Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood on “Agile Talent”: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

YoungerJon Younger is founding partner of the Agile Talent Collaborative (and partner emeritus at the RBL Group where he established the firm’s HR transformation practice. He is well known and respected for his consulting in HR transformation, talent management, and change leadership. He is the author of 5 books including the new Agile Talent: How to Source and Manage Outside Experts (Harvard Business Review Press, February 2016), several books with Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank, including the best-selling HR From the Outside In (McGraw-Hill, 2012), and many articles. He has taught at the University of Toronto, Ross School of Business University of Michigan, the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, and the Copenhagen School of Business, among other universities. Prior to RBL he was SVP and chief talent and learning officer for one of the largest US banks.

He and his partner Carolyn divide their time between NYC and restoring a 200-year-old barn in rural Connecticut. His teaching and consulting practice has taken him to over 40 countries in the last few years.

SmallwoodNorm Smallwood is co-founder of The RBL Group and a recognized authority in developing businesses and their leaders to deliver results and increase value. His current work relates to increasing business value by building “outside in” organization, leadership, and people capabilities that measurably impact market value.

In 2010, the Harvard Business Review recognized Norm in an ad as doing “innovative and ground-breaking work on effective leadership.” He has co-authored eight books: Real-Time Strategy, Results-Based Leadership, How Leaders Build Value, Change Champions Field Guide, Leadership Brand, Leadership Code, Leadership Sustainability, and Agile Talent. Norm was a faculty member in executive education at the University of Michigan in the Ross School of Management between 2001 and 2003.

Prior to co-founding the RBL Group, Norm was a founding partner of Novations Group, Inc. where he led business strategy, organization design, and human resource management projects for a wide variety of clients spanning multiple industries. Before this, he was an organization development professional at Procter and Gamble in a start up business in Georgia and in Calgary, Alberta with Esso Resources Canada. Norm and his wife Tricia enjoy their children and grandchildren as well as their wide variety of pets.

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Morris:. When and why did you decide to write Agile Talent and do so in collaboration?

Smallwood: Agile Talent was Jon’s idea. He articulated it and asked me if I wanted to collaborate on writing it. I did. We had talked about collaborating on a book for several years. Jon is an excellent thinker and writer who has thrown away so many articles and books without publishing them that I wanted to have the drafts so he couldn’t do that with this idea.

Younger: The book began as a response to a question posed by Jorge Figueredo, the head of HR at McKesson, the pharma distribution company. As part of reviewing their HR strategy, Jorge asked about emerging trends. And one, obviously, was the diversification of the workforce. At the time, an Accenture study proposed that 20% of the workforce of most large companies were other than full time employees, and were for the most part ignored by HR. Deloitte later upped the percentage to 30%. Interestingly, neither firm seemed at the time to understand the importance of its finding. It was surprising and enlightening, and combined with the freelancer trend, became a focus of our research.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Younger: There were several. One is the growth of the agile talent segment on a global basis; look up “freelancer’s union” and you’ll see organizations across the globe. A big surprise for me at least was the lack of HR emphasis or even interest in this population. Third was the lack of a disciplined organizational approach to selecting agile talent. Fourth, and particularly insightful for me, was the relevance of what we’ve learned about effectively managing people in general to this population. I guess to sum it up, the big aha is recognition that the ability of organizations to competently manage external talent is as important and challenging as managing their internal talent.

Smallwood: The first time I presented the ideas about the Agile Talent concept to a group of senior HR Leaders, they all “knew” that this was an issue and a growing potential problem. Not one of them at the time felt any accountability to do something about it until they understood that they should. That’s when I knew we had something important. It’s happening now and it’s between the cracks- no one is managing it.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Smallwood: Every book I’ve coauthored has shifted during the writing process. At the beginning we were still learning by talking to people and collecting data about the topic. We knew there is outsourcing of transactional work and that companies are increasingly using contingent workers for seasonal work or for peak periods for relatively low level professional work. But the increasing use of technical experts to do strategic work was a big shift for the book. Because people hire experts in silos- either by geography or by function or business, the scope of it is virtually invisible to people.

