Oops: the employee who just resigned was running an entire function and we didn’t realize it. Oops: the new executive left after three months on the job because she couldn’t build strong relationships. Oops: we thought we staffed our mission-critical project team with influencers and high performers, but the team is failing.
These are the talent management failures that no one wants to experience. Yet many organizations face situations like this every day. Forty percent of leaders going into new roles fail, according to The New Leader’s 100-Day Plan. And companies regularly fail to recognize the value of individuals or roles until they’re gone.
Thoughtful, disciplined succession initiatives and talent assessment helps. But the data most companies use to make decisions is incomplete. The missing piece is the organization’s networks. Organizational networks show the hidden relationships within organizations and identify deeply trusted employees, subject matter experts, innovation leaders, effective implementers, and problem solvers. They show who is deeply trusted, who people go to for leadership, and who shines on performance reviews but can’t work well with others.
Most leaders think they can name the key influencers in their organizations. They can’t. A friend in HR told me a story about her division’s efforts to identify their informal leaders. She asked executives: Who you think are the top thirty? They created a list. Then she conducted a network analysis to see who was deeply connected and pulled out the top thirty connectors. Only five people showed up on both lists.
My friend was curious about the executives’ lack of accuracy. Why were they so off in their assessment of who played significant roles influencing the organization? It turns out that the reason was very simple. The people in the initial top thirty were all known directly or second-hand by the executives. In other words, they were one or two degrees separated from the list makers. The executives totally missed the rest of the organization.
This oversight can prove disastrous. One former client, a technology company with a $75M operating budget, sponsored an annual trade show that generated millions of dollars for the organization. Unrelated to the trade show, a decision was made to trim staff. One of those laid off was a low level administrative assistant. It wasn’t until a month away from the trade show, however, that they realized just how important she really was. It turns out that she had developed deep, nuanced knowledge about how to effectively convince partners to send in their sponsorship checks. Without her, that knowledge—and her connections to partners—was lost. Along with losing one staffer making under $40K per year, the company lost millions of dollars.
I’ve stopped being surprised by these stories since I hear them all the time. What is surprising is that more organizations don’t take action to fix the problem.
How Organizational Networks Can Help with Talent Management
Here are a few ways that network knowledge can help leverage talent more effectively:
- Network knowledge can help seed mission-critical projects with strong influencers and connectors who can pull on their extensive personal networks to help a project succeed.
- Network knowledge can help new hires accelerate their on-boarding experience by connecting them with people “in the know” who can introduce them quickly and efficiently to who they need in order to do their jobs.
- Network knowledge can help identify quiet high performers and subject matter experts who contribute significantly, but who don’t crow about it.
- Network knowledge can validate succession plans by confirming that the incumbent is connected as needed to be effective and that the incumbent is trusted by others in the organization.
- Network knowledge can help address talent risks: people may be leaving the company (due to retirement or a new position) who hold significant knowledge that exists nowhere else in the organization.