5 Practices Leaders Need To Maximize Talent And Help Their People Thrive

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An organization’s success strongly correlates with the extent to which its people feel engaged and … [+] motivated.


For organizations to maximize talent and thrive, creating opportunities for their people is an often-underused strategy.

According to the newly released American Opportunity Index—which assesses nearly 400 leading companies based on hiring, pay, promotion, parity, and culture—enabling workers to access learning opportunities and experience growth can be key drivers of organizational performance.

Unsurprisingly, some do it better than others. According to the index—a joint project between Harvard’s Managing the Future of Work, the Burning Glass Institute, and the Schultz Family Foundation—Costco is 42% more likely to retain its workers over three years than Target TGT , and top-performers at Coca-Cola KO are 3.8x more likely to have come from within than at PepsiCo PEP .

Joseph Fuller, who co-leads the Managing the Future of Work Initiative at Harvard Business School, offered his take in an interview with Work Shift, noting that organizations high on the list tend to have longstanding values and practices that create opportunities for talent to thrive. “If you are thinking every time you hire someone, you’re hiring a candidate for advancement, you’re probably a little bit more discerning and disciplined in who you hire,” he said. “You’re going to invest in communicating pathways in the company more clearly to workers. You’re going to have more investment in and focus on internal training.”

This year’s index shows that companies that outperform their peers by creating opportunities for their employees can not only save millions of dollars by retaining them, but also preserve institutional knowledge which can take years to cultivate. These findings mirror what I see every day as the president of a large university comprising more than 9,000 faculty and staff: An organization’s success strongly correlates with the extent to which its people feel engaged and motivated. Engagement is influenced not only by doing meaningful work, but also by the organization’s recognition of its people’s worth and commitment to enabling their desire to progress in their career and lives.

While every organizational culture is unique, building one that makes the advancement of its people paramount requires people who believe what I and others do:

  • That every individual is inherently worthy, with something big to contribute;
  • That opportunity actually expands as more contribute to it, while excluding some serves no one;
  • That every individual has an innate capacity for learning and growth, and an aspiration to progress on their own terms;
  • That every individual is gifted, and talented—even if not all in the same thing; and
  • That individuals have agency and are stewards over their careers and how they contribute to the world.

But it’s not enough to believe in these core values, nor to espouse them. It’s how organizations implement them that counts. To that end, business leaders can drive better outcomes for their people, and their organizations, by implementing the following practices:

1. Start with outcomes, then work backwards. I’m a big believer in working backwards: Identify what you’re trying to achieve for your intended beneficiary (your customer), and then determine what would need to be true to turn that vision into a reality. In this case, developing an organizational culture that creates opportunities for individuals to thrive requires leaders to first identify areas of improvement, define how they’ll measure success, and then develop practices that will enable the progress they seek—whether it’s lower rates of attrition, increased employee engagement, higher rates of mobility, greater inclusion, or some other desired outcome.

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2.Design for universal access and one-by-one progress. Years ago, business strategist and author Clayton Christensen shared a story that has stuck with me. Christensen had been invited to do some consulting for a prominent bank about a leadership training program available to its top 50 leaders. “But what about the fifty-first,” Christensen said, to which the bank’s executive acquiesced and extended the program to its top one hundred. “But what about the one hundredth and first,” Christensen pressed. The leader responded, “Surely you don’t expect us to offer the program to all of our employees?” Christensen must have smiled before offering an example of how his church employed a mentor model in which every member is both a mentor and a mentee, thus ensuring that every individual could experience personal development and growth through mentorship. That’s one-by-one leadership development.

When you understand that opportunity compounds as more people take part, it’s clear that expanding access—to a benefit, a program, or whatever it may be—is in the best interest of everyone involved. And when you accept that everyone is top talent and capable of contributing something big, it’s clear that limiting access serves no one.

3.Be careful of “fit tests,” and encourage diverse perspectives. There’s a quote I think of often, spoken by none other than Mahatma Gandhi: “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” These words ring especially true in the workplace, where there’s often a tendency to promote a “culture fit.”

Recently, for instance, my team discussed a potential slogan to put on new swag. The shirt read, “We are WGU,” proudly donning the name of our university. While the slogan was intended to foster a sense of pride and belonging among our staff, it could also unintentionally convey an expectation of uniformity. So, we chose a different approach.

In lieu of promoting “culture fit,” leaders should develop an organizational disposition and practices that increase inclusion, promote diversity of thought, spur collaborative reasoning, and reward trust and focused execution. Designing systems that embrace pluralism doesn’t mean organizations shouldn’t promote and instill cultural beliefs. It means the beliefs should communicate principles by which colleagues individually endeavor to advance shared effort and common goals. Shared principles promote unity in diversityeveryone can show up exactly as they are, and inspire mutual, complementary effort in fulfilling the organization’s mission.

4.Respect and promote individual accountability. Too often people in power believe that they know what’s in the best interest of those they lead, and consequently design pathways that don’t enable individual choice. It is not the responsibility of the manager to design and manage their employee’s career, but rather that of the individual employee. When leaders more fully consider that individuals actually decide their own direction and pace of progress, it’s evident that information, transparency and optionality must be core design principles of any human-centered organization.

Leaders should ask themselves: How can I empower my employees with choices, so no one gets stuck in an opportunity cul-de-sac? How do I help them understand the different roles, pathways, and criteria for progress and success? Practically speaking, that means creating opportunities for individuals to acquire the knowledge, skills, and abilities to take on an ever-expanding scope of responsibility, and being transparent about available pathways between roles (I expand on this idea in an earlierpiece on Forbes).

5.Prioritize the success of others, creating a virtuous cycle of progress. As social creatures, we rely on one another for encouragement, feedback, information, and support. These forces influence individual progress as well, such that meaningful progress in achieving goals is seldom done entirely alone. But the beautiful thing is supporting others benefits all involved. In fact, I would argue that one’s own betterment and fulfillment is a direct function of the degree to which one endeavors to better the lives of others.

Doing so can take many forms. For an individual contributor, it could be prioritizing peers’ success by simply asking: How can I help you be successful? Even better, they could offer to provide specific deliverables and ask whether it would increase the individual’s ability to deliver. For a manager, it might be assigning individuals with tasks that will enable them to grow in their current development areasor areas that align with their interests. It could be taking 15 minutes to extend understanding and collaborative engagement to help a colleague learn from a mistake, and then help them raise their performance. Criticism–whether constructive or not–is ineffective, and most often self-centered and self-aggrandizing. Feedback, on the other hand, is focused on the individual’s learning, growth, and success, especially when combined with partnership in the follow-on work to improve. When individuals at all levels of an organization focus their attention on helping others advance, it sets off a positive chain reaction that benefits all—including the organization.

This year’s index confirmed what many would already assume: that individuals who feel they are being paid well are less likely to leave their organizations. But the more encouraging takeaway is that there are countless other ways to retain employees and create the conditions for individuals and their organizations to thrive. When leaders make the advancement of their people core to their culture and definition of success—and are deliberate in implementing practices that will drive better outcomes for all involved—there’s no limit to what they’ll accomplish.

Note: Joseph Fuller also serves on the Board of Trustees at Western Governors University.


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