Picking Winners!

“People are our most important resource” is a phrase that has become a hackneyed truism whenever a discussion about organizational performance ensues—whether it is a discussion about for profit and/or not for profit organizations. Technology will, undoubtedly, give an enterprise an edge—perhaps even an initial competitive advantage. However, the skills, abilities, and knowledge of the people working in the enterprise appear to be what is needed to ensure attainment of the holy grail of ‘sustainable competitive advantage’.  

And, not all the people are created equally. In fact, it is safer to say that people are created ‘equally different’. Each person has a different skill set, ability aptitude and/or knowledge base. Depending on what the enterprise needs at a particular point in time, certain skill sets, et al, will be called upon to play a more prominent role. For managers and leaders in an organization, the real challenge is how do we ‘stock the pond’ in anticipation of what skills, abilities and knowledge the organization might need now and into the future? How do we pick the winners—those who will push the organization towards its strategic goals and assume future leadership? 

Too often, the process of picking winners is overly subjective, political and short–sighted. Unfortunately, far too many managers default to one criterion—how much like me is this person? Other extraneous criteria include factors like physical attractiveness, glibness, cultural similarities and gender. In effect, corporate cloning is a serious problem, because it assumes that the cloner is worth being reproduced. Eventually, the enterprise ends up with a gaggle of ‘look a-likes, sound a-likes and think a-likes—all finding creative ways to agree with the boss woman or man. Diversity of thought and action is sacrificed. The definition of a winner becomes the person who mimics best and moves fastest up the corporate rungs of success. This environment stymies creativity, innovation and constructive disagreement. 

To effectively pick winners, an organization or enterprise must first commit to valuing and managing diversity—not as the politically correct thing to do, rather as a business necessity. Diversity, if practiced honestly, will create an environment where differences that are valued go beyond gender and race. Underscoring real diversity is the concept of tolerance. Tolerance assumes that the other person “might be right”; it, according to Webster, is “a disposition to allow freedom of choice and behavior”. So the first step is the process of picking winners is to practice individual and organizational tolerance. Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, states that the only real sustainable competitive advantage that an organization has is “the ability of its employees to learn faster than the competition”. So, let’s give every employee an equal opportunity to learn before we label. 

If the organization is intolerant of differences, talent withers, dies on the vine or leaves. My father always admonished me that the phrase “cream rises to the top” had a corollary—that is, in his words, “so does crap in a septic system”. Organizations must continually scan themselves to insure that systemic abortion of talent is not inherent in their design and practices. Most importantly, organizations must avoid becoming elaborate and efficient septic systems. To achieve the state of true diversity and inclusion, organizations need to rely less on labeling 10 % of their talent and more on treating each  employee as a potential ‘raising star’. Also, HR needs to spend less time managing and defending the 10% of employees who are incapable or unwilling to work at being a star and institute an ongoing “weed and seed” process of employee management.