How To Help Top Talent Thrive

Written by Mona Berberich

Back in college economics class, I discovered a common assumption about economies of scale — actually about returns to scale. In business, we assume that if we increase factors of input by a given amount, the output will increase by that much or more. This concept seems intuitive, and we rely on it to simplify the management process and maximize profits.

Recently however, while researching how companies treat their top talent, I’ve found that many organizations apply this “returns to scale” theory to their most valuable asset — their smartest, most creative people. In other words, leaders often think that, by doubling the number people with creative abilities, the organization will be at least twice as creative. But if innovation is the goal, this theory isn’t sufficient.

Finding More Of The Right Stuff

What really matters in this equation? It’s ultimately about organizational culture. When managers create an environment that inspires the brightest and most talented people to thrive to their fullest potential, that’s when business performance increases proportionately (or more).

That said, to foster a scalable creative culture, it’s important to understand the smartest and most creative among us. What motivates the top 2 to 5% of the workforce with genius in software design, molecular engineering, and other areas of specialized expertise? Better knowledge of this will lead to a more supportive environment for top talent.

Portrait Of An Innovation Star

I’m not saying that clever people are all alike, but they do follow similar paths and tend to share multiple characteristics. For example, unlike most of us, top contributors know what they’re worth. In today’s more mobile, global world, they have more opportunities. They know their value, and they expect employers to know it, too.

They also tend to share a single defining characteristic — they don’t want to be “managed.” This requirement can be quite a challenge for business leaders. Very talented individuals often are adept at accomplishing great things on their own. They tend to have no special bond with their employer, but they know how to behave to gain funding and support. On the other hand, they’re aware that their employer relies upon them. They generate the ideas that no one else brings to the table, and often they go the extra mile to breathe life into their vision.

Often high flyers demand organizational protection and ignore corporate hierarchy. Quite frankly, they despise titles and promotions, at least in the way that most people perceive those business conventions. Being part of an organization chart is often a thorn in their side. Meetings tend to be seen as waste of time — a by-product of bureaucracy. Bottom line: They prefer immunity from organizational activities because administration is what keeps them from doing what really matters — creating change.

The smartest people often have unconventional expectations. They’re likely to assume managers don’t understand what they are doing, but they want respect for what they do. They want managers to recognize their ideas, and reward them with access to corporate leadership, information and resources. They want freedom to explore new territory, and permission to fail, because failure ultimately can lead to better outcomes. The fact is, they tend not to speak the same language as others in an organization, and often they don’t even want a public voice in the organization’s discussions. What to do? Here are several suggestions…

How Can Your Culture Support Extraordinary Creativity?

1) Be a Guardian

The most talented contributors don’t need a boss, they need a guardian — a sponsor who opens doors on their behalf. Focus on helping to facilitate their work. Give them appropriate guidelines, but eliminate rigid rules.

2) Offer Praise

Create company-wide visibility and demonstrate appreciation by showcasing your rockstars’ projects at company meetings, and in other internal communications. In addition, provide opportunities for them to meet informally with senior leadership. For example, organize lunch with your CEO or top executives (but don’t force rockstars to wear business suits).

3) Grant Operational Immunity

Exempt your top performers from unnecessary meetings and departmental administrative activities. Streamline monitoring and reporting mechanisms, and minimize structural and procedural requirements. Above all, encourage trial and error. Be prepared to recognize failure (or even celebrate it) as an integral part of learning and progress.

4) Provide Freedom to Explore

Encourage your brightest stars to use 20% of their time to drive independent projects. Grant leave of absence for professional development or participation in industry conferences. Consider providing discretionary budgets to fund exploration and ideation — whatever may sparks fresh thinking. For example, a user experience designer might expand his frame-of-reference by operating as a “visiting fellow” at multiple leading-edge customer sites. Or a biotech product developer might “connect the dots” by creating a private virtual forum where life science incubators can share insights about basic research projects.

5) Acknowledge Achievement Beyond The Organization

Rather than evaluating rockstars on typical performance criteria, consider their role in the industry at-large. Perhaps replace classic one-over-one performance appraisals with peer-to-peer evaluations. And consider metrics based on industry awards and rankings, progress in securing patents, volume and quality of articles published or presented, and other indicators of innovation leadership.

How Do You Encourage Top Talent to Thrive?

Do you have extraordinary people in your organization who need to be led in a special way? What have you done to accommodate them? What kind of issues and results have you seen? Please comment — we’re interested in your thoughts!

Mona Berberich2(Editor’s Note: Mona Berberich is a Digital Marketing Manager at Better Weekdays, a Chicago-based company that has developed a platform to help HR leaders source, screen and develop talent based on job compatibility. She is a researcher and writer covering HR, career growth, talent management and leadership development. Contact Mona on Google+ or LinkedIn or Twitter.)


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