the team is required in any high performance environment. 

Develop the Team

However, teams come together from groups of individuals working in concert. The stars need to work alongside everyone else. Stars need support.  More importantly, better performances come when everyone lifts their performance together. The collective effort determines the outcome. 

There is not always enough top talent available. The attraction of your organisation to top talent often depends on the team culture and particularly how you invest to develop everyone. Even Jack Welch and the successful GE organisation he led recognised that a development culture was important. Lifting the middle and bottom third through work on the development of people’s capabilities and by creating a great team culture is critical to sustained high performance.

Your Bottom Third

At an individual level, elite athletes recognise that there are good days and bad days of performance. Making sure that the bottom third of performance is better through mastery, practice and experience is critical to their ongoing careers. The bad moments are those where you fall back on elite disciplines and experience to see you through.

When you are good, you are good. How good are you when you are awful? How you use the least effective third of your time plays a key role in ongoing performance.

Talent matters. Investing in a team culture and the development of all individuals including the bottom third will matter to sustained performance.

The Future of Work is Flexible Talent

Your organisation has amazing talent. They want to grow, develop and make a big impact on the world. So why risk losing them over the constraints of a job.

Little boxes

You want digital talent but your employment agreement prevents their involvement in any other business activities or any forms of collaboration externally. You want thought leaders but your media policy prevents people from speaking externally. Your top talent wants development but it’s hard to find an internal program to meet their needs but you can’t pay for an external one. You ask your talent to report to people they don’t respect and wonder why they leave.

Your little boxes are killing your talent.


On the street today I ran into a former colleague who works full time and consults on days of unpaid leave. Another friend is a global thought leader who speaks on days he’s not being paid by his global organisation. The list of people who dabble in businesses on the side is huge.

When innovation is at the edge and learning happens mostly by experience, these are the opportunities that your talent craves. Release the shackles. Let them after it.

Set some ground rules. In each case above the successful examples involve simple ground rules against double dipping, conflicts and confidentiality. These rules are so obvious your talent will sort it out anyway.

None of these people worry about delivering their performance expectations because they are managed to outcomes. They have the autonomy, the coaching and trust to get the job done (& do more).

Remove the boxes and you will be thrilled with what your employees bring back to the organisation. Most importantly, create a flexible mix that is unique to the pair of you and they will stay.

Talent is not an Asset. Talent needs a Community

Reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work for insight into working out loud, I came across the concept of a scenius coined by Brian Eno.  The idea of a scenius is that great talents arise from scenes that foster them. Great talent arises from interactions in an ecology of talent.

What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people – some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work. – Brian Eno

There isn’t a War for Talent

Talent isn’t oil. We haven’t yet reached peak talent. There is plenty of untapped wells of talent left.

The concept of a War for Talent has motivated organisational HR departments and executives ever since a McKinsey Quarterly article coined the phrase in 1998. The article related to changing demographics of people entering the workforce that lasts to 2015.

McKinsey’s original war has almost run its race (& even been made more redundant by the forces of a changing economy). We might have arguments about new Wars for Talent now, but the competitive and hoarding nature of the concept has inspired managers ever since. Why wouldn’t you want to hoard the largest stock of talent? Why wouldn’t you want to win in the competition for a scarce resource?

The War for Talent also had another unintended consequence in organisations. Because acquisition was easy to measure, it focused organisations on the battle for talent external to the organisation. Internal talent was often inadvertently devalued in comparison to the battle to win new talent. Internal talent was rated on potential and regularly decimated. The focus on those rated high potential talent was retention. For the middle range there was little focus on deployment, development or growth in potential.

The scenius idea highlights why so many organisations that have pursued a stock oriented approach to talent have discovered that it fails to deliver.  Talent is not a stock to be possessed. It is a flow that grows through connection, purposeful work and community.

Talent needs a Community 

Organisations that have tried to hoard talented people generally find that their talent decays or departs quickly. The half-life of a stock hoarded talent is short. 

The surest way to lose talented people is to disconnect them from inspirations, deprive them of purpose and underemploy their skills and expertise. The hoarding mindset encouraged organisations to do exactly this. Organisations wanted to disconnect their talent from others who might poach them. They wanted to have more talent than they needed ‘just in case’ and sought to deploy talented people in roles that weren’t stretching them to have a pipeline of future talent ready.

In contrast, a community of talented people grows in number and skills. Talented people grow through the interactions in a scenius, their networks or other learning communities. They grow by reaching out to the example of others, by stretching the use of their skills and by learning against great challenges, not by sitting on a shelf waiting to be deployed.

Once you see the flow of network interactions within which talented people operate it becomes clearer that all the talent need not be inside your organisation. Organisations need to foster value in their talented people by purposefully networking your organisation.  

