Talent Hates Being Managed – Try Cultivation Instead

Talent Hates Being Managed – Try Cultivation Instead 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

I grew up as a country boy on a farm in rural Iowa.  I was surrounded by farming everywhere I went.  I don’t know that I honestly paid a lot of attention to the business of farming growing up (other than the various unpleasant jobs I helped with during summer months to make money).  But, now that I think back on farming, there are some things that stand out  in my mind relative to what I would hear farmers talk about as I was growing up that I think might be relevant ideas for our work with talent.  Here are a few of those ideas:

  • Farmers respect and acknowledge that they can’t actually make plants grow.  Plants grow because that’s what they do–it is naturally hard-wired into them.  So, farmers focus on the things they know they can control which create an environment that makes optimal growth most likely.
    1. The seeds they plant.
    2. The field in which they plant them.
    3. The chemicals they choose to put on the crops to keep away harmful elements like weeds and bugs.
    4. The fertilizer they spread on the fields to ensure the plants have the fuel they need to grow optimally.
  • Farmers are focused on results.  They focus on the yield they get from their crops relative to the amount they invested in an effort to maximize the yield.  They don’t get distracted when one field or plant grows faster than the other.
  • They experiment continuously  to find out what approaches seem to result in the best plant growth and yields.  They will run champion/challenger type experiments to test one approach over another.
  • Farmers are incredibly knowledgeable about the crops they plant.  They study those plants because they know that the more they learn about them, the better suited they are to create an environment that maximize their growth.
Farmers are in the business of cultivation.  To cultivate, by definition, is “to promote or improve the growth of (a plant, crop, etc.) bylabor and attention.”  They are committed to promoting and improving growth.
Contrast that to the notion of management.  Management, by almost any definition, is about control.  It’s about providing specific direction to achieve specific outcomes and working hard to eliminate variance and outliers.  Growth, human or plant, isn’t something that is easily controlled based on my experience.
So, here I am wrestling again with semantics.  But, I think that our word choices relative to how we approach talent is important.  I believe that growth is a natural human tendency.  I think that people are hard-wired for growth and learning.  I don’t have a stack of research to support that assertion, but I don’t think it’s a terribly controversial limb to climb out on.
As leaders, one of the most critical roles we play is the development of talent.  Management, as a practice, is designed around engineering the variance out of process to make them more consistent, reliable and repeatable.  Since each individual within our organization is genetically and behaviorally unique, applying principles of management to talent is likely controlling growth in a negative way, allowing only the kind of growth the is now sought at the expense of the overall growth of the individual.
I know that humans are wildly more complex than the plants that farmers cultivate, but I think that by adopting a mindset of cultivation, we might start shifting the kinds of work we do as leaders and developers of talent.
  • Talent cultivation is about studying the human being, acknowledging that growth is a natural human tendency, and using science to understand what encourages or hinders growth.
  • Then, it’s about creating an environment (culture, leadership, etc.) that maximizes the odds of optimal growth occuring.
  • Cultivation is ultimately focused on experimentation and results.  Cultivators are constantly experimenting to find out what approaches yield the best outcomes.

I suspect that some might be practicing cultivation today and calling it talent management.  I think that it’s time for a re-branding of this work.  Let’s cultivate talent, not manage it.  How might that change our results?


  • Jeffrey Fritzson


    I like the farming anlogy and would add one more item. Farmers will also rotate their crops. This always reminds me of management offering the “fast track” to their talented employees. THey move them throughout the organization in different departments and different projects. This is their way of “cultivating” talent.

    Unfortuantely management often does not take enough time to define their “talented employees.” WHen that happens you can get that one bad apple, so to speak, that can ruin a whole crop. I have seen this more in larger organizations but that increased span of control that this bad apple has, causes trmendous losses in revenues, opportunities and talent.


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