Agile Talent: A book review by Bob Morris

Agile TalentAgile Talent: How to Source and Manage Outside Experts
Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood
Harvard Business Review Press (2016)

How all manner of companies gain competitive advantage with new and better ways of managing talent

All organizations need effective leadership and management at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Moreover, no organization of which I am aware has ever had too much talent despite efforts to accelerate the development of leadership and management skills while recruiting those with the talent needed or with high potential. Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood focus on the challenges when organizations attempt to “source and then manage outside experts.” In this context, I am reminded of the fact that Greeks coined the term “barbarian” more than two millennia ago. Its original meaning is “non-Greek.”

In the first chapter, Younger and Smallwood note that in today’s highly-competitive global marketplace, “the need for ‘expertise on tap’ continues it expand. Organizations are thus increasingly reliant on a widening range of functional external experts to acquire and master the capabilities to perform and grow.” This is especially true of technical expertise. I agree with Younger and Smallwood that many (if not a majority) o0f organizations that hire “outside experts” treat then as “separate, and not equal. Most managers who never dream of treating externals like internals. External agile talent is hired for expediency, for the short term, to fill a specific need. But the companies depend more on the agile talent for fulfilling strategic capabilities, that mind-set won’t cut it anymore. ’Separate, and not equal’ is precisely what is causing the problems just outlined.

Younger and Smallwood write this book to explain how to avoid or solve those and other problems. They offer an abundance of information, insights, and counsel with regard to achieving several important strategic objectives. More specifically HOW to

o Achieve competitive advantage through agile talent
o Define the most promising business opportunity
o Formulate and refine an appropriate strateg
o Attract and welcome agile talent
o Get talent in proper alignment with the organization
o Ensure professional excellence
o Grow talent “that you don’t even own”
o Engage and collaborate with your talent
o Lead agile talent
o Lead the changes by driving innovation
o Turning what you know into what you do (i.e. no “Knowing-Doing Gap”)

Younger and Smallwood are to be commended on their brilliant use of several reader-friendly devices that include dozens of Tables (e.g. “assessing a capability resourcing plan” on Page 34, “The three approaches to agile talent” on 154, and “ critical conditions for developing leadership at the highest levels” on 191) and Figures (e.g. “Five important criteria in work design” on 119 and “Making agile talent work:” on 189) as well as eleven assessment tools:

1. “How agile-talent-aligned is you organization?” (23)
2. “Identifying the capabilities required for success” (32)
3. “Identifying potential problems of the four aligning categories” (37)
4. “Getting feedback on your employer brand” (77)
5. “Assessing the career stage of an individual or job” (101)
6. “Determining the right mix of stages among externals and internals on your team” (108)
7. “How well does your organization’s commence nations support agile talent?” (124)
8. “How well do you sponsor agile talent?” (138)
9. “Determining a prospective talent manager’s emphasis in working with agile talent (144)
10. “The pilot’s checklist: identifying what leads to the success or failure of a change venture” (162)
11. “Using the organization virus detector: identifying the three most important cultural risk factors in managing change in your organization” (164)

These devices and other supplementary resources will facilitate, indeed accelerate frequent review of especially valuable material later.

I agree with Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood that, ultimately, “the effectiveness of agile talent in any organization will turn on the quality of leadership. The leadership code [Page 133] provides a systematic and helpful way to think about what competent leaders do.” The best leaders serve as role models. In this context, they must demonstrate agile leadership in all of their relationships. If an organization’s leaders think in terms of internals and non-internals — or allow anyone else to — it cannot succeed or even survive.

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