Growing a Stable of Jerks is Not a Talent Strategy

I was contracted by a CTO at a fast-growing tech company recently to lead the design and implementation of a new mentorship program. Let’s call them… SPoxTron. The CTO was looking for a program that would help his engineering and product teams who were struggling with innovation and attrition. The company’s broader HR team had delivered a suboptimal mentoring program, one with purpose of “identifying and supporting high potentials for promotion opportunities.”

Unfortunately, HR had not consulted with the community they were trying to serve (the individual engineers or the leadership) in the program design, and neither executives nor individual contributors at the company knew much about it. They had accidentally created a mentoring program that served their own internal HR goal without meeting the needs of the team they were trying to help.

The program they created had no on-boarding, no management training, no articulated job ladders, no transparent career path definitions, and no performance management programming that executed on timely, constructive feedback. I inquired about why they had developed this program as they had. Speed. The team was incentivized to get a program out that met the top level ask from the business leaders as quickly as possible.  

Creating programs for “high-potentials'' in early stage startups is a dangerous game. They are often called amorphous “talent initiatives” and are led by an inexperienced office manager organizing pizza parties, or alternatively a CMO championing a vague program that they have no experience developing. They can be rife with conscious and unconscious bias. There are usually no frameworks in place to support the path to healthy leadership, no measurement, and no long term vision. A program like this serves no purpose other than to blow smoke up the butts of their current favorite employees. Growing a stable of jerks is not a talent strategy.

Understanding where your best talent is in an organization is essential, yes. But before you go promoting your “rockstars” willy nilly, you need to have your anchors of culture, a strong talent development strategy, and a deep recognition of the systemic barriers that lead to bias in promotion. In other words, you need a plan.

The team was struggling with innovation, but the program HR designed was not going to foster an experimental mindset, for which you need employee engagement, stronger collaboration, and cross team communication. By not collaborating with the business to set goals up front and by not aligning their program designed with the expressed team needs, the perception from the business leaders was that HR was out of touch with their clients, had their goals misaligned to the rest of the business, or simply… didn’t care.

Which is why they hired The Canoe Project.

Through surveys, employee 1:1s, group sessions, and detailed participant applications, we uncovered that many of the individual contributors and the CTO wanted the same thing. From our research, it was clear that job promotion was not a key motivator in their satisfaction. What they really wanted was:

  • to learn from their peers (because you don’t need to look up the ladder to learn something new)
  • to have a psychologically safe outlet outside of their team to express their challenges and insecurities (because no one wants to sound stupid on a technical team)
  • to extend their personal networks (because socializing outside of their teams wasn’t facilitated much by young managers)

By using the employee and leadership feedback, my team developed an Everybody Mentors Program that met the needs of the team. We created mentor relationships for a broad audience that supported individual personal and professional goals, increased the employee engagement and retention, and drove cross-team communication.  

Building connections across verticals is critical to creating a nimble human-centered organization. If you are considering mentorship programming in your company, we recommend opening the applications up to everyone in your company. Everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn.

By giving your employees an opportunity to have shared experiences with their peers, both and up and down the ladder, you are going to get more out of your mentoring program than simply being able to label someone as “high-po” (GAG.) Making sure our mentors had proper training we were able to put competing leaders together as mentor/mentee to work their differences out behind closed doors because they had tools to communicate more effectively with each other.

By building connections across teams, you develop trust. By developing trust you build the capability for more autonomy. With more autonomy people are more engaged and can be more creative. More engagement and creativity = Better solutions and happier people.

The original HR proposal had not met the actual, expressed needs of these teams. That plan may have retained a few key players, but it would not have given other folks not yet identified as “Hi-Po” a chance to grow or engage. We spent time getting to know the constituents (at all levels), before we proposed a solution, and our plan not only retained key folks, but built a structure that would empower all of the employees to grow while strengthening bonds across teams.

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