Modern business has a particular focus on nurturing and developing people. After all, we are confronted with the so-called war for talent, growing skills shortages in some domains, and the need to manage retention levels. These are all compelling reasons for a strong and vigilant focus on people development.
But how do many organizations deal with these questions, and where do they focus their development resources?
Mostly, there is a premium placed on managing the better talent in the organization, say the top 10%. Those so-called top performers are the ones that receive significant attention in terms of mentoring, training and development. At first glance, this seems perfectly logical, and is rightly seen as a vital part of the retention strategy for organizations.
But is there another side to this story? Lets think of a sporting team, say baseball or cricket. The top batters (say three or four) will receive plenty of training and coaching. But a game will not always be won just off the back of the top batters. It is true that when the top batters all fire at the same time there is a very strong chance of the team winning. But it is also true that performance from all the other batters is vital for a successful team effort over time. All batters need to be developed to perform at least to a certain level.
The question then becomes a choice about raising the performance of the top batters or about raising the batting average of the team overall? Like many of these situations, it will come down to some blend of the two, but many coaches will favour the latter strategy of raising the overall batting average.
Organizations need to manage a similar balancing act. Yes there is a need to focus on the better talent, but if there is undue emphasis on this group, it may compromise the overall performance of the team on three fronts:
- Performance and capability may be skewed too much to the top performers, and not enough to the wider team thus comprising the overall delivery. Performance overall could be compromised.
- Those performers in the middle will greatly outnumber the top performers, but their capability gaps may not be sufficiently recognized. Alienation of the great middle may occur triggering turnover or morale issues.
- As more and more focus is placed on the top performers, it may increase the gap even further between the top performers and those in the middle. The theory is that the top performers will draw others towards their level by example and so on, but this is not automatically the case.
Lets be clear. It is crucial to reward and develop top performers. But the key issue is to ensure that all people have the right chance to play their part in lifting the batting average in their organization.
Three points of focus will help:
1. Ensure that all people have reasonable access to major development tools and initiatives.
That does not mean that everyone goes to Harvard for three months, but it does mean that people need a strong level of development across the board, and not restricted to just a narrow group. For example, mentoring for top performers only would seem to be missing potential improvement to a wider grouping in the organization.
2. Provide a clear pathway for people in the middle as to what they need to do to move up a rung or two in performance level.
This is too often neglected or under-emphasised. Performance is often seen in the context of the “rear view mirror”, rather than focusing on what can be built from the positives for future development.
3. Use the top performers more effectively to develop the middle level performers.
The top performers have a lot to offer, and their objectives should be heavily weighted to developing and mentoring middle level performers.
In this way, organizations will have stronger chance of raising the overall batting average. Remember the old adage that “all boats come up on the rising tide”.