malcolm gladwell’s formula for talent management

By in Culture and Talent Management
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Blogged from SHRM’s 2012 annual conference in Atlanta, GA.

formula talent retention 72dpi

Leave it to Malcolm Gladwell to take one of the most talked about topics and give it a spin no one’s done before. In the second day’s opening session of SHRM 2012, he addressed one of the biggest challenges facing organizations today: employee recruitment and retention in the face of the new social paradigm Millennials bring to the multi-generational work landscape. Every 30-40 years, Gladwell maintains, generations make a shift in some aspect of how they see the world, and that shift creates profoundly different notions of how organizations engaging the next generation should go about it.

To illustrate his point, Gladwell contrasted two powerful social movements. The civil rights movement, under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and today’s Occupy movement that has quickly spread throughout the world. These two groundbreaking events highlight the difference between the old and the new: hierarchies and networks.

To bring about lasting change that culminated with the Civil Rights Act and beyond, Dr. King led a movement that contained all the elements of a traditional hierarchy; a strong leader, a prevailing organizational structure, and a guiding ideology or strategy. In contrast, the Occupy movement is a network. It has, by design, no leader, no standardized ideology and an organizational structure where protesters look out to one another rather than up.

Employees in today’s workforce born before 1980 tend to connect through structures that follow a hierarchy. Situations, meetings, everything within the organization tends to be more closed, disciplined, and centralized—with decisions and strategies coming from a leadership team at the top. In recent years, however, a trend has emerged in how businesses are incorporating network sensibilities by being more open, flexible and decentralized.

Gladwell maintains that one organizational structure is not superior to the other. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. The value can be seen in the application and today’s leading organizations are capitalizing on a mixture of both, as a talent management solution to increase employee engagement and retain talent.

Take Apple. Founded in the most open, flexible, networked environment in the world, Silicon Valley, it broke the mold from the prevailing structures dominating the corporate world. As Apple grew, it looked out to create partnerships and learn from counterparts, even entering at one time into a then unheard-of agreement with their fierce competitor Microsoft. Yet, once Steve Jobs returned to the helm, he led with a dominant ideology and strategy. Apple has continued to thrive through a blended organizational structure of a hierarchy and network, making it the most successful and admired organization in the world.

Later into Day 2 at SHRM, Dan Satterthwaite’s session, ‘Building a Culture of Creativity,’ brought Gladwell’s points home. As the head of Global Human Resources for Dreamworks Animation, Satterthwaite shared how the company fosters an environment of creativity and innovation through a network within a hierarchy. This has led to an impressive employee retention rate of 95 percent. Here are some of his insights:

1. Communicate often and openly to build trust. Employee engagement comes when individuals feel connected to the whole. Connection is built through frequent communication that is open, transparent, and candid. Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg keeps all 2,200 employees up-to-date on what’s important to the business with his daily blog post. The process is simple: he writes from his Blackberry every evening and sends it out company wide. It’s a daily touch point that brings people together in a common conversation. Employee surveys reveal this has made people feel more engaged, connected, and involved than they ever have before. As Satterthwaite points out, “Getting people to do their best creative work requires this deep connection with their organization.” From day one, the trusted environment is reinforced with company updates, new hire welcomes, mid-show reviews, creative reviews, internal wikis and other communication vehicles.

2. Allow for failure to uncover original, unique ideas. If people don’t have an avenue for failure, there is also no way to succeed. Dreamworks knows great movie ideas come from anywhere and anybody, so they created a Movie Pitch program. Any employee can write and pitch a movie idea. Some of their most successful ideas have come through the program, so a training course was developed to teach people how to best pitch their idea. They’ve also opened the door for a pitch of any type (new business ideas, software, social media, mobile entrepreneurism).

3. Know that engagement requires choice. Employees want to feel empowered in the decision-making process. In the past, when a movie wrapped, those working on the movie were “cast” into their next project, or assigned to a specific script. Now, everyone gathers together, reviews the upcoming projects, and each employee selects their next movie.

In the end, Satterthwaite points out that it’s important to create an environment where employees are motivated and inspired to do great work. He concluded with a clip of Jeffery Katzenburg that portrayed the overarching vision for their workforce: “If people love coming to work, if they feel there is recognition and reward for doing great work, we win.”

While many of us will never work at Apple or Dreamworks, looking to the lessons their experiences teach provides a model for balancing the needs and expectations of the next generation of workers. Successful organizations find the possibilities and leverage them to stay competitive when engaging in corporate talent management.

By heather mcarthur
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