Talent has no manager

For a store clerk, his “manager” is a boss: someone who can fire the clerk. For a contrast, an actor’s “manager” works for the actor and can be fired by him. In one context, the manager holds power; in the other, he’s a subordinate. This isn’t a misused word, so much as the overloading comes from the shifting application of terms. In both cases the person is accurately described as a “manager”, but the relationships are utterly different– opposite, in fact. Why is this? It requires analysis of what it means to be a manager.

A manager is a person entrusted with decisions related to a resource that its owner cannot as easily handle. A hotel’s manager operates the hotel day-to-day; if the owner is a different person, he passively reaps the benefits. For an entertainment personality’s manager, the asset being managed is the person’s reputation and career. In both cases, if the owner of the asset decides that the manager is doing a poor job, the manager is replaced. Managers work for owners. That much is clear. In the context of a low-level employee like a store-clerk, the clerk doesn’t really own anything of value. His labor is replaceable. Although his supervisor is introduced as “his manager”, the reality is that this person is a manager for the store. This person is the store’s manager, and his boss.

The word “boss” (from the Dutch) replaced “master” in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, because of the latter’s association with chattel slavery. In accord with the euphemism treadmill, “boss” eventually went out of favor as well, replaced by “supervisor”, which was replaced in turn by “manager”. Having a personal manager sounds a lot better than having a boss, but the latter is a more accurate and better term. It may be a blunt word, but it works well for the purpose.

The job of the boss is to represent the interests of the company, not employee. He or she cannot be expected to serve two masters, just as it would be inappropriate for an attorney to represent both sides of a lawsuit. The result of this is that employees often feel shafted when their “managers” fail to act as their advocates, instead preferring the company’s interests (or, at least, what the manager represents as the corporate interest) over the employee’s own. They shouldn’t feel this way. The boss is doing his job: the one he gets paid for. What’s unfair to the employee is not that his boss prefers the company’s interests over his, but that the employee has no advocate (except himself) with any power. Full responsibility for managing his talent falls on the employee.

Who is talent’s advocate? Generally, there’s none. Talent alone, one might argue, is not very valuable: experience, reputation, and relationships are usually required to unlock it. Because of this disadvantaged initial position, the person with the talent is expected to advocate for himself. Just as it’s dangerous to represent oneself in a court of law, it can be hard to negotiate on one’s own behalf when it comes to career matters. It helps to have an advocate who isn’t risking his personal relationships and reputation in the career process. So a lot of people don’t bother. Most people are underpaid by 10 to 50 percent because they are uncomfortable negotiating better compensation. Their bosses aren’t being evil; these people simply have no advocate and fail to represent themselves. For that, I think compensation is an arena in which employees are actually more fairly treated than in intangibles. Companies can’t legally renege on promised compensation, and basic negotiating skills are often all it takes for to get a fair shake there, but they can (and frequently do) use bait-and-switch tactics to lure the best people with promises of more interesting projects than what those people actually end up working on. This is a common way for companies to mislead employees into working for them, protected by the fact that no one wants a 5-month job on his CV.

In the workplace, talent is of high long-term importance. A company that can’t retain talent will face a creeping devaluation of its prestige, mission, and ultimately, its ability to succeed as a business. For this reason, there are a few progressive managers who advocate on the behalf of talent, at least in the abstract, because they know it to be important to the general interest of the company as much as it is for talented subordinates. This is admirable, but it should be considered an “extracurricular” effort, as it’s one that these managers take on at their own risk. When these efforts fail to show short-term (one quarter) results, the jobs of those who pushed for them end up on the line.

The reality is that this progressive attitude is quite rare. Most managers (who themselves lack advocates, except themselves) are just as worried about keeping their jobs as the people they manage, and aren’t comfortable advocating for interests other than those that they’re required to represent. Companies give lip service to “mentorship” and career development, but often these are just ad copy, not real commitments. What looks like a progressive company is usually an adept marketing department. Moreover, most workplace perks are pure vanity. “Catered lunches” are a nice benefit worth a few thousand dollars per year, largely provided to reduce lunch times and portions (people who eat out are served large portions and become measurably less productive for two hours). That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not given out of altruism. Moreover, perks like an in-office XBox or foosball table are just clumsily-applied band-aids. Real professionals go to work for the work, not the diversions.

