Companies & Industries

William C. Taylor: Talent and "Humbition"


Companies are indeed hungry for good talent and want the best people. That doesn't mean they're looking for "me first" workers with a star mentality

Posted on Game Changer: February 27, 2008 10:41 AM

Put aside the dire headlines about falling stock markets, rising risks of recession, and overall economic anxiety. If you're young, smart, and even reasonably well-connected, these are great times to be working on your career.

We are in a seller's market for "human capital." Well-known technology companies are battling fiercely to recruit newly minted programmers, marketers, and business-school students and aren't shy about raiding each other for veteran talent. Indeed, a recent analysis of the virtues and flaws of Microsoft's bid for Yahoo focused not on its implication for share in the search market, but its implications for share in the talent market. Meanwhile. high-profile ad agencies are adding all sorts of "creative" types to devise new-fangled marketing campaigns for a fast-changing world. And don't forget the new wave of startups.

In short, today's young professionals are the beneficiaries of a "war for talent" every bit as fierce as what we saw during the Internet boom of the 1990s. Of course, that original war for talent ended with an economic bloodbath—for over-extended companies as well as the impatient young people they hired. So, in the spirit of learning from history, here's some advice for both sides in the hopes that this talent boom won't end with a similar bust.

First, to CEOs, HR directors, and the founders of startups: The best-run companies I know are indeed obsessed with filling their companies with great people. But they also believe that recruiting stars doesn't mean succumbing to a me-first star system. They understand that what it means to be great is as much about values as virtuosity, as much about what makes people tick as what they know. Call it the character of competition—the relationship between a company's identity in the marketplace and the sense of identity that people bring to the workplace. Winning the war for talent doesn't mean lavishing big stock-option packages on every self-impressed MBA or Java programmer you meet.

Now, to young people themselves: The point of the exercise is not to land the fattest signing bonus or sign up with the "cool company" of the moment. (I was amazed to learn recently that Google receives 20,000 résumés per week. That's more than a million résumés per year!) The point of the exercise is to do work you care about in a company that matters. And achieving that goal means dialing down your short-term ambitions and recognizing the power of "humbition."

What's humbition? It's a term I first heard from Jane Harper, a nearly 30-year veteran of IBM. It is, she explains, the subtle blend of humility and ambition that drives the most successful leaders—an antidote to the know-it-all hubris that affects so many business stars. "The more I know," she says sensibly, "the more I know there is to know."

One thing Jane Harper knows is talent. During the nineties, she led the charge to make IBM relevant, even exciting, to a generation of young professionals that would never think of a career with Big Blue. Her strategy was Extreme Blue, the most ingenious internship program I've ever seen. Think MTV's Real World meets the Manhattan Project—groups of smart, young, ambitious people, living and working in close quarters, under intense pressure, focused on projects with huge potential.

Extreme Blue started small—a few summer projects inside one IBM lab—but it is now a year-round, worldwide phenomenon, with elite young workers in 14 locations, from North America to Europe to Asia. These Extreme Bluers demonstrate all the impatience and eagerness of youth. "They want to know, What am I going to be working on?" says Harper. "Is it going to see the light of day? Am I going to make a difference?"

But from the moment they report for duty, Extreme Bluers get immersed in a system that emphasizes group cohesion over me-first glory. Harper and her colleagues have even produced a manual, called "Staying Extreme," that teaches young hotshots how (and how not) to get things done: "When you leave Extreme Blue and join another group at IBM (or any other company for that matter)," the manual warns, "we will be watching. And if we find out that you are making the program look like we are producing a bunch of arrogant wanna-be's, we will forget we ever knew you. Be ambitious. Be a leader. But do not belittle others in your pursuit of your ambitions."

And don't, Harper adds, spend lots of time puffing yourself up. "I always urge new people not to worry about 'getting credit or taking credit' for great work," she says. "If they're making bold moves, and developing good relationships, they will get more opportunities to grow and succeed. Don't waste energy on worrying about whether everything you do gets noticed. It does."

Less ambition, more humbition. Something to think about in an age of big deals and fierce battles for talent.

Provided by Harvard Business—Where Leaders Get Their Edge

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