Managing Talent in Troubled Times

A veteran HR director dies. Yama te­lls him to cho­o­­­se between heaven and hell. The HR director proceeds to do a due diligence of both before deciding. Yama first takes him up to heaven (Svarga). Everything is perfect and pristine there. Most inmates are speaking softly about philosophy, risk management, accounting pol­icies and mathematical models. Others are simply contemplative and serene. The ambience is very boring.

He then proceeds to check out hell (Naraka). There — he finds himself in the middle of the biggest party ever. Apsaras are dancing. People are drinking, laughing and having a great time. The HR director decides in favour of hell.

When he arrives in hell, he is shocked out of his wits. Yama’s henchmen are whipping people. There is fire everywhere. The inmates are screaming in pain. He goes over to Yama and says, “Yesterday, I came here to check the place out and everyone was partying and I had a great time. What the hell changed?”

Yama looks at him straight in the eye and says, “You lived your life as an HR professional. So you ought to know the answer to your own question. Yesterday, you were an applicant. Today, you are just another employee.”

The joke underpins a number of serious mistakes that leaders make in talent management. They spend enormous amounts of time and money in recruiting but neglect the art of nurturing and developing talent. The job title of my friend Subroto Bagchi of MindTree is that of a “gardener”. The rather unusual title explains his role. He minds trees and plants, that is, blossoms talent in his company. Narayana Murthy of Infosys to­ok the title of chief mentor when he stepped down as the CEO. As the French statesman Georges Clemenceau said, “War is too important a business to be left to the generals.”

In companies where talent makes all the difference, talent management cannot be left to the “HR department” alone. The CEO must lead from the front. Many well-known companies commit blunders while dealing with people in times of trouble and disquiet. When any discontent is left to fester, it inevitably leads to exits and may even pave the way for an exodus of talent. Someone asked Andy Grove, the co-founder of Intel, the following question: If you were going to an important meeting and you met in the hallway a key person in your organisation who informs you of his decision to quit, what would you do? Grove said he would drop everything and sit with the person to understand his problems, address them and turn him around.

Intel is a highly successful company. Managing talent in a troubled company, on the other hand, is a challenging task. It requires all the passion, dedication and determination of a committed leader. When a cruise ship is caught in a storm, the captain’s priority is not to re-arrange the deck chairs or supervise the serving of the next gourmet meal. He must take charge of the ship. He should not be perceived as the one who will jump into the first life boat to safer shores. How should go­od leaders handle talent in times of trouble?

I have learnt four simple lessons from experience:

1) More often than not, a handful of rogue middle managers disenchant good people. If people are voting with their feet, go to the root cause of the dissatisfaction. Suppose a group of people feel that the organisation is not living its values and some are skating on thin ice in ethics and getting away with it. How do you handle this? Instead of shooting the messengers, be contrite and honest and discuss the message and act swiftly. Pleas like “we are investigating”, “give us time”, “we will take action” and “we shall ensure this will not happen again” will fall on deaf ears and increase the fury of those who have decided to call it a day. Quick and bold action against the wayward managers will calm the waters.

2) Be honest and transparent: Acknowledge a problem when there is one. No leader instills confidence by blustering and waffling. What scares the living daylights out of troops in the trenches is to watch their le­ader burying his head in the sand as the desert storm begins to gather and blow.

3) Never, never, never conduct yourself like a wealthy slave owner. When there is an exodus of senior talent, address the issues head-on. The last thing that works in a troubled company is the” throwing of cash” at the problem. People do not like to be treated as chattels with price tags. In times of adversity, the so-called golden handcuff ploy almost never works. If you try to place golden handcuffs on the wrists of proud and self-respecting people, they will fall to pieces before you can turn the keys to lock them up!

4) If someone is determined to leave, let him exit in good grace and with dignity. An amicable parting is good for all parties. For great organisations, the alumni is a priceless asset. But many short-sighted organisations treat departing talent dreadfully.

It is useful to remember what Horace said, “In adversity be spirited and firm, and with equal prudence lessen your sail when filled with a too fortunate gale of prosperity.” But grace in times of adversity is a virtue possessed only by rare leaders in great organisations. Oh well!