Younger: Most authors will tell you that the published book doesn’t look much like the authors’ initial concept. That was certainly the case for Agile Talent. It was, in many ways, collaboration among the three of us: Norm, myself, and our editor at HBSP, Melinda Merino. Melinda is legendary in trade publishing, and we were fortunate to work with her. Like other great editors, her most important contribution was to challenge us to make the book both bigger and smaller: bigger in ambition, but smaller in the sense of a sharpened focus. In all, we tried to answer four simple but not easy questions: why has agile talent emerged as an important trend? Why should it matter to organizational leaders; why is it important? What value does it offer organizations; why invest? And what must leaders do to more fully realize its potential value?

Morris: Based on your experience, what seems to be the best process by which to put together a team that will be asked to complete an especially important project?

Younger: One important element is the mix of competency. In the book we describe at length the career stages research of Paul Thompson and Gene Dalton. We know from our research and consulting experience that a good team has the right mix of career stages: stage I and II doers who get the work done, Stage III coach/integrators who formally manage or informally coach team members and ensure the integration of work streams, and stage IV sponsor/enablers who lend their formal power or informal influence to the team in obtaining key resources, working through the inevitable boundary issues, and protecting the team when needed.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the key to effective delegating insofar as leadership development is concerned?

Younger: If we keep with the career stages discussion, effective delegation begins with ensuring that individuals have the maturity and competence for the role they are being asked to play. Delegating beyond the ability or perspective of the individual is a recipe for trouble; so is insufficiently delegating to an individual whose competence is well beyond the requirements of the role. For example, professionals in Stage II are generally quite competitive, whereas success in Stage III requires generosity, the willingness to share credit rather than hoard it as Stage IIers often do. The career stages invite decision makers to be mindful of the readiness of the individual in making judgments about delegation.

Morris: What are the major benefits of involving outside talent? The major perils?

Younger: Let me share the voice of the executives who participated in our research. Over 50% of respondents saw their organization as increasing their use of agile talent. They cited four principle reasons: (1) Access to new ideas and ways of working, (2) Speed, (3) Flexibility, and (4) Cost. Interestingly, cost was not the most important of these factors.

Smallwood: I agree with Jon’s four areas and would add that bringing in outside talent is an energy boost for internal employees when it’s managed right. They boost energy because they bring in expertise that employees can learn from.

Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided about the importance of charisma to effective leadership. What do you think?

Smallwood: We like to look at leadership from the outside in before the inside out. Becoming more charismatic as an end in itself is inside out. It’s focused on me as a leader. This is potentially a self-absorbed undertaking unless it is aimed at a good purpose. Rather than starting with improving my charisma or any other attribute we start from the outside in and ask what are the needs of our stakeholders- our customers, investors, employees, community and so on. Once we understand their needs, then we must build leadership attributes to serve these stakeholder needs. So charisma is good when it’s used to benefit those we serve. Both Hitler and Ghandi were charismatic but Ghandi was in the service of others and Hitler’s aim was power for himself. Effective leaders are not selfish. They build the attributes that help them serve others. Charisma in the service of others is a wonderful attribute.

Ronald Reagan was uniquely likeable, even to those who disagreed vehemently with his politics. Bill Clinton was described as someone who made you feel like you were the only person in the room. And, of course, everyone in my generation wanted to be Jack Kennedy. Charisma may not be an essential element of effective leadership, but it sure helps.

For those who have not as yet read your brilliant book, please suggest important Dos and Don’ts that should be kept in mind when embarking on major initiatives such as these. First, achieving competitive advantage through agile talent

Younger: Do recognize the importance of agile talent as a key element of total workforce planning. Do: take a strategic approach to agile talent. Do be as clear about the employer value proposition for agile talents as for internal employees. Don’t equate agile talent with traditional consulting or conventional outsourcing. Don’t forget that management skills are as relevant to the productivity of external talent as they are to the productivity of internal talent.

