December 13, 2007


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Yesterday, we talked about individuals who have "it".

Today, we take a brief look at the subject of talent.

The vast majority of folks who have talent don't have "it". To be successful, talented folks have to navigate at least two interesting dimensions within any company.

First is the style of the folks who "truly run the company". I'm not talking about the CEO or President or that ilk, though those could be the folks who truly run the company. Rather, I'm talking about the individuals who, by experience or talent or ego or ruthless power trips gained control of the organization. You know exactly who these individuals are. Minutes after making your first decision as a leader, somebody asks you if you "ran your idea past Janet", and you say "who's Janet?" You just learned who truly runs your company.

What is important about these individuals is their style. Do they "control" the agenda, or do they delegate "control" to others? For instance, maybe you work for an online retailer that is really run by the information technology department. Regardless what the CEO says, the information technology department really determines what happens, and what doesn't happen. Does this team determine strategy? If they do, then your organization has a "Leadership Controls" style. Does this team do what the business wants them to do? If that is the case, then your organization has a "Leadership Delegates" style. Either way, this team is the unofficial leadership team in your business.

The second dimension focuses on the company culture. Does your culture support "individuals" making independent decisions, or does your culture require "teams" to make decisions?

Combined, there are four different cells that an organization can be classified into.

I previously worked at three large apparel companies. Let's see how they fit into this framework.

From 1990 - 1995, I felt that Lands' End fell into the "Delegates / Independent Actions" quadrant. The leaders generally allowed each area to make decisions that were in the best interest of each area. In fact, much of the consternation between people occurred when divisions did not get along, or needed to work well together. Independent actions were generally preferred. While there were teams, teams generally didn't make big decisions. Overall, the culture supported smart people doing what they felt was best for the portion of the business they were accountable for.

From 1995 - 2000, I felt that Eddie Bauer fell into the "Controls / Teams" quadrant. I can specifically remember our CEO entering my office, telling me that I could no longer publicly share consumer insights, and that going forward, all information would flow through him, allowing him to shape the message that employees heard. There's nothing inherently bad with that --- but it is a form of leadership "control" --- leadership isn't delegating my area of expertise to me. Furthermore, the culture loved "teams". In 1997, Eddie Bauer relieved the Catalog Executive of his duties. His role was replaced by the "Catalog Business Team", a group of individuals who jointly determined where the catalog/online business would head. This team worked ... we had the most profitable year in the direct division's history in 1999. Team cultures can also have a hard time making significant changes, when necessary.

From 2001 - 2007, I felt that the Nordstrom culture was in the "Controls / Independent Actions" quadrant. This is one quirky quadrant. At Nordstrom, there were a group of individuals who were the true leaders, the folks who truly made decisions. These folks generally complemented the strategy suggested by a half-dozen Sr. Leaders. Combined, these fifteen or twenty folks "controlled" what was done. Try something outside of the framework of these twenty individuals, and you would struggle. Conversely, the culture loved independent decision making, advocating a "use your best judgment" approach to decision making. The lowest paid employee in a store had the authority to make decisions that nobody at Eddie Bauer would ever allow somebody to make --- several cross-functional teams would need to collaborate at Eddie Bauer to allow store employees to have wide-ranging decision making authority.

Talent must either fit into the appropriate quadrant, or must be able to successfully change the organization.

At Lands' End, a talented Eddie Bauer person would be criticized for wanting to have too many meetings, for trying to build too much consensus, for never getting anything done.

At Eddie Bauer, a talented Nordstrom person would be criticized for "being a cowboy", for making too many decisions without the proper study and consideration required of a disciplined company.

And at Nordstrom, a talented Lands' End person would be chewed-up and spit-out for not "following the rules" set forth by the true leaders of the company (I watched several former Lands' End employees get bounced based just on this criteria alone). Nordstrom would genuinely appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit exhibited by these folks, but would detest how these folks were not pointed in the direction that leadership was pointed in.

There are many challenges associated with being "talented". For talented employees seeking employment opportunities, quadrant identification is very important. The prospective employee must determine if the quadrant the business falls into is congruent with his/her skills. If the quadrant is different, the employee has to determine whether s/he can fit into another quadrant, or whether the employee can "change" the quadrant.

All too often, the employee tries to make everybody else change to his/her style, without considering what the organization "wants" to do. Maybe the employee was hired to cause change outside of the natural quadrant the brand fits into, in which case, the employee might have to create stressful situations.

It is my opinion that truly talented leaders adapt their style to the quadrant their brand belongs to.

Your thoughts?