Why does talent walk?

May 06 2008 by Myra White Print This Article

Retaining talent is a serious concern for organizations. Each time a talented knowledge worker walks out the door, they take valuable expertise and organizational knowledge with them.

In the past this wasn't a concern. People were considered replaceable. Organizational assets consisted of tangible things like the property and equipment that an organization owned. Not any more. Now people, particularly talented ones, are often an organization's most valuable present and future assets.

So why are organizations having so much trouble hanging onto talent? Why do talent become so disillusioned and leave?

At the core of the problem is the fact that talent and their managers are often competitors who are each striving to climb the same ladder to higher levels of the organization. As a result, their personal career interests are in direct conflict.

A key source of this conflict is that talent come into organizations eager to learn, grow and develop their careers as quickly as possible.

To do this they seek stretch opportunities that will provide them with real experience and the types that lead to learning and growth. This includes hands-on experience where they can make mistakes and then figure out how to correct them.

In a recent interview Gil Logan, the executive chef at Churchill Downs, was asked by National Public Radio how he acquired the expertise to prepare gourmet food for the over 50,000 people whom he feeds during Kentucky Derby week.

He commented, "There is nothing in here that I haven't done wrong. That is how I learned. I've screwed up, burnt, broken, everything there is to do in the kitchen. I just don't do it twice."

For managers giving talent stretch opportunities can be risky to their own careers because managers are ultimately responsible for the work product of their employees. If an individual fails to deliver or makes a mistake on an important project, it is the manager who must answer for the ensuing problems.

And so the safest course for a manager is to err on the side of caution and limit the amount of responsibility that they give talent until they are absolutely sure that an individual can handle the work.

The result is that talent can end up spending months apprenticed to people who are less capable than they but have more experience, or talent may be stuck doing boring jobs that use only half their brain.

Consider Charles, who after completing his MBA at a top university, was hired by a prestigious consulting firm. He spent the first six months on the job preparing Power Point slides. After this tedious introduction to the firm, he left within the year because he wanted a position which fully used his talents.

Managers similarly don't have strong incentives to develop and move talent up through the pipeline. Great employees are hard to find and every manager wants to keep them on their team. Why should a manager publicize a person's talents and let someone else benefit from their abilities or even worse, find themselves competing with this person for a higher level position in a few years?

Traditionally managers have avoided the innate competition between themselves and the talent they manage by bringing talented individuals with them as they move up the organizational ladder.

Talent today, however, is not always as ready to link their career to a particular manager. They are aware that jobs are extremely fluid and have no guarantees. In a few years their manager may have left the organization or the business itself may go into a slump and everyone's jobs may disappear.

The other factor that drives talent away is when their managers directly usurp their ideas and good work in order to advance their own careers. Like most people talent wants to feel valued and have their opinions listened to and respected. Yet some managers can't resist appropriating the ideas and work of their employees for their own gain.

A story that I hear over and over again in the workplace from talented individuals is that their managers have taken their work or one of their innovative ideas and presented it to upper level management as their own work or idea. In such situations talent can't wait to escape and move to another organization where they hope they will be appreciated.

The solution to this problem is not simple. As long as organizations are essentially hierarchical and talent and their managers are trying to climb the same ladder to the top, they will remain competitors with conflicting interests.

Only by flattening the organization or finding ways to team talent with managers whose positions and career paths are secure or on a different track can the problem begin to be addressed.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.