Playing To Win
Talent Strategy in 2022
The Value of One
I received a thoughtful request to tackle a topic in a Playing to Win Practitioner Insights piece from a longtime and now-retired CEO client, who often sends me commentary on the series. In a nutshell, his frustration was that against the backdrop of worklife/homelife stresses in wake of COVID, remote work, The Great Resignation, flexible work, etc. and the obvious criticality of talent to strategy in modern business, we lack a clear framework for thinking about how to assemble a team that together, works flexibly, and knowledgably and is committed to high performance. As is usual for Steve, his was a thoughtful provocation. In response, I thought I would take a stab at a framework for thinking about his question in this 25th Year II PTW/PI on Talent Strategy in 2022: The Value of One. You can find the previous 77 PTW/PI here.
Don’t Push Water Up Hill
To provide a framework, I will start from first principles, and in this case, the key principle is to avoid spending time and energy on trying to keep water at the top of a hill. It takes enormous energy to get water to the top of a hill in the first place and then all it does is try to find ways to flow back down — and when you plug up one such route, it just finds another. You will be much better off figuring out a productive way to let water flow downhill.
The modern organizational structure is an exercise in pushing water uphill. It is guided and defined by an org chart, the key feature of which is boxes into which people are fit. For example, we have a box called Vice President-Marketing with a job description laying out the responsibilities of the person in that box. Then we go out and recruit someone who fits, as well as possible, the description in that box. Many boxes on the chart are repeats — e.g., there are five brand managers reporting to the Vice President-Marketing. Symmetry tends to be valued — e.g., all the boxes on a given line of the org chart have the title Vice President and have similarly structured job descriptions and compensation packages because they are all Vice Presidents.
However, each human being that is placed into one of these symmetric boxes with their standardized and formal job descriptions is unique. That is a core feature of being human. No one else has your DNA or fingerprints or precise life experiences. That reality drives a desire of the vast majority of human beings to want to be treated as individual as they are. I don’t say ‘all human beings’ because in my experience, a small minority of people want to be treated generically — as a member of a particular class of people with no distinctions relating to themselves. But that both is a small minority and not representative of the right tail of the talent distribution in the modern workforce.
When it crams a unique individual into a generic box, the organization sets itself up for the task of pushing water uphill and then trying to keep it there. It asks the individual to give up uniqueness in order to best fit the box. Because it is an act of pushing water uphill, the organization needs to engage in lots of activities aimed at keeping that water up the hill. It needs to establish check-in procedures — e.g., weekly reviews — to make sure the individual is engaging in the tasks specified in the job description. It must evaluate the individual against performance of the tasks in the job description to mete out punishments for lack of adherence and rewards for faithful adherence.
While all of this seems quite normal to the individual because it is standard operating practice across the entire business world, at a very deep level it doesn’t feel natural. It feels like fitting their individuality into a generic box — because that is exactly what it is.
Under normal circumstances, individuals can push this unnatural feeling to the background and tolerate the organizational efforts to keep the water at the top of the hill. But when tensions rise — e.g., worklife/homelife balance difficulties — or a discontinuity hits — e.g., COVID — those individuals feel the downhill tug of individuality and quit their jobs, as with The Great Resignation.
A Framework for Letting Water Flow Downhill
Instead of asking individuals to sacrifice their individuality to organization chart strictures, design jobs around individuals — I.e., fix boxes to people. Instead of seeing your managerial job as making sure individuals do their job as defined by the org chart, see it as helping them become better individuals with enhanced talent to put into their work. Customize rather than standardize. Celebrate their individual improvement with more responsibility and commensurate compensation.
While that level of customization may appear to require an overwhelming amount of work, it subtracts out of your diary vast tracts of useless work engaged in attempting to keep water uphill by trying to make the individuals in your employ something that they are not. You will have better results with less, not more, effort.
Of course, this probably seems theoretical. But I never give management advice that I don’t use myself, so I will provide an example of using this approach while I was Dean of the Rotman School of Management for 15 years from 1998 to 2013.
Key (and the most expensive) talent at any business school is the full-time tenure-stream faculty, of which Rotman had 36 when I arrived as Dean and 120 by the time I stepped down. By institutional standards, they are supposed to be treated in a very standardized fashion. In fact, over the years, the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) has negotiated those standards with university administration, and they are captured in a long document referred to as “The Blue Book” which guides how, as a university administrator such as a dean, you are supposed to treat all professors — how many courses they should teach, how to evaluate their research performance, etc., etc.
