Managing Key Talent
Every manager with more than 3 direct reports can identify somebody on their team as "key talent." These are the employees that know what is and isn't working in the group, help guide the junior employees and take a lot of critical work upon themselves to ensure it gets done right. If you haven't identified key talent, you should. And if you have, here are some tips for keeping them interested and on your side.
I hired a guy to manage a product for me several years ago and quickly realized that he was special. He knew our technology space well and identified areas where we were deficient. He was a little rough interpersonally but was a hard worker and knew how to prioritize. I gave him a set of standalone products to manage that took a lot of sustaining resources but contributed marginal value. He immediately questioned why the tools were separate and proposed a way to combine them into a single offering.
So, he had ideas but could he execute? WOW! He was like a border collie in a room full of sheep. He aligned the key development managers by involving them in customer research to flesh out the concept. They put their best resources on the project and delivered prototypes within a few months. The final product was a huge customer satisfier.
I invited Aaron to strategy sessions with our planners and technologists. He appreciated being valued for his long term thinking and the additional visibility he got by being part of the planning team. I spent a lot of time with his peers getting feedback on his technical capability, communication skills, follow-through, and ability to navigate the organization.
Aaron and I spent most of our 1:1 time discussing these topics. He had a difficult time dealing with incompetence and people that didn’t deliver. Most companies have both and it is important to learn how to deal with them diplomatically because some are “protected assets” (and some are senior management!). We worked on negotiating skills, handling his emotions in stressful situations, etc. I asked him to lead some internal process improvements. He applied what he learned successfully and, ultimately, I gave him a management role.
Never ever let key talent get bored. Assign them jobs that demonstrate how their role fits into the big picture. Give them cross functional teams to manage and assess how well they work and play with others, especially in stressful situations. Use the feedback to identify where they need coaching and development. Create or find other assignments to see if they're growing. These tactics can be used to develop any employee but it takes considerable time and effort from the manager. You can really only invest this level of activity with one or two people. But for those one or two people, it’s worth it.