As I said, the boss cannot (even if he’d so desire) advocate for subordinate talent because this would cause a conflict of interest between his professional duty to the company’s owners (or their proxies, who are his managers) and this ancillary role. It is also difficult, in an “lean” (euphemism for “we overwork managers”) environment where it’s typical for a manager to have 15 to 20 reports, for the manager to represent the interests of all the people under him. In practice, these “flat” organizations lead to necessary favoritism imposed by the clogged communication channels, while bosses who take “proteges” usually find that their disfavored subordinates decline in productivity and loyalty, which reduces the team’s performance on the whole. The result is that the manager must be disinterested and impersonal with all reports , so career advancement through typical channels is difficult if not impossible. “Extra-hierarchical” work (collaboration with people outside of one’s reporting structure) can be far more effective, because people tend to favor those who help them out but aren’t required to do so, but this effort also makes many managers feel threatened (it seems disloyal, and creates the appearance of someone attempting to engineer a transfer, and managers whose best reports are transferring lose face with their bosses).

If talent has no advocate, does this mean that the interests of talent are ignored? No, but they’re addressed in an often ineffective, far-too-late, way. A talented person’s best move, in 90 percent of organizations, is to find another job in another company. Of course, people are free to do this, and often should, but constant churn is bad for the organization, and leads to a long-term arrangement in which the needs and desires of talent are ignored: if employees are going to leave after 6 months, why invest in them? Alternatively, a talent revolt is often manifest in reduced productivity, which reduces talent’s leverage in negotiation and leads an organization to conclude that talented people are “troublemakers” and that hiring the best people isn’t worth it in the first place.

The position of talent is especially tenuous because it’s a dangerous asset to hold. If every thousand dollars in cash caused increased a person’s risk of mental illness and interpersonal failure by 0.01 percent just by virtue of existing, those who might be billionaires would either give the shit away or burn it. Of course, this isn’t the case. Tangible financial assets– real estate, wealth, ownership in productive enterprises– are largely inert in terms of “mana burn” (the tendency to inflict harm if unused). They are at constant risk of being diminished on the market, and this may be a source of anxiety for some people, but the only thing they can lose is their own value. Talent, on the other hand, becomes extremely detrimental if unused. A millionaire “trust fund kid” working jobs below his means (as an underpaid arts worker in Williamsburg, when his father could easily get him a “boring” but cushy and lucrative position as a junior executive) is not going to be especially unhappy working jobs that are “below him”, especially because the situation can be improved at any time. On the other hand, a person of high talent trapped in a mediocre career will only fall farther. Perversely, although it’s easier to find an advocate or manager for a building or a business, talent needs it more.

The role of “talent advocate”, I believe, is unfulfilled. A boss cannot fulfill this role without entering into a conflict of interest that endangers his career. Companies’ HR departments, I believe, are useless toward this purpose as well. HR has an “eros” (hiring and advancement) and a “thanatos” (firing and risk mitigation) component. The first of these sub-departments works for the company’s management: often they mislead people into joining teams or companies with undeliverable promises of career advancement and work quality, not because they are malicious, but because they do not have the resources (or the duty) to investigate promises made by the managers for whom they work. An in-house recruiter can’t be expected to know that a position being advertised as “a Clojure job” is 90% Java. The second half of HR works for the firm’s attorneys, finance department, and public relations office, and its purpose is (a) to encourage failing employees to leave the company before formal termination, (b) to prevent disgruntled or terminated employees from suing or disparaging the company in the future. As for the advancement of talented people already in the company, managers are trusted (not always wisely) to handle this on their own. This leaves nothing in a company’s HR department that can advocate for talent. It would, arguably, go against their professional duty for them to do so.

