Talent Management: Empower Your Staff and Yourself

A history professor was frustrated about getting too many late assignments from students. “How can I get my students to hand up their work on time?” he wondered. Imposing penalties on late assignments may be too harsh, and constant nagging would only fall on deaf ears.

In the end, he decided to let his students set their own due dates for submitting their work. Because they had committed to their own deadlines, all the students handed in their work on time. By allowing the students to manage their own timeline, the professor was able to achieve the outcome he wanted.
Can the same approach be applied to managing employee performance and relations? The answer is yes, said Dale Simpson, managing director of Bravo Consulting, an Australia-based human resource consultancy. Simpson, who has three decades of experience in human resources development and management, was speaking at a public talk, organised by Singapore Management University’s Wee Kim Wee Centre and entrepreneur network, TiE Singapore.
“If organisations are to tap the latent potential of staff, we will need to flip our knowledge about employee management around,” said Simpson. This means ditching the traditional top-down approach to managing staff performance and empowering employees to self-manage their careers in order to achieve better performance.
Self-Managed Careers
“Elite athletes are constantly on a quest to learn about themselves. They are always asking: ‘How did I do? How can I improve?’” he noted, adding, “As humans, we will never know everything there is to know about ourselves and the universe. But the more we know about ourselves, the better we can manage our own performance at work and in life.” So if an organisation is able to train staff to manage themselves effectively, then it follows that the performance of the organisation would improve over the long run.
However, if self-managed careers have such great potential, why aren’t more organisations adopting this strategy to improve staff performance? To begin with, both organisations and employees need to work together as a team to make self-managed careers a reality; and neither party seems to be ready.
As several participants pointed out during the talk, the lack of trust would often prevent employees from voicing any grievances about their jobs during performance appraisals for fear such feedback may be used against them in the assessment process. Likewise, a lack of trust also deters organisations from allowing staff to self-manage their careers for fear that employees may abuse such systems for their personal gain.
While Simpson agrees that these are valid issues, he also noted that challenges in the global business environment have made it more difficult, if not impossible, for any organisation to promise any employee a job for life. This has further eroded the level of trust between organisations and employees. “It used to be if we were good boys and good girls, the organisation would keep us and we’d have a job all the way till retirement. Now, organisations can no longer make this promise,” he said.
Promises, Not Conditions
That said, even though it is now not possible for organisations to guarantee job security, employers can and should still offer other promises or incentives in order to foster better employer-employee relations. Simpson, who manages his own HR consultancy, revealed that he does not have employment contracts with his people.
“I have relationship agreements with my staff. We don’t have the usual terms and conditions in the agreement; we have promises instead: promises from the company to the staff; from the staff to our clients, and from our clients to us. How you link performance to promises for every staff is important as well. For example, I have a staff who prefers to have more money as a reward; so I give him a bonus if he performs well. Another staff prefers to upgrade himself through learning, so I pay for his course fees as an incentive,” said Simpson.
By establishing a mutual agreement with staff on the targets they have to meet and the corresponding rewards they would receive for good performance, organisations are already taking the first step towards enabling employees to self-manage their careers. The next step would be to equip employees with the necessary information to make an accurate assessment of their own performance in relation to how others are doing – something which most companies do not readily provide.
Instead, most employers adopt performance appraisal tools that mathematically calculate an employee’s performance. The score is then benchmarked against the rest of the staff in the company to eventually derive some form of ranking. This would in turn determine how much bonus an employee is entitled to.
While this type of performance management approach is a systematic way to track and measure staff performance, the onus is on managers and supervisors to provide a fair assessment of every staff under their charge. But why should managers and supervisors care about the staff’s performance when it is of no personal interest to them? Or worse, as Simpson pointed out, some appraisals are done because managers suddenly realise it is “that time of year again” and hastily put together something to meet the deadline.
A self-managed career approach, on the other hand, would require staff to set their own targets, make the commitment towards meeting the targets, and seek the necessary resources to improve themselves. By empowering employees to chart their own career development plans and manage their job performance, organisations are also promoting greater responsibility and accountability.
Pilots and points of references
To illustrate how self-managed teams can work more effectively, Simpson took the example of an airline which had difficulties optimising fuel usage. Each pilot could decide how much reserve fuel to take on a flight. However, with no clear guidelines in place, some pilots took too much fuel; and some too little. To resolve the issue, pilots started to observe the fuel usage of fellow pilots. This formed a useful point of reference from which the pilots could calculate the optimal fuel required on flights; thus saving money for the airline while still ensuring safety.
For self-managed careers to work, employees must learn to take responsibility for their own career development instead of leaving their professional fate to the organisation or their supervisors. “One of the skills people need to learn in order to manage their career is to be become their own coach. Each and everyone one of us can be our own leader, and each individual should take responsibility for their own engagement with the organisation,” said Simpson.
However, this does not mean that organisations should wait for their staff to make the first move. Ultimately, for self-management of careers to work in any organisation, companies would also need change the way they view and interact with employees in order to unlock the true value of their human capital.
Beyond Money
It used to be that the best wages attracted the best people. Now employees are looking for a lot more beyond monetary rewards. They want jobs with meaning; jobs that give them spiritual satisfaction; jobs that motivate them. Organisations are expected to do a lot, but fundamentally, the goal is to allow career and personal growth, and to retain and motivate talent.
The work environment is crucial, according to Simpson. “We only have two principles in my company. The first is: We live at work. The second is: Work is a loving environment. If we love our work and the people we work with, how we interact with one another and with clients would be framed in a different way,” he said.
Today, the cost of losing employees and retraining new ones is more real than ever. Worldwide, organisations are struggling with weakening employee loyalty while HR departments and recruitment consultants struggle to find the right candidates to fill positions. Perhaps, as Simpson pointed out, the key to effective employee engagement lies in Walt Disney’s mission statement: “To make people happy.”
Just as airline safety videos tell us to put on our own oxygen masks first before we help others, employees need to be empowered to take ownership of their careers before they can make people happy – be it customers, colleagues, supervisors or stakeholders or even themselves. In short, empowered employees lead to happier customers and ultimately, better business performance and results.
“Careers are like marriages,” said Simpson. “They are long-term relationships. We enjoy [doing] what we excel at, and we excel at what we enjoy.”
About the Author
[email protected] is an online resource that offers regularly updated business insights, information and research from a variety of sources, including interviews with industry leaders and Singapore Management University faculty. The resource can be accessed at http://knowledge.smu.edu.sg.

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