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Growing A Stable Of Jerks Is Not A Talent Strategy.

I was contracted by a CTO at a fast growing tech company recently… lets call them… SPoxTron, to lead the design and implementation of a new mentorship program. He was looking for a program that would help his engineering and product teams who were struggling with innovation and attrition of their best talent. The company’s broader HR team had delivered a suboptimal mentoring program to the organization previously, one that’s purpose was to “identify and support high potentials for promotion opportunities.” Unfortunately, they had not consulted with the community they serve in its initial creation, and neither executives nor individual contributors at the company knew much about it. They had created a mentoring program that served their own internal HR goal of “identify and support high potentials for promotion opportunities”.

To paint a picture of their current talent state:

There was no formal on-boarding, no formal management training, no articulated job ladders, no transparent career path definitions and no performance management programming that executed on timely, constructive feedback. (Face.Palm.)

In initial conversations I tried to dig a little deeper on what the HR team hoped to achieve with their program, the WHY if you will. I leaned in…softened my voice… squinted my eyes a bit…so they could really feel the Simon Sinek vibes I was trying to send.

I was looking at them JUST LIKE THIS.

“TBD” was the answer.

They. Didn’t. Know.

Creating programs for “high-potentials” in early stage startups is a dangerous game. They are usually rife with conscious and unconscious bias. There are usually no frameworks in place yet to support the path to healthy leadership because at this point “talent initiatives” are being run by a nubile office manager, a sales recruiter, and/or usually have a vertical executive (think CMO, CFO) championing a program that they have no real expertise in developing. It serves no purpose other than to blow smoke up their own team’s stars’ butts. Growing a stable of jerks is not a talent strategy. It’s an accidental killer of a growing culture.

There is a time and place for being strategic in understanding where your best talent is in the organization. But having your anchors of culture, a strong talent development strategy and a deep recognition and plan of attack on your systemic barriers that lead to bias in promotion need to be addressed first.

The current program was not going to address the goals of employee engagement, stronger collaboration, or cross team communication improvements that would drive an experimentation mindset (all of which are desperately valuable to a company relying on innovation) at the individual contributor level. That these goals were what the business leader wanted from the program didn’t seem to matter to the HR team. By not collaborating with the business in the first place, the perception from the business leaders was that HR was out of touch with their clients and/or had their goals misaligned to the rest of the business, or simply… didn’t care.

Which is why they hired me.

Through a few surveys, employee 1:1s, group sessions and detailed participant applications I was able to uncover pretty quickly that the many of the individual contributors and CTO wanted similar results. Great. It was also clear that job promotion was not a key motivator in their participating. 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 an 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, I developed an Everybody Mentors Program to fit the needs of the Product and Engineering organization and created mentor relationships for a broad audience. These mentorship relationships supported individual personal and professional goals, increased the employee engagement and retention and drove cross-team communication resulting in several wins for the business and for the community that was building it.

For anyone considering mentorship opportunities in your company, I recommend opening the applications up to anyone who wants to grow in your company regardless of it’s growth stage or theirs. Everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn.

By giving your employees an opportunity to have shared experiences with each other peer to peer, and up and down the ladder, (Heck, I intentionally put competing leaders together as mentor/mentee to work their differences out behind closed doors. Did it work? Yes.) you are going to get way more out of your mentoring program than simply being able to label someone as “high-po”. (GAG.) 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.

Those diamonds in the rough who haven’t had a chance to shine will show up through a program that requires light weight effort. They will stick around because they are engaged and feel like they are being invested in.

Want to learn more about leading practices in mentoring program design and how we can help your teams? tweet me @WeAreCTO2!