Jason Lauritsen - Crushing talent dogma to free human potential

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Two Talent Lessons from McKinsey and Co.

A few weeks ago at the Universum Employer Branding Conference, I had the opportunity to hear Brian Rolfes, Director of Global Recruiting and McKinsey and Co. speak about some of the ways that his organization develops “the best talent in the world.”  It was a terrific opportunity for me because despite knowing a lot about the work of McKinsey, I didn’t know anything about their talent development approach.  Brian shared a lot of interesting insights, but there were two things that really stood out for me.

The first thing that jumped out at me was when he said that at McKinsey, it’s best to have “one foot out the door.”  McKinsey has an amazing reputation for producing great leaders, so when you work there, opportunities find you.  He says that the smart ones listen and pay attention to what’s out there.  By having the figurative foot out the door, it helps the individual to stay more balanced.  Otherwise, he says that the work and the opportunities within McKinsey can be so intense that it can swallow you up and burn you out.

It makes sense when he says this and I think it’s great practice for talented people in any company.  But, it’s rare to hear a leader say this about the people within his own organization.  Generally, this advice is the kind of advice you might get from your father when you start your career, “Keep your eyes open and always listen to anyone who wants to talk to you about opportunity.”  The advice is generally couched in the idea that if you aren’t looking around and keeping a foot out the door, you will get screwed by “the man.”  But, this felt very different.  McKinsey seems to really care about their talent and they know that some will stay and some will go.  They also trust in how great their opportunities are so they know that the right people will stick around as long as it makes sense.

Then, Brian talked about what happens when one of their associates gets a job opportunity outside of the company and they think they want to leave.  First, the notion of disloyalty doesn’t appear to exist at McKinsey.  As I just shared, they appear to be very supportive of their people paying attention to what’s out there for them in the market.  So, when something too good to pass up comes along, the learder’s first action is to do whatever they can to try to keep the person.  By nature of being such a big and diverse company, they can offer a lot of different kinds of oppotunities and options to try to keep someone in the organization.

When the individual feels that it is time to go, they shift gears from trying to keep them into celebrating their opportunity.  McKinsey touts their alumni proudly, regardless of whether you were there for two or twenty years.  They appear to keep in great contact with their alums to maintain an ongoing relationship.  This not only a great talent practice, but it is good business for them.  Many of the people who leave them go on to high-powered leadership roles in F500, government and elsewhere and will one day likely be a potential customer.  So, the alumni connection is certainly not just for talent purposes, but I got the sense that talent is a sincere part of equation.  Brian talked about their alumni network with great pride (as well he should when you see the list).

As a leader, I know I tried to practice these behaviors individually (sometimes at my own peril), but I’ve rarely seen an organization that has institutionalized this type of behavior so broadly.  The great irony in all of this is that while McKinsey doesn’t seem to have any expectation of blind loyalty from their associates, my guess is that they earn fierce loyalty by demonstrating such profound respect for the individual’s talents and choices.  This approach isn’t hard to practice and it  takes the fear out of the relationship so that talent can develop quickly.  Why aren’t more companies doing it?

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Jason Lauritsen