Taking off the harness

Strategic HR Review

ISSN: 1475-4398

Article publication date: 20 June 2008



Middleton, J. (2008), "Taking off the harness", Strategic HR Review, Vol. 7 No. 4. https://doi.org/10.1108/shr.2008.37207daa.002



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Taking off the harness

Article Type: Strategic commentary From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 7, Issue 4

Thought leaders share their views on the HR profession and its direction for the future

Talent is an organization’s gold, its future, its ideas and its flexibility, but it should not be harnessed. There is a danger that “high potentials” are seen merely as reliable pairs of hands who will get work done quicker and more effectively than others. Not only is it shortsighted not to take full advantage of all of the abilities, ideas and energy that high-achieving staff can bring to an organization, it is risky too. It is usually the most able who want to stretch and test themselves, so if you do not stretch them, they will look for an organization that will.

The frequently used term “harnessing talent” captures this mistake. There is a misconception that people must start their careers in a box and that it is only in the limited space of their job description that they can grow and develop. This linear and prescribed path might be fine for some, but think about what a harness looks like. It is a thick leather strap that restrains and keeps people in their place. That is the effect that a lot of talent management programs that aim to “harness talent” have on people who are bursting with creativity and enthusiasm.

This leaves them bewildered and discouraged, as was brought home to me recently, when my daughter, who has just started her first job after university, came home from another frustrating day at work. She has come to realize that she is expected to confine herself to following processes and carrying out prescribed tasks for the next six years when she will then be expected to dust down her leadership abilities and begin using them. What is most perplexing for her is that it is these very leadership abilities that she was hired for in the first place, and she cannot understand why they are going to wait six years before she uses them.

A new organizational approach

However, the biggest danger is not the squandering of talent, but the organizational rigidity that it will create. The future is already here, it is just unevenly spread. To survive, let alone thrive, in this fluid and dynamic environment, and to find new markets and grow, organizations need to be ingenious and adaptable. They need to be flexible enough to avoid the hazards while being able to grab the opportunities at the same time.

This means that organizations need to start thinking outside the box and look for new ways that will allow new staff to broaden as well as focus. So, while it is important that emerging talented individuals have focus and get the job done, this should not be at the expense of context. From the start and beyond it, they need to be given the chance to see the bigger picture for the organization, not just their department or section, and to have ideas heard on the strategic direction for the organization. They should be encouraged to connect with other parts of the organization and given scope to test novel ideas and trial original projects.

The possibilities for what this could lead to are exciting and limitless. Ditching the harness analogy and giving talent the freedom to fly, will mean that talent is no longer squandered just because it does not fit into what is narrowly expected of it. Nor will there be a hemorrhage of talented people looking for something more stimulating and challenging. Above all, it will put talent where it should be, at the vanguard and not the rearguard of change.

Julia MiddletonJulia Middleton is the chief executive of Common Purpose.

About the author

Julia Middleton is the founder and chief executive of Common Purpose, which she formed in 1988. She is a passionate campaigner for more – and more diverse – leaders who are active in civil society. Common Purpose aims to improve the way society works by increasing the number of informed individuals who are actively involved in shaping the future of the area in which they live and work. Her first book, Beyond Authority: Leadership in a Changing World, was published in February 2007. Julia Middleton can be contacted at; enquiries@commonpurpose.org.uk


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