Organisations need to recognise that talent will be active participants in the flow of knowledge and learning experiences outside the organisation too. All employees should be encouraged to reach out into networks because it develops the talent of everyone in the organisation and gives your organisation greater access to the real strategic benefit of those networks.

Talents grow when they are deployed against challenges. Make sure your people have the opportunity to realise their potential in the flow of interactions around them. Give all your employees the chance to grow and leverage their talents in networks.

Bad Bosses are Survived or Escaped

Nobody leaves a company. They leave a bad boss when there’s no other reason to stay. Great bosses who understand the value of networks, offer support, development and challenge are a critical part of your talent network. Are you addressing the core of what attracts the network of talent to your organisation?

Bad bosses are diminishers of the talent of their people.  They destroy what value their people create.

I worked for a diminisher once. After a year in which my business exceeded its goals, with help from a great team, favourable circumstances and my colleagues in the business, I was told in my annual performance appraisal that “a drover’s dog could have achieved that result”. (Drover’s dog is one of the more flexible bits of Australian idiom, but the phrase’s most recent meaning which comes from politics is that a drover’s dog is a non-entity).  I would have been happy to discuss the many contributions to my team’s success, but that phrase left me with nothing more to say. I thought it unkind when my boss repeated the phrase to my leadership team colleagues a week or so later in a meeting, but if you can’t take unkind words, then corporate life is not for you. However, the moment that hurt most was when it was used again to describe my and my team’s performance at the end of year dinner in a speech to the leadership team and spouses. 

Who did it hurt? My boss, not me. By that point, I was used to the comment. Remember the actions of a diminisher says more about them than their team. The dinner guests were disturbed by the comment, especially the spouses who knew how hard their partners worked. While the comment was directed at me, it was a signal of what everyone could expect from such a boss.

Because the issues with bad bosses are usually their own concerns, it is rare that a bad boss will change without a major personal catharsis.  Few employees have coached a bad boss to better performance. Sadly that means that employees of bad bosses need focus on survival or escape. Survival will require employees to leverage their reputations, their networks & their mentors.  They need to work more transparently and deliver stellar performance. These actions can help replace missing leadership and build support to survive the assaults. Survival is hard work because a bad boss will focus their attentions on survivors as a point of resistance. Escape is by far the easier and better option. The organisation is the loser.

Do you know the diminishers in your organisation? They are easy enough to find as your networks will tell you all you need to know. If your organisation has bad bosses, change them, remove them or avoid them.

Remember it takes great talent to survive a bad boss, but most won’t. Great talent has better things to do than play defence. The networks of great talent offer too much opportunity. Even a drover’s dog knows when it is time to run away.

Your Future Talent is in Your Networks

Focus on your networks. Your future talent is in your organisation’s networks.

Few organisations have all the talent they want or they need to cope with future changes. If you are lucky and have managed your people well, you will have enough talented people to get by. When you start to focus on talent, you quickly realise that the answer to managing talent is not to manage within hierarchy. Managing talent within a hierarchy will only get you so far.  The answer to great talent lies in managing the talent in your network and draw them closer to your organisation. 

Manage your network, offer your organisation as a network knowledge hub and you can attract the talent needed to develop new capabilities for your organisation.

No Hierarchy Has Enough Talent

Great organisations invest in developing their people for the future. But rapid change makes that an exercise of great challenges. Just as organisations can no longer keep up with the change of the network economy, they can no longer keep up with the network’s ability to build new capabilities:

  • New information: Your network knows what your organisation does not. Opening your organisation to its network allows you to learn and share more information with your people. This learning is critical in filling blindspots and generating insights.
  • Diverse Experiences: Your organisation does what it does best. That experience must be less rich than the networks around your organisation. The rest of the networks are developing richly diverse experiences with new learning.  Some small part of that experience might be of value in future. Think of rich diversity of experience as experiments you don’t have to pay to run. However, you will want to watch the outcomes carefully to know where to look when you need.
  • Diverse Capabilities: New strategies demand new capabilities that differ from those of the past. These can be learned slowly. Often it is hard work for them to be bought or borrowed when needed urgently to meet the pace of change.
  • Rich Interactions: Your organisation may need new information, new customers, new distribution channels or new suppliers for its new strategy. Who is building those networks and connections now? How can you leverage their work rather than rebuild it all yourself at a cost of money and time? Even if you are going to build it, who can do that for you?

Your Network is a Rich Source of Talent

The talent to propel your business can be found in many places around your organisation.