Talent needs an advocate independent of any specific company, since its best move is often to leave a disloyal or detrimental company outright. I believe that requirement of independence is quite clear, since companies’ obligations are to shareholders only and managers’ obligations are solely to their companies. (That most middle managers, in practice, place their career interests above both those of their subordinates and of their companies is an issue I will not address for now.) Independent recruiters, one thinks, might fulfill this role. Do they? My experience has been that I do better as my own advocate than when using a recruiter. As recruiters collect a percentage of a first-year salary, they aren’t incented to act in the employee’s or even the employer’s long term interests. They are paid for putting people in roles that last at least 12 months, but not for looking out for the employee’s career interests (which may involve a 10-year career at one company, or it might involve jumping ship almost immediately). Of course, there are good recruiters out there who truly value the long-term interests of the people they place; it’s just that my memory (and, to be fair, I haven’t used one since I was a 23-year-old nobody) is that there are far more ineffective or just plain bad ones, focused on quantity in job placement rather than quality. It’s not surprising for it to be this way, since job quality (holding a person’s level of skill constant) is only loosely correlated to compensation, based on which recruiters are paid. Since it’s companies that write recruiters’ checks, it shouldn’t be surprising where their alliances lie.

Talent may be more valuable than financial resources, but it’s harder to discover and it’s far more illiquid. A company can write a $25,000 check to a recruiter, while a talented person can’t easily pay the recruiter with “$25,000 worth” of talent. Financial assets can be sliced into pieces of any desired size that are useful to anyone, so recruiters can be paid with those. Talent can’t. A recruiter cannot feed his family with 100 hours’ worth of server software. (“Tonight, we’re having fried Scala with NoSQL for dessert.”)

A possible improvement would be for recruiters to be compensated based on the “delta”, or the amount by which they improve their clients’ salaries. This would be like the pay-for-performance model by which hedge fund managers are compensated: a small percentage of assets (usually 2%) and a larger percentage of profits (often 20%). In other words, instead of collecting a flat percentage of the first year salary (15%) the recruiter could be compensated based on the hire’s long-term performance. This might give recruiters a long-term incentive to place people in positions where they are likely to succeed for the long term. Would it encourage recruiters to fill the badly-needed role of talent advocate? I’m not sure. It might just incent recruiters to find high-paying but awful jobs for their clients.

One of the difficulties associated with the talent-advocate role is that it requires the ability to assess talent. Having a talent is generally a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for being able to detect it in others. What this means is that the best talent advocates are going to be people who, themselves, have those skills and abilities. Since currency of technical skills is highly relevant, it’s best that they keep their skills up-to-date as well. Talent advocates, in other words, need to have the talent they intend to represent in order to understand what people with that kind of creativity (a) are and are not capable of, and (b) need from an employer to be motivated and successful. This requirement that the talent advocate be involved in the work for which he advocates makes a full-time recruiting effort unlikely, but without a full-time effort, it’s unlikely that the talent advocate can acquire the connections (to employers) that are necessary to place people in the best positions. In short, this is a very hard role to fill. I can’t see an easy solution.

For the time being, talent must be its own advocate and its own “manager”. This leaves us with what we already know.

5 thoughts on “Talent has no manager

  1. Ahem. Professionals go to work for the MONEY (or other reasonably liquid assets). Forget that, and you are heading down the wombat path (“where the wombat has gone, it will always go again”).

    • Very good point. I actually find the word “professional” to be annoying because people flamingly misuse it. For example, computer programming is not a profession (nor should it be). “Software engineering” is an attempt to make a profession out of it, although it’s quite debatable what that should even look like. Computer programmer is more like a blue-collar meritocracy than a white-collar profession and, in many ways, that’s a good thing.

      What I meant to say was that “real professionals” (i.e. people who take their careers seriously) are going to make their decisions based on the quality of the work– and, as you said, also the compensation. Companies that play up the distractions are being silly. I’m at the point where I’d rather work a solid 8-hour day, get 3 times as much done as the always-around crowd, and go home, which means I’m not likely to spend more than an hour a month using the diversions.

      • I think of myself as belonging to a class that Marx didn’t foresee: the haut proletariat, as I posted earlier. Money but no power, institutional or political.

  2. Pingback: HR’s broken: Performance Improvement Plans don’t, and what does. « Michael O.Church

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