The Talent Masters: A book review by Bob Morris

The Talent Masters: Why Smart Leaders Put People Before Numbers
Bill Conaty and Ram Charan
Crown Business (2010)

Note: I first read this book when it was published (November 9, 2010) and recently re-read it while preparing some interview questions. If anything, its insights are even more relevant and more valuable now than they were then. In both good times and bad, “mastering” talent will always be a process, not a destination.

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I agree with Conaty and Charan that Steve Jobs is the archetypical “talent master.” Few others possess his combination of intelligence, temperament, energy, and determination (indeed tenacity) when the objective is to sustain generation of what Jobs characterizes as “insanely great ideas,” then dominate markets with products based on those ideas.

However, all of us can be “more like Steve” if we are willing to become more astute in terms of (a) identifying a person’s talent more precisely than can most other people by observing and listening; (b) strengthen our abilities through constant and intense practice; (c) make better judgments by mastering what Roger Martin characterizes as “integrative thinking” (i.e. “the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas” in his head and then “without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other” to “produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea”; and master, also, their people skills when involved in various social processes and interactions.

Whereas Steve Jobs is the archetypical “talent master,” General Electric is the archetypical “talent master” organization. “When a valued leader does leave the fold – even one who may seem indispensable at the moment – the people in charge know what to do. They understand the business, know the candidates’ strengths and development needs [not weaknesses], and are well prepared to fill the slot with the right match quickly – even in a matter of hours. The goal is clear: no pause, no time for people to commiserate, no laxity in decision making, and no opportunity for the competition to poach talent.”

Conaty and Charan offer a case in point. “When Larry Johnston resigned [to become CEO of Albertson’s], GE set itself a new record for speed, naming his successor and three others down the line in half a day and announcing the changes before the day was over. That performance has been the model to shoot for ever since. GE does not allow a top leadership vacuum to exist, even for a day.” The institutional response to Johnston’s unexpected resignation was possible only because GE had (and continues to have) “robust talent pipelines and same-day succession plans” in place and operational. The rapid response also demonstrates “the strength and power of the GE system of talent mastery, one centered on the Session C system.

Robust talent pipelines, C Sessions, and same-day succession plans are worthless without people who know how to make the most effective use of them. The development of talent therefore requires the mastery of skills needed to sustain that development. The ever-practical Conaty and Charan identify five specific organizational “How-Tos”:

• Get all senior leaders centrally engaged in talent recognition and selection
• Hire for demonstrated leadership, not just for credentials
• Learn as much as possible about values and behavior before hiring
• Be humble enough to hire “outsiders” but ensure cultural assimilation
• Be totally honest about who has greatest leadership potential

They also identify five specific “How-Tos” for the individual:

1. Make talent development an obsession
2. Drill down deep to the specifics of each person’s talents and potentiality
3. Give frequent, honest, and specific feedback
4. Make talent development a core competency with accountability
5. Provide intellectual challenges and opportunities fir additional growth

I presume to suggest that an extended metaphor, “gardening,” is instructive in this context: establish a culture of rich “soil” that has sufficient sunlight and moisture; plant the best “seeds” and then nourish them; prune, relocate, or remove one or more, if necessary; and meanwhile protect the garden as “plant” growth continues.

Talent is a resource, an asset, not a title or position. Most knowledge transfers in any workplace occur informally during interactions between and among those involved. To varying degree, each person should be both a “teacher” and a “student.” That is why this book can be immensely valuable to those who have supervisory responsibilities as well as to those entrusted to their care.

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