  • Competitors, Suppliers and Partners: Do you know who is helping others with the capabilities that you need to succeed? Individuals with the critical capabilities for your business can be found in your organisation’s competitors, suppliers and partners.
  • Other leaders: In times of change, it is likely that the capabilities are best found in leaders from other industries or individuals with different & unique sets of experiences. Have you gone looking in new and different places?
  • Employees: Your employees often know people with the right skills and experience.  Their friends and networks will often be talented people just like them. Do you engage these people?
  • Customers: Passionate customers intimately understand your products, processes and experiences. They can be the ultimate advocates and champions for your business. When did you last consider hiring or exchanging talent with a customer?
  • Community: If your business has a physical location, then there is a good chance that the attractiveness of that community plays a large part in the appeal of your organisation to potential employees. Play a role in that community to make it a better place to live.  Help make your comment a knowledge hub.  Through those interactions will also get a change to understand the talent in your local markets.

Now the talent is there. What have you done about it?

From Acquisition to Attraction

In the hierarchical model of talent, the language is that of command and control:

  • talent is acquired (often at great cost and temporarily)
  • talent is owned (though the talent likely disagrees)
  • talent is deployed (often over the career goals of the talent)
  • talent is managed (but the talent may or may not participate fully)
  • talent is developed (when the talent engages in learning anything)

The parentheses highlight the choices that talented have in a highly networked economy. That choice does not favour command and control. The barriers to information, choice and change for talented people continue to fall. Organisational change has broken traditional loyalty-career trade-offs.  New models of organisations and new flexibility of working make a traditional hierarchical organisational career highly unlikely.

In a networked model of talent, the focus needs to be attraction – Can we access the required talent when we need for as long as we need? This opens new focuses in the management of talent:

  • Knowledge: Do we know where that talent is in our networks?
  • Connection: Have we made a connection with our target talent now for the future?
  • Exchange: How have we shared value with those talented people in our networks we might need in future? How do we make our organisation a hub?
  • Attraction: What can we do to draw them closer to our organisation? How can we encourage them to share with us and enhance our attraction as a hub of the network? How can we accelerate the rate of this sharing?

When we shift to a network model, we may never own the talent we need. There are all sorts of flexible models that may allow the organisation to buy, borrow or partner with individuals to use their capabilities to meet the goals of the organisation. The best talent for the job may only be available or needed on a temporary basis.

Make your organisation an attractive knowledge hub and you can benefit form the dynamic talents of a vibrant network.

Fair Weather Talent

When times are tough is when talent matters most.

Many organisations invest in talent. They understand the importance of investment in and engagement of great people to the success of a business.

Looking after people is easy when times are good. However, we all know the true test of character is what happens when times are tough, there is a crisis, or a decision needs to be made that impacts one’s own interests. These are often the moments when you need your talent most engaged to help lead change.

The impression you create for the talented people in your business will depend on your behaviour in these times of adversity. They will judge your commitment to people and your character on how you make decisions in these moments.

Your decisions probably won’t be the same. Nobody should expect consistency of decisions when things change. However, it is important to be consistent with the approaches and the values of the good times, no matter how hard it is.

If you can remain consistent in your approaches and values, then your people will reward your commitment to talent with greater engagement. Be a fair weather manager of talent and your people will remember.

Competency or Capability? Mindsets Matter

Competency and capability are near synonyms. However I find there is a world of difference in the mindset that lies behind each measure of individual development. The difference in mindset has major ramifications for careers, talent development and diversity. The two mindsets raise different questions when assessing individuals.

I have personal experience of the difference. When I have failed to win a role that I sought, the feedback is almost always framed in terms of lack of a demonstrated competency. However when I win new roles it is rarely because I had a demonstrated competency in the area of expertise that defined the role. My career has been based on bringing my set of capabilities to address the challenges and needs of each role.

Competency Mindsets vs Capability Mindsets

Discussions framed around competency are often conducted with a mindset of assessing an individual against a defined standard. Often competencies are defined quite specifically and related to limited areas of expertise. Compentencies are often seen as tools to enable someone to do a job. Competency assessment is much more likely to be oriented to formal qualifications, demonstrated prior experience or demonstration of specifically determined skills in action.  People seek to define a fixed goal for a skill relying heavily on past performance. Reaching competency is often seen as the end of the road for that skill. That mindset can be quite limiting in assessment & development of individuals.

Capability as a mindset should be focused on the ability to deliver an outcome, not a test score. Capabilites tend to be seen as infrastructure to achieve an outcome. This mindset tends to be more general, more open to allow more room for the application of other or similar skills and explicitly allows for a talented individual to prove a potential to show their ability in future.

Considering capabilities allows an individual to choose how to tackle at problems, roles or situations. Importantly, there is much less likely to be a defined limit to a capability which allows for the development of greater mastery over time.

