These leadership qualities are proven to lift people—and results.
By Marc Effron and Jim Shanley
Why do some companies seem to have all the talent? How do they build better talent faster than other organizations?
Despite years of effort and billions of dollars invested, most companies today still struggle to produce the talent they need to sustain strong revenue and earnings growth. We know this because we’ve spent years working with the world’s largest and most complex organizations. Many have positive intentions and have made significant investments but have little to show for it. These companies stumble because they haven’t answered a fundamental question: What should leaders do to build talent quality and depth?
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Companies that are successful have moved away from exhorting leaders to coach, set goals, and build successors and toward enforcing a specific, practical model to evaluate leaders on the exact activities that create success. Through our experience and research with high-performing leaders, we’ve identified the key qualities of those who build great talent.
The Talent6 Model
Let’s start by clarifying what Talent6 is not. It’s not a general leadership model. There are hundreds of (largely identical) leadership models available that describe what someone should do to be a good corporate citizen. Talent building is different. Those who engage in the tough business of objectively evaluating and routinely top-grading their direct reports might not be the most broadly popular leaders, but they will be popular among high performers, high potentials, and others who disproportionately contribute to the organization’s success.
The Talent6 model defines the six qualities of talent-building leaders. Think of them as levers they use to identify and lift the talent around them. If you hire leaders with the following qualities—and build these skills in those who don’t—you’ll reap huge rewards.
High-performing companies have a shared talent mindset. Their executive team believes that higher-quality talent delivers superior results. They have a consistent company approach to managing talent and managers are clearly accountable to execute that approach.
At the company level, this is operationalized through a talent philosophy. At the individual level, it means leaders truly believe that superior-quality talent delivers superior results and they actively spread this belief. You may think all leaders believe this. They don’t, and the apparent willingness of many companies to operate with median talent confirms it.
At a practical level, this means that managers make finding and growing great talent the core of their business agenda. They speak up, down, and across the organization about the importance of having superior talent. Talent is a standing agenda topic at their monthly meetings and quarterly calls. They encourage their peers to share this mindset and they hold their team accountable for talent-building behaviors.
Talent Evangelists ensure that talent discussions frequently occur on not only their team, but their boss’s team too. The evangelist ensures she knows all the talent on her team and her peer’s teams at a deep level. She insists that the company’s talent favorably compare to the 80th percentile of all talent similarly compensated in the marketplace. If it does not, she drives herself and her peers to upgrade talent across the organization.
A senior investment banker recently told us that he actively reviews his talent portfolio every day and makes choices about where to buy and sell. No investment is there by chance and none lasts if its projected ROI didn’t well surpass its risk over time.
Active Investors exhibit two distinguishing leadership behaviors that average leaders don’t: First, they have a nose for talent and can articulate what it takes for good people to move far and fast in their organization. Second, they can quickly and accurately predict who is high-potential talent.
They’re also not afraid to make timely and sometimes difficult resource-allocation decisions by investing substantially more in high-potential talent.
The active investment approach may seem cold or calculated, but it’s how your organization manages every other asset. You don’t keep production equipment because it’s been around for 20 years and you have warm feelings toward it. You don’t allocate your marketing budget evenly across all campaigns to be fair.
Leaders who manage talent well regularly review their portfolio and make decisions to invest in some assets (provide experiences, exposure, assignments), divest others (move to lower roles, terminate), and hold the remainder (not change the level of investment).
This manager builds better talent faster. She understands that talent grows quickest via big, challenging assignments and meaningful experiences. Because of this, her highest-potential talent are in roles where their capabilities are tested and stretched daily. She’s made clear what she expects them to learn—and that successful completion of the experience is measured both by performance and learning.
She ensures top talent is always being actively produced, and she’s willing to make bets. She’ll put leaders in roles a year before they’re ready. Ambitious leaders want to work for her because they know they’ll get bonus years of development.
Talent Accelerators monitor how long high potentials remain in their roles, and will move them before the job becomes less challenging. This aggressive development approach requires them to understand their talent’s capabilities, potential, derailers, and goals. They use this knowledge to identify the right experiences and support to create engaging, challenging, productive development.
Talent Accelerators produce more talent than their peers and are net exporters of great talent to the organization.
Potential is important but development without commensurate performance is worth nothing to the Performance Driver, who ensures his direct reports perform within the top quintile for their compensation level as compared to peers globally. He’s not shy about communicating that 80th percentile performance is the expected standard.
His direct reports achieve that performance because he helps them set a few big and challenging goals, stretching their performance to levels they didn’t realize they could achieve. Last year’s stellar accomplishments become the baseline for the next year. He is relentless in raising the performance bar every cycle and regularly recalibrates his team against that higher bar. And, if his people don’t perform, he will make timely decisions to acquire, move, or remove leaders.
This leader is on a 24/7 hunt for talent, constantly scanning her own organizations and others. She meets with the company’s highest-potential leaders across departments and geographies to get to know them and to calibrate them against her current team. She is transparent with those leaders about her intentions, management style, and future opportunities. She uses talent reviews as a chance to learn about her peers’ direct reports.
The Talent Scout forms strong relationships with the top executive search firms. She asks those firms to introduce her to the highest-potential talent they’ve identified. She regularly attends external conferences or gatherings with a specific agenda of meeting and assessing the talent there. Through these activities she creates a formally tracked external bench and actively manages those relationships.
Talent Scouts seldom have empty seats. They move quickly and easily fill open roles with high-quality talent.
The Transparent Coach knows that fast, accurate, and honest direction accelerates development by reducing the cycle time for learning. His team members hear from him daily or weekly with clear messages about what’s working well, what’s not, and what they could do differently. He may use feedforward or feedback but, either way, he ensures that the messages are received.
The Transparent Coach sees his team’s improvement as a journey, not a destination, and he ensures growth never ends. After a team member has achieved a development goal, he identifies the next one. These leaders are optimistic and encouraging with their direct reports and set clear expectations.
Their teams don’t always like what they hear but they recognize—either today or over time—the precious value of the leadership they’ve received.
Marc Effron is the publisher of Talent Quarterly, cofounder of the Talent Management Institute, and the president of The Talent Strategy Group, which helps the world’s largest and most successful corporations create incisive talent strategies and powerful talent-building processes. He’s also the coauthor of the bestseller One Page Talent Management.
Jim Shanley is the president of The Shanley Group and cofounder of the Talent Management Institute, an intensive four-day program that builds talent management capabilities in human resource generalists, talent management leaders, and leadership development specialists.