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Three colleagues run an imaginative race and win it together.

How to Hire

Talent Wins: Eight Key Ways to Put People First

While the constantly changing needs of the 21st century make talent one of the biggest sources of value at any company, most HR infrastructures are stuck in the 20th century. Here are a few ways to transform your company into a talent-first organization that manages its people as wisely as its financial capital.


Why does talent matter? Because, according to a new book from Harvard Business Review, Talent Wins: The New Playbook for Putting People First, the one safe bet to make in the crazy game of business forecasting is that talent-first companies are the future of work. When change comes and makes your tech obsolete and your business strategy caput, your make-or-break resource will be an agile, high-performing talent pool.

Talent Wins is a playbook for companies ready to dive into building a people-centric business strategy.

We’ve pulled eight tips—from transforming human resources to killing the annual performance review—as a starter pack for turning your organization into a talent-first company ready to take on the future.

Look for unlikely people creating unlikely value in unlikely places.

A company’s top players are not necessarily its directors. The most valuable people are a hidden group called the two percent who generate momentum and energy that goes far beyond their day-to-day tasks. This two percent is good at getting to the heart of an issue and creating informal connections that encourage collaboration. They can tap into social networks to create buy-in and spread information quickly. Sometimes, they’re veterans that rookies look to. Sometimes, they’re fast movers. Sometimes, they’re just darn charismatic and infectiously encouraging. They all have in common the ability to make the organization healthier and more productive. What else do they have in common? Their power is probably being overlooked and underutilized. Traditional promotion structures don’t surface people with soft power skills so identifying the two percent is difficult. They’re out there. Go find them.

Reward your two percent. Do not, whatever you do, lose them.

Talent Wins asks business leaders to entertain an uncomfortable thought experiment: How many people would you trade for your best performer? If the number is more than five you’re likely underpaying that person. Don’t get married to a compensation system that lets high performers walk out the door to the talent marketplace. And don’t limit your search for the two percent to internal—your key members of the two percent may not work for you yet.

Turn your hierarchy into a talent marketplace.

Company hierarchy is an archaic holdover from the 20th century. For the rapidly-changing needs of business today, companies must remodel their talent resources to be more nimble. Tech companies and consultancies already have a model for this approach, assigning specific initiatives to team leads and partners who then build a dedicated team from the talent marketplace of the company. Instead of top- down corporate decision ladders, this flat organization is able to move quickly and without bureaucracy to meet project needs and then disband back into the talent marketplace at the end of the project.

Elevate your head of human resources.

We know that C.E.O.s and C.F.O.s need to be in the room to call the business shots. But how often is a Chief Human Resources Officer in those strategy meetings? Too often, the C.H.R.O. is relegated to managing the operational structures of payroll, onboarding, and company culture. But again, human capital needs to be managed as strategically as financial capital. A C.F.O. may see where a business unit isn’t making money, but a C.H.R.O. realizes it’s because turnover is bleeding institutional knowledge, stagnating the team’s deliverables. To solve expensive talent blind spots, elevate the C.H.R.O. to the level of C.F.O to form a trinity with the C.E.O that directs business strategy. 

Rethink who runs HR.

Having a C.H.R.O. qualified to lead business strategy means rethinking the qualities it takes to be an HR lead. No longer is the C.H.R.O. focused on the company Christmas party and slideshows about benefits. They need a whole new set of skills. The new model of HR lead is excellent at matching top performers to the right jobs. They have an eye for how well (or poorly) an org is functioning and can pinpoint the root causes. They are intellectually curious, have leadership skills and maintain a predisposition to weigh in early and often.

How do you get that person? Reinvent the HR career track. To give HR leads strong business instincts, they need to go on sabbaticals to other business units. Reciprocally, the C.E.O track should have a tour of duty in HR—following the career path model of the heads of companies like GM, Xerox, and BMW—in order to qualify to lead a talent-driven organization.

Make HR tracks attractive.

There’s a big problem here. It’s not only that the C.H.R.O. job has a mushy reputation. Top performers aim for other job titles because they make more money. C.H.R.O.s tend to make 50 percent to 60 percent of a C.F.O.’s direct compensation. To create a powerful, balanced triumvirate that attracts the top players, organizations must stop treating C.H.R.O. as a discount leadership position and up their pay scale.  

Use tech to add value, not cut costs (or people).

Organizations should invest in data gathering software—even data centers—that surfaces and solves the talent pain points that only big data can see. For example, Google crunched its numbers and spotted a trend of high attrition rates in employees who became new mothers. Based on the data, Google upped its paid maternity leave from three to six months. Turnover for new mothers dropped by 50 percent. HR departments everywhere should similarly think strategically about data and AI as a tool to identify major talent trends in the organization.

Kill the annual performance review.

It’s not just that annual performance reviews come at the worst time of year when everyone wants to get out to the holiday party. They’re perfunctory and all too often the manager is poorly prepared. Beyond that, it doesn’t make sense to provide evaluations on an annual timeline when most business strategies change more quickly than that.

Effective feedback should come from multiple sources and more often than once a year. GE has led the remodeling of performance review systems with their new program of continual feedback and coaching. How to make that performance review even more valuable? Replace retrospectives with conversations that aim at the future by focusing on priorities and improvement.

Emily Ludolph

Emily Ludolph writes about business, history, and culture. She has published in Quartz, Narratively, TED Online and Design Observer. She is the host of a live show and podcast called Dedicate It


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Three colleagues run an imaginative race and win it together.