Smallwood: When you are working with Agile Talent, Do make sure you have set them up for success with your internal employees. Don’t:  create a competitive or negative work environment.

Morris: Defining the most promising business opportunity

Smallwood: Once you have found your agile talent, Do involve them in the framing of the business opportunity. Ask them to help frame the questions and the solutions. You understand your business and have expectations for the help you need but the expert will have a perspective that may be different and you should listen to it. Don’t try to frame everything by yourself including the solution. Otherwise you don’t need the agile talent and you will get in the way of a potentially better solution.

Younger: Do remember that an organization’s approach to agile talent should be grounded in the strategy of the business and where it stands competitively. Professor Rita McGrath at Columbia University, among others, talks about the important ability of organizations to quickly develop new capabilities, which enable them to compete against disruptive new competitors; the challenge posed by Uber to conventional taxi companies is an obvious example. Agile talent is an important tool for helping organizations to strategically pivot and increase their flexibility and speed of change.

Morris: Formulating and refining an appropriate strategy

Younger: Do know where you are going in the use of agile talent. For example, while most executives in our research say their organizations are increasing in their use of agile talent, most say they don’t have an explicit way of thinking about when and how to use agile talent. For example, some organizations are truly transformational in their use of network type organization models, while others are more tentative. It’s important for executives to have the conversation about their philosophy of resourcing, and their approach to talent management and workforce structure in future. In turn, that needs to be communicated externally and internally.

I agree with what Jon has said. Your formulation and refining of strategy is dependent on whether you are taking a traditional, surgical or transformational approach. Each has different approaches that are effective.

Morris: Attracting and welcoming agile talent

Smallwood: The extent to which you have a compelling strategy and brand identity will be enough to attract talent. Once you have them, Do spend enough time with them to orient them to your company, it’s culture and your people. Don’t assume that because they are temporary and external that they don’t need time and attention. They will do a much better job if they are set up for success.

Younger: Do remember that companies are competing for top agile talent just as much as they are competing for top full time talent. In fact, we see a new type of firm rising in the recruitment sector. Companies like Toptal, 10x management, Stealth Force, and IQ Workforce, are blending recruitment and talent agency. The talented people they represent are unique, highly experienced and expert, and have lots of options. Leaders in organizations who wish to hire them on a project basis have to compete just like organizations compete for the best full time talent.

Morris: Getting talent in proper alignment with the organization

Younger: Do create the conditions for agile talent to do their best work.  Well, Casey Stengel had a good answer. He was asked what had helped him to be the most winning coach in baseball history. He put it this way: “I try not to trip my players on their way onto the field.” That’s a simple message but we need to be mindful of four dimensions of alignment. They are: (1) Strategic alignment – ensuring the work of agile talents is well defined, important, and meaningful; (2) Performance alignment – ensuring clear goals, realistic measures, and a disciplined process of measurement and feedback; (3) relationship alignment – ensuring effective management of agile talent, engagement, and an environment of collaboration between external and internal talent; and (4) administrative alignment – ensuring that administrative processes and procedures are well-communicated reasonable, fair, and efficient

Morris: Ensuring professional excellence

Smallwood: One of the alignments that Jon describes above is performance alignment. You get performance alignment by setting goals and giving feedback along the way not just at the very end of the project. In fact, if you get performance alignment right and can become an organization where the agile talent perceives s/he can grow and develop, you will build a strong and lasting collaboration.

Morris: Growing talent “that you don’t even own”

Younger: Do recognize that interesting, important work, and the opportunity for professional growth and development, motivate external as well as internal talents. Managers obviously play a key role here but so do other factors such as the way the project is defined, the team members, and other unique elements of the work, for example, market or cultural challenges that make the project developmental for agile talents and therefore attractive.

