Your talent management system is delivering the wrong people

2 minute read



For anyone who owns a dog, the rise of mixed breeds has been interesting to see: cavoodles, pomskys, puggles, bullmations, corgipoo – the list goes on.  Apart from sharp marketing, the reason these designer dogs have become popular is that so-called pure strains have become too inbred.  Over-selection in the doggy gene pool results not just in things like undershot jaws, overdeveloped chests and squashed up faces, but health problems, anti-social behavior, reduced intellect and anti-social behaviour.


In theory, hiring and promoting people who match a company’s culture and fit the picture of leadership (bright, socially skilled, confident) should provide a competitive edge.  But many talent management systems inadvertently restrict the definition of talent. 


We know this because our research on the characteristics of leaders shows that the people who lead organisations are very similar to each other, and quite distinct from the wider population. They are more ambitious, confident, competitive and goal oriented than the average worker.  What’s more, they share similar dark-side tendencies of being charming, engaging and flirtatious in style. Yet confidence and charm are not the same as competence, but we often mistake one for the other. Incidentally, hubris is more common in men, which might be the real reason women are still underrepresented in leadership ranks.


That means in the company talent-pool companies are inadvertently choosing people who may be good at leading, but are poor collaborators, followers and team-mates. Again, there is evidence for this tendency:


Talent inbreeding shows up in studies of top team effectiveness.  Dianne Nilsen and Gordon Curphy found that senior leadership teams are more likely to fall in the underperforming category – by a factor of 4. Curphy and Nilsen argue that’s because talent management systems clone the kinds of leaders that are already there, and that this creates artificial harmony.  As they put it:

The end result is a C-suite filled with competent people who are adept at getting along and not making waves. Artificial harmony kicks in whenever the need to get along trumps the need to raise difficult issues, where team members self-censor in order to maintain team cohesiveness.


Or, as we have seen in our practice, teams that fail to bond at all. Orla Leonard of RHR shared with us her research and noted that “Strong individuals who are used to leading may not be so good at working on teams”.  Being able to surface and navigate conflict is the hallmark of competent leadership teams – yet very few break through to this level of performance.


The answer is to operate a tight/loose approach to talent management.  A tight focus on objective data that helps understand and generate talent insights is still better than guesswork or relying on managerial intuition.  Understanding how similar or different the current crop of leaders is useful too.  But loose in ensuring the pipeline of talent includes a broad spectrum of people, accepting that different backgrounds, life courses and qualifications add value, rather than just making life more difficult.