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Doug Williamson: Mining for hidden human potential: The cost of ignoranceLet us ask a few simple questions to help illustrate our point.

  1. How many hours of driving school does the average teenager need before they get a licence to take your car onto the road?
  2. How many hours of flying time does a pilot need before they are fully licensed to fly an Airbus or 767?
  3. How many hours of exams does your average lawyer or accountant have to complete before they are given a license to practice?

Now, let’s ask another question.

How many hours of talent management training does your typical mid-level Manager or Executive have before they are “licensed” to manage people and determine their potential?

OK – I know. It’s not the same.

In organisational life we learn “on the job” and it comes with “practice”.

Well, it’s time to change that view and develop a level of consciousness and sophistication that befits the times in which we live. It would be hard to estimate (and impossible to imagine) the cost of mismanagement and the waste of potential we have seen over time.

All of this is due to a lack of awareness of the importance and value of properly managing human potential and a lack of willingness to invest the same time in managing potential as we do in managing performance.

It’s time to get it right.

The value of foresight in evaluating human potential

In most organisations, the annual business planning process takes hundreds of hours, countless meetings, and dozens and dozens of people. It uses complex spreadsheets, detailed analysis and sophisticated forecasts to identify scenarios of the future. It then commits to budgets and allocates capital accordingly.

Contrast that against the time spent on the annual Human Potential Plan, not the Board-mandated succession plan, but the evaluation of potential plan, not the review of the VPs and above, but the evaluation of the level below.

Let’s just suggest the ratio is not 1:1. In fact, chances are, most of the time you currently spend on Human Capital issues is split between Performance Reviews and “firefighting” – those last minute drills about filling holes and who is going to get that job in Sales or Operations now that Sally or Sam is gone.

Frankly how much time do you spend on forecasting your future people needs? How rigorous is your analysis of changing conditions? How scientific is your process of evaluation?

I am reminded of the oft quoted phrase about why Wayne Gretzky was such a great hockey player. You know, the one about him always skating to where the puck would be, not to where it was.

It’s the same in the game of Human Capital. Foresight gives you the edge.

Cloistered mindset

The cost of poor Human Capital management is both “real”, in terms of the cash outlay (head hunters fees, etc.) and “hidden”, in terms of the lost opportunity cost and waste of potential. The lack of rigorous systems and scientific processes is one reason for this, but the other reason is basic human frailty.

We all have biases we need to counteract, based on our sensory perceptions.

Sight: We often fail to look forward to anticipate what tomorrow’s needs will be and admit they might be radically different from today’s. As a result, we don’t change the formula for success when we should.

Smell: We don’t trust our intuition when we witness a singular act of brilliance on the part of an employee and fail to notice the aroma of potential success. Similarly, we are not always sensitive enough to the toxic odour of those with limited potential.

Hearing: We are incredibly tone deaf. We only hear what we want to hear and are not open to the range of possible alternatives. We get stuck in a sound groove where the only possible value can lie in what we have heard before, not in the new or novel.

Taste: We all have our preferences. Some like it hot. Some don’t. We can all allow that preference to distort our view of people, but more importantly our view of their future potential.

Touch: We all like to think management is logic and proven science when, as Henry Mintzberg has said, it is actually equal parts art and craft. As such, the artist knows the subtleties that come with a fine touch.

Behavioural leverage points

The world of tomorrow will be nothing like today. The progress of society (and hence organisational life) comes from a constant evolution in our thinking, and how we adapt to circumstance by responding to the signals the future emits.

Just take a look at some of the literature about the future from some leading gurus, such as James Canton (The Extreme Future), Richard Watson (Future Files) and George Friedman (The Next 100 Years).

Implicit in their various prognoses is a strong common view about the qualities – including contentual intelligence, strategic foresight, social network connectivity, emotional intelligence, technological savvy system thinking, opportunity sensing, risk acumen and curiosity – which will be important in the future in order to master success in an emerging environment. These are some of the qualities you need to be considering as you re-examine the talent bench and think about where the hidden pockets and/or thick veins of precious ore reside beneath the surface of your existing organisation.

Generational change

There are two books I believe do the best job of outlining the important changes and natural impacts occurring through the generational shifts which have happened over time and which we are in the midst of once again.

The first is by American business guru Warren Bennis called Geeks & Geezers – Eras, Values & Defining Moments. The second is by Australian writer, Peter Sheahan, called Generation Y – Thriving & Surviving.

They both come to essentially the same conclusions:

We are all products of the era in which we were born.
We are shaped by the social mores of those particular times.
We are all subject to the unrelenting forces of youthful rebellion.
We all witness shifts at the fringe that become mainstream over time.

The implication is simple. An organisation must spend quality time understanding the underlying social and generational changes and connecting those changes to their business model and their future talent requirements. If not, they will likely find themselves at a disadvantage when the bell rings for the next round of the global fight for relevance and economic prosperity. It’s a choice.

Doug Williamson is President and CEO of The Beacon Group.

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Mining for hidden human potential: The cost of ignorance

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