Morris: Engaging and collaborating with your talent

Smallwood: At beginning of project, Do have a meeting with your agile talent and the employees they will be working with and openly discuss how they can work effectively together. We’ve seen a flipchart posted on the wall that has a list of “rules of engagement” that often include things like: treat one another with respect, if you have a problem with me, tell me; and so on. This investment in time is well worth it. Don’t just hope that everyone will get along.

Younger: Do: actively build collaborative working relationships between external and talent talents on a team or project. Do engage agile talents through involvement and communication. Do pay attention to how external and internal team members interact, and how elements like the physical work environment contribute or detract from a collaborative atmosphere. Let me give an example of the last point. In one organization, the consulting team were given disorganized offices in another building, without access to Internet and email, and unpermitted to eat in the company cafeteria. How could that arrangement ever lead to a productive relationship between external and internal staff?

Morris: Leading agile talent

Younger: Do ensure that managers have the skills to manage the external as well as internal talent for whom they are responsible. Do manage agile talent on an enterprise level by having a point of contact beyond the contractual terms defined by procurement. Do share information about agile talent across organizational boundaries so that the best and worst are well known.

Morris: Leading the changes by driving innovation

Smallwood: Do think through as a management team the extent to which you intend to utilize agile talent in the future. Do assess the readiness of your organization by focusing on how well the organization is aligned with its agile talent intent and goals. Do use the agile talent EQ survey to assess the organization against the four alignment factors – strategic, performance, relationship and administrative.

Morris: Turning what you know into what you do (i.e. eliminating any “Knowing-Doing Gap”)

Younger: That is an easy one. Communicate how the organization will utilize agile talent in future, why, and the importance of aligning the organization to get the full value of that investment. That means using a variety of tools such as the agile talent EQ survey, after action review, and best practice assessment. Do take action based on the results of what the organization has learned.

Smallwood: Earlier I described the seven disciplines we wrote about in our book, Leadership Sustainability that spell STARTME. Simplicity, Timing, accountability, resources, tracking, meliorate and emotion. If you rigorously apply these seven disciplines you can overcome the know-do gap.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Agile Talent, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Smallwood: Most small organizations utilize agile talent because it’s an easier way to be competitive than buying talent and it’s cheaper. Small companies need access to a lawyer and to someone who helps with finances and as they grow to help with product design or delivery. Smaller organizations also have easier time creating the four alignments (strategic, performance, relationship and administrative) because they are less complex and bureaucratic. If I had one suggestion to the owner of a small business it would be for you to take the time to orient this talent to your business. Most small business owners (ourselves included) usually feel swamped and lack time to add much to their schedule. But this is an investment you’ll be glad you made if you can help them understand what you need and that you appreciate their help.

Younger: Honestly, I hope they find a great deal of our work relevant and helpful. For smaller companies in particular, the likelihood is that they will find agile talent a powerful way to attract top professionals who might not join them on a full time basis, or wouldn’t be affordable to the organization on a full time basis. Given that, how they are managed and how the organization is aligned to support their performance is very important. We hope these owners will find our book a source of practical information.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Younger: Bob, this was a very thorough interview and a pleasure. Preparing for it was an excellent learning experience, and I thank you for it.

Smallwood: This was a unique set of interview questions that made me think. I enjoyed the challenge. Thanks for the opportunity.

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Thank you, Jon and Norm, for completing this interview. Many of those who share your thoughts will be eager to obtain additional information. Suggestions?

Jon and Norm: We invite your readers to visit our website and take the agile talent EQ survey. It’s brief (10 minutes), free, and you will receive instant results as well as a comparison with survey global norms. Please click here to visit the website.

Readers are also invited to write to Jon Younger for more information about the agile talent collaborative. Contact Jon at or Norm at

Here is a direct link to Part 1.

To check out my review of Agile Talent, please click here.

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