Workshop 5: Who’s choosing whom?

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The theme of the first Saturday morning workshop is: what makes people happy? This might seem like an insensitive topic for chief executives to consider as they nurse their heads after a night of partying. But, according to Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at Toronto University, it is a vital question to ask if you want to attract and retain the best talent.

Mr Martin starts by discussing a ground-breaking article written by Peter Drucker in 1989 in which the great management guru argued that corporations could learn a lot from non-profit organisations: they had to treat their employees like volunteers. As in so many other areas, Mr Drucker was way ahead of the field in his thinking. But the truth of his remarks is now becoming evident as the 21st century turns into battleground between global capital and talent. Who can best attract the 150m members of the world’s “creative class” - as the author Richard Florida described them?

One misconception that Mr Martin rapidly punctures is the belief that money makes you happy (although, as the saying goes, it can help you live more comfortably in misery). According to a recent study of American workers, those earning more than $50,000 a year were only marginally happier than those who earned less than $15,000. Financial incentives are unlikely to work well by themselves.

Mr Martin suggests there is a non-monetary “happiness trilogy” that is important to understand if you want to motivate your employees:

1) People want to feel like a valued member of a community.

2) This community must be one that they themselves value.

3) This community must be valued by the outside world too.

The participants were then split into groups to work on a one-minute elevator pitch to a prospective employee depending on whether they worked for a high-end professional services firm, a start-up company, a university, a non-governmental organisation, or a government (although, perhaps tellingly, no-one wanted to join that group). The rest of the audience gave them a thumbs up or a thumbs down depending on the passion and accuracy of their pitch. The groups then reformed to consider a strategy for retaining talent within their organisations.

Some intriguing ideas emerged from the different groups. In no particular order: treat your talent like your leaders. CEOs are allowed to join other companies’ boards and work for other organisations in the belief that this helps them think outside the box. Why not allow talent to do the same? Create a truly flexible family-friendly working environment. Share intellectual property rights with your talent. Allow them to use the company’s assets – computers, working space, cars – for their personal use too.

There are two obvious problems with such an approach. First, the security issue – although the participants seemed to believe this could be managed easily enough. Second, how broadly do you define your talent pool? On this score, there were two schools of thought. One suggested that this highly flexible approach should be restricted to the undoubted stars. But others thought that carried the risk of causing enormous resentment within the organisation. Would it be possible to extend the system to everyone else too?

There was a lot of discussion about how to build corporate communities and individualising jobs. Should you be able to bring your dog to work? Should you be allowed to hire your friends to create a team? How about allowing the talent to pitch an idea to the board and if they are persuasive enough giving them 10 people, 10 months, and $10m to realise their project? “We want marines not mercenaries,” said one businesswoman. “You want people to come to work to achieve a mission, you do not want people who would just sell their services for the highest price.” That does, though, raise interesting questions about what the talent boot camp would be like.

What were the “take-aways” from the group as Mr Martin called them? There were three things he suggested the CEOs think about when they return to their desks on Monday morning.

1) Leaders have a responsibility for shaping a community in their companies. It is vital that leaders demonstrate neutrality and even-handedness in solving problems to ensure they keep the respect of all members of the community. They must also exhibit transparency and consistency. “People want to be part of a community not a dictatorship.”

2) Lots of participants talked about having a compelling cause or mission. But how can you introduce this sense mission into a basic manufacturing company?

3) One of the trickiest aspects of building communities is that they are inherently unstable. Once one valued member of a team departs they are sometimes followed by others. The sense of community can quickly break down. Moreover, some talent is completely uninterested in community building even though they may do their jobs very well. How do you manage them?

The final thought: “Finding community building talent is the single most precious resource in the modern world.”

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