rubber bandsMary managed a small team consisting of 3 employees. The positions they held were coveted jobs in a small but well-known company. With few exceptions these employees tended to be entry-level professionals who used these jobs to launch their careers – ultimately moving on to bigger and better things at other organizations. Even though salaries were below-market and there was limited career mobility due to the size of the organization, morale was high and the employment experience enjoyable. Tenure for these positions was in the range of 18 months or so which meant, as you can imagine, just about the time an employee became extremely proficient and productive, s/he opted to move on for another opportunity.

The department had numerous and varied accountabilities and deliverables over the course of any given year but core responsibilities could be boiled down to 6 primary areas:

  1. Make the widgets
  2. Market the widgets
  3. Sell the widgets
  4. Invoice for the widgets
  5. Ship the widgets
  6. Service the widgets

While all 3 team members needed to have some familiarity with all duties, the job descriptions looked like this for years:

  • Employee A: Responsible for 1 and 2
  • Employee B: Responsible for 3 and 4
  • Employee C: Responsible for 5 and 6

Stuff got done.

But then, one day, both Employees A and B tendered their resignations. The two-week countdown began as Mary realized it was going to be her and Employee C (who had been with the company for 6 months) running the show for the foreseeable future.

Initially Mary approached the hiring process as most managers (and HR professionals) do: she resurrected Job Descriptions A and B and set a course to hire employees who would perform function 1, 2, 3 and 4. After all, she reasoned, Employee C was slaying all the dragons with functions 5 and 6.

But then she stopped. Perhaps, she thought, if I provide a bit more variety and the chance for staff members to contribute in different ways, we’ll not only get the work done but reap the benefits of employees staying for longer periods because they’re continually learning and exploring. Maybe if they have the chance to do something new – something that builds on what they already know – we’ll all benefit.

So she talked to Employee C (who for 6 months had been responsible for shipping and servicing the widgets) and asked her “what would you like to do? What do you want to learn? What functional areas interest you?” Employee C said “I’ve always wanted to market and sell the widgets but I know those tasks are assigned to two different jobs. So I’m not sure what we can do.” 

But I’m sure you’ve guessed what they did.

Mary decided to be much more fluid in her operational model; versatility was in and rigidity was out. Rather than creating positions and praying-and-hoping that employees would stay long enough to develop deep-deep DEEP expertise she opted for a new model that encouraged the development of skills and the need for employees to tackle new challenges. She adopted a high-touch and constantly evolving approach that provided for task rotation every 6 months; this not only kept team members interested and engaged but ensured cross training in a fully team focused environment.

While the jobs continued to be ones that young professionals used to merely launch their long-term careers, tenure for the department increased from 18 months to close to 3 years.

I call that talent agility. I call that winning the battle.

After all…sometimes the “war for talent” is waged within.

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this post originally ran in 2015 

Here’s What Talent Agility Looks Like (redux)
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