Talent Development

A mindset of building competency in the development of talent often leaves the talent wondering why their career is not in their control. Talented people feel limited when pursuing competencies as a series of boxes to be ticked to progress to the next opportunity. There is little chance to skip ahead and prove the potential that made them talent in the first place.

Disruptive change also means that many narrow competencies individuals acquire can become rapidly irrelevant. At the very beginning of my career, I was quite proficient in the use of Wang messaging systems.  Thankfully my more general capabilities in communication supported my future career as email and now social technologies succeeded that now redundant system.

Focusing instead on the ability to achieve outcomes and building capability towards those outcomes gives the individual greater latitude to shape their career.  It also allows greater opportunity to demonstrate that ability in new or different roles that may not have the typical opportunity to show competency at a task.

Our Changing Future Demands Capability not Competency

In a rapidly changing world, defining the standard or even the actions required in a role in advance is challenging.  Organisations increasingly need to shift to outcome based performance measurement with less specific direction on tasks.  

The defined hierarchies that enabled graduated assessment of competencies and detailed command and control process management are proving more and more challenging to manage.  Flatter organisations are more focused on capabilities required to execute strategy.  Networked organisations help us see that the required capabilities+ may well exist in any part of the organisation’s network.  

We need people to bring diverse skills to solve new challenges and we need people to engage with their roles to build a continuous improvement in capabilities.  Allowing people the rewards of movement to mastery in any capability is critical to engagement.  

Merit: Think Capability, not Competency

Merit is a contentious issue in diversity. Often merit is used as an excuse for poor diversity outcomes. Merit can clearly influenced by conscious and unconscious bias. However, when discussing merit we are often unclear whether we mean merit considered on a competency or capability basis.  

Merit measured as competency tends to favour those who have had the opportunity to build prior knowledge and experience. Competency favours the usual suspects. Focusing instead on capability opens opportunities to consider new candidates and allows greater consideration of potential.

Any individual who has had limited opportunity to be fostered earlier in their career is likely to perform better in a mindset focused on their talent potential and ability to deliver, rather than prior experience or accrued skills.

Look Forward to Capability

The distinction between competency and capability is not one that is hard and fast. What this distinction does is open a new question in our decision making. Next time you are considering a role or a candidate reflect on whether there is a difference in your decisions if you look back to a competency or forward to capability. 

Perceptions matter

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere – Martin Luther King Jr.

I am passionate advocate for diversity. I have seen the power of different perspectives, skills and backgrounds working together. Embracing diversity enables us to leverage the potential of all the world’s talents. We all need to advocate for more equal treatment of others.

If you consider this an issue for others, remember this. Discrimination is about perceptions. People are discriminated against because of what they are perceived to be and what that is assumed to mean. Gender, age, race, creed, sexual orientation, and any of the many other bases are all simply proxies for flawed human perceptions.

Perceptions can and will be wrong. Discriminatory perceptions are almost certainly guaranteed to be wrong. In a world that accommodates discrimination, you can never predict which side you will fall of the arbitrary line of these views.

There are too many reasons why someone, including you, might be in the wrong camp. I have seen people form false & prejudicial perceptions for reasons as silly as the colour of clothing, a person’s way of talking or the colour of hair. Silly as the reason may be the prejudice based on perception was real. That anyone should have to continue to experience prejudice is intolerable.

Don’t leave the fate of the talent in your organisation to arbitrary perceptions. Silence is not a strategy and cultural issues will not work themselves out in time. Take steps to address any issues:

  • make clear your own position, advocate for equality of opportunity and treatment and create a culture that calls inappropriate behaviours
  • go talk to those in your organisation who may be at risk of experiencing discrimination and listen to the stories of what is occurring
  • examine your own unconscious biases and encourage others to do the same 
  • make changes in people, policies and processes to foster a more representative organisation 

When nobody has to worry about the flawed perceptions of others, we are all better off.

The One Characteristic of Great Leaders

One characteristic makes great leaders stand out. The characteristic is not their performance. All leaders, good and bad can drive performance.

So what defines a great leader?

Great leaders make you better than you are. Great leaders make you better than you think you can be. They connect people with purpose, provide context and grow capabilities. They lift people up and help them realise potential.

The best leaders in my career helped me understand the context, challenged me to live my purpose and the organisation’s purpose, coached continuously and shared their experience, wisdom and lessons. They were also the most ruthless in providing feedback and setting stretching targets. They expected more and trusted you to deliver.

If you are a leader, don’t put up the drawbridge, drop down a ladder. Focus on how your people can stretch and grow. Build a strong pipeline of successors. Become an engine of talent for the business.

If you aren’t yet a leader, look out for the leaders who develop their people and grow their opportunities. Who you work for can be more important than the role in advancing your career. Ask yourself if you can begin to develop others in what you do now.