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How to Scale, Part 1: Talent

“Sometimes it just comes down to, ‘Will this person embarrass me?’”

A client recently expressed the desire to develop the qualities that would help him grow from being the kind of leader who can run a $200m business to the kind of leader who can run a business of $1bn or more. I have some opinions on what those qualities are since I’ve worked with a number of leaders who made this kind of jump in scale—some successfully, some not—and other leaders who were never given the chance to try. Rather than rely on my own outsider view, however, I decided to ask a dozen or so leaders who have been successful in roles where they had P & L responsibility of $1bn or more what they think those qualities are. I also asked a few HR leaders who have supported general managers at this level.talent-management

I was surprised by their responses. Actually, not necessarily by the content of their responses, but by their responsiveness. I could tell that I hit on a question that these leaders were interested in. For such busy people, their answers, even when short, were thoughtful and precise. Their responses showed that this was the kind of question that these people spent a lot of time thinking about (which is probably one of the reasons why they are in the positions they are in…).

There were a number of themes in their responses, such as balancing strategic focus with execution discipline, the ability to manage complexity, and the ability to communicate a consistent and clear vision throughout the organization. But probably the quality that came through the most loud and clear was the ability to find, develop, and appropriately deploy talent at all levels of the organization, along with an ability and willingness to deal with under-performers and not let underperformance linger in their organization.

Dealing with talent clearly mattered to these people, and a number of them said that they spend up to half of their time on matters related to talent. Think about that for a moment—50% of their time…

Unfortunately, there is no secret formula for managing talent, but leaders should become as conscious and deliberate about talent as they can be. They should think about and create their own personal process, but be flexible in that process.

They should think about and develop philosophy or set of basic guidelines for finding talent, for developing the people that work for them, and for ensuring that people are deployed in the right roles. They should also develop a philosophy or set of guidelines for addressing performance issues and moving under-performers either into a role where they can be successful or move them out of the organization.

Rather than present a set of guidelines, I here propose some questions for leaders to consider while creating their own guidelines, separated into a few categories.


Finding Talent

  • Am I consistently evaluating people I meet outside of the company and considering them as potential talent? (Good leaders are always foraging for talent.)
  • Am I building a reputation as being the kind of leader that talented people want to work for?
  • Where/how have I been successful in finding talent in the past? Am I over-relying on a particular talent pool (such as a former company)? Am I under-utilizing any of those pools?
  • How strong is my HR organization in finding talent?
  • Do we use the best recruiters we can find?


Developing Talent

  • Do I give regular, in-the-moment, and specific feedback to people in a candid but constructive way?
  • Have I identified top talent and given them the tools and opportunities to grow? Do I coach them and regularly ask about their career goals? Do I remain objective in my evaluations of them, or do I let my personal feelings or history with them get in the way?
  • Do I solicit feedback from their key stakeholders on their performance in a transparent way?
  • Am I demanding that my subordinates have the same focus on talent that I do and that a talent mindset is being cascaded down through the organization?
  • Am I ensuring that those people who are solid talent (but perhaps not top-talent) are remaining engaged and challenged?
  • Do I give feedback to my peers on the talent in their organizations in a fair and objective way? (Criticism—even when intended as constructive—of someone else’s subordinates should only be offered when absolutely necessary or when solicited; positive feedback should be offered liberally.)
  • Who are my potential successors? (One of the most important questions a leader can ask!) What is the timeline for their succession readiness? What gaps exist before they could succeed me? What am I doing to help them close those gaps? Do they need development in hard skills, soft skills, or simply more time in their role?


Deploying Talent

  • Are my people in the right roles?
  • Who can be given more challenges? Who should have their scope reduced, narrowed, or modified?
  • Am I rotating people at the right cadence so they don’t get bored but also don’t feel overwhelmed?
  • Who is a flight risk or recruitment risk? Do I need to keep them? How can I do so?


Addressing Non-performance

Dealing with non-performance is rarely a technical matter—any decent HR department can provide the necessary guidance on how to move someone out of their role or out of the company. Rather, it is usually an emotional matter—people either fear conflict or let sentiment get in the way—or they don’t have a replacement ready. The points above should take care of the latter issue. When it comes to the emotional challenges, leaders should ask themselves:

  • Is my avoidance of conflict making matters worse in the long run? How smart is that?
  • Am I really doing this person a favor by letting this drag on?
  • Am I alienating other subordinates by tolerating this situation?
  • How am I jeopardizing my success and reputation, the success of the team, and the success of the company by allowing this to continue?
  • How would I want to be treated in this situation?

Michael Mauboussin, whose books on decision-making are essential reading in my view, was asked in an interview about his general rules for decision making and if they could be shared a nutshell. His response was that if it is a linear problem, you should evaluate all the empirical evidence as clearly and thoroughly as you can and then do what the evidence suggests. If it is a non-linear problem, you should evaluate the evidence as clearly and thoroughly as you can, and then go with your gut. His point is that some problems don’t have simple and clear solutions, and when faced with these situations, not deciding does not make things any better.

This brings us back to the question with which I started this interview. There are few challenges more non-linear than assessing talent. While I highly encourage leaders to establish guiding principles regarding talent, these guidelines are rarely completely sufficient (especially when it comes to hiring or promoting people). At some point you just have to do as much due diligence as you can and then trust your gut. But it helps to know what your “gut-check” question is.

The gut-check question I cited at the outset—“Will this person embarrass me?” was shared by the president of a $3.5 bn segment in a telecom company, and it was as good as any I’ve heard. Your gut-check question may be different, but you should know what it is. Without it, leaders end up avoiding talent decisions in the quest for more information that will end up being meaningless anyway. Your gut-check question allows you to be decisive, another necessary quality that allows leaders to scale.

Mario Sikora is an executive coach and president of Awareness to Action International. Find out more at