I eschewed treating them as either generic professors or even as broad categorizations such as pre-tenure assistant professors versus tenured associate professors versus senior full professors. I made a point of treating each as a unique individual. I met with each professor once a year to talk through what they were uniquely trying to accomplish and how Rotman could support them most in achieving their goals. And I always did my best to provide the help that was important to them, even when it went beyond official university policy.
I steered completely clear of anything that would hint of enforcing standardization. One example concerned the school’s research ranking. The annual Financial Times (FT) MBA full time MBA ranking has become the most influential MBA ranking in the world and a key component is the FT Research Rank, which is calculated on the basis of the number of publications per professor in the FT45 journals, the 45 journals that the FT deems to be the most influential and prestigious across all the fields of business (e.g., strategy, marketing, finance, etc.). The top 20 of 45 are truly super-highly influential and have the toughest acceptance standards. But the remaining 25 on the list aren’t that different than the next 25 that aren’t on the list, and the latter are important outlets for professors’ research, especially if it is outside the most mainstream topic areas.
Because of the importance of the FT Research Rank, some business schools have taken to providing a cash bounty to professors for every FT45 journal article they get published. I never did. When professors who had papers in great journals in their subfield that weren’t an FT45 journal would ask me whether I would rather have them aim for FT45 journals instead, I would always respond that I wanted them to aim for the journal that was most influential for precisely their kind of work. I argued that if all our professors did that, we would end up with our fair share of articles that happen to be in an FT45 journal. Many professors expressed surprise because they knew I cared about Rotman rising in the overall rankings. But it would have amounted to pushing water uphill — and that was a no-no.
This individualization wasn’t free. By the time we hit the 100 mark in professors, I had to dedicate a full 5 weeks of my year to do an hour of prep and an hourlong meeting with each of them. But it was time well-spent. During my time as Dean, Rotman enjoyed an unprecedented rise in our research rankings from utterly irrelevant to 3rd in the world, trailing only HBS and Wharton, ahead of traditional research powerhouses such as Stanford, Sloan, Chicago Booth, and Columbia. For even the most optimistic Rotman professor as of 1998, it was an unimaginable rise. At the same time, our teaching evaluations by students soared, professorial turnover was minuscule, and we were able to recruit nearly 100 fabulous new professors.
That is because we facilitated water flowing downhill. Professors were much more productive because they were valued as, encouraged to be, and assisted in becoming be better individual contributors.
I had to take the leap of faith to invest a large number of hours in the individuality quest. But it ended up saving huge numbers of hours in not having to deal with unpleasant and remedial tasks such as professor grievance hearings, recruiting to replace departing professors, student problems with snarly professors, and so on and so on.
I imagine that some readers will be thinking that this is a very unique situation that doesn’t apply to me. For those, please read my piece on exploiting analogy — something doesn’t need to be identical to provide valuable insights. But also recognize that the academic world is far more standardized and regimented than anybody outside it (including me before becoming dean) would ever imagine. Professors live under strictures imposed by their department, their university, and their field that are not dissimilar to the strictures of the corporate world.
Others might be asking: how on earth can you pursue a singular strategy with everyone doing their own thing? You most certainly have to set a clear and compelling strategy. If you do, the folks who you help express their individuality will reward you by helping you achieve your strategy. We pursued a strategy at Rotman that took us from obscurity to significance, thanks to, not despite, the freedom to pursue individuality.
Still others may be saying: I just don’t have five-to-six weeks a year to dedicate to something like you did. I didn’t exactly have those weeks lying around. In fact, it wasn’t even my job. Those 120 faculty members reported in two levels below me. But I took on the task because we needed a fundamental culture change (which I explain in more detail in chapter six of my new book A New Way to Think) and I figured out how to be more efficient elsewhere. It is all a question of where application of your time can have the highest leverage.
I venture a guess that nobody reading this has 120 direct reports. It is almost certain that you have less than a dozen. Experiment with encouraging water to flow downhill by enabling your direct reports to individualize their work. Tell them that you want them to express themselves maximally in their job. Embrace the value of one. They will stay with you and they will reward you by working assiduously to accomplish the combination of your goals and theirs. And your time spent on supervision and painful rework will plummet. Just try it!