Go to Menu Talent Shortage, Or Poor Management?
By Nick Corcodilos

Part 2 of 2

In Part 1 we discussed how technology sometimes creates weak managers. Next we'll explore how this can result in artificial candidate shortages, and how employers can resolve the "shortage" problem.

Rather than hire managers with strengths in technology and online business who can mentor and develop new hires, many companies promote managers who are weak in these very areas. Weak but ambitious managers cover their bare backsides by generating overly narrow job descriptions. (For example: "We must have a Perl programmer who has four years' experience developing for an e-commerce site.")

What does this have to do with the candidate shortage? It's simple: Overly narrow job descriptions produce artificial talent shortages.

Weak managers hire skills.
Look around your company. Who is in charge of hiring new employees? Are you allowing your technical strategy and your technical teams to be hobbled by earnest-but-inexperienced managers who are incapable of training their new hires?

You'll recognize these managers by the job requisitions they write. They want candidates who "have done it before" because they don't know how to capitalize on the talents of candidates who haven't done it yet. Worse, they can't estimate the time it will take a talented new hire to ride the learning curve to success. These managers fear the learning curve because they can't control it. (Curiously, these same managers seem to have no problem waiting months to find the perfect candidate.) In the job interview, these managers are incapable of identifying the talent that would allow a C++ programmer to quickly master Perl, or a catalog merchandiser to apply her skills to selling stuff on your Web site.

In an effort to quickly beef up their non-existent bench, lots of na´ve managers are writing overly narrow job requisitions that make it appear there's not a qualified candidate in sight. Thus the apparent candidate shortage.

Strong managers hire talented people and teach specific skills.
In the frantic business world, where the mantra is "I need it done yesterday!", overly narrow job descriptions can kill you. When filling a job, it's important to ask whether it's more efficient to develop a good worker than to wait for a highly specialized candidate to turn up. Any software manager worth his salt, for example, will tell you that a talented programmer can learn almost any language in relatively short order given the right tools and a stack of good manuals. Waiting to find a seasoned expert in a particular language can ultimately cost more (in downtime) than bringing a talented novice in the language up to speed.

Companies need to remember that employee development is a critical management function. Good job descriptions downplay specific skills and emphasize talent as the main requirement. A manager who can't hire a talented worker and develop him quickly is no manager.

There is no shortage of talent out there, especially if we look at the ranks of older workers. The only way to tap this talent is through managers who can identify workers who have solid, fundamental skills, and who can then train and coach workers in new, specific applications of those skills. A team of fast learners that's managed properly is almost always more flexible than a collection of people with narrow specializations. Such a team can re-configure itself quickly to tackle almost anything that comes along. But this strength requires a manager who knows the work, who can do the work, and who can teach and guide others.

To avoid talent shortages, hire talented managers.
To move quickly, the most important thing a company must be able to do is deploy talented managers. When a company allows marginal managers to take over critical technical roles, it will soon find itself saddled with a marginal, inflexible technical team. Unfortunately, too many companies are hobbled by internal job posting rules and promotion policies and that allow non-technical employees to take on management jobs where technical mentorship is crucial for team development.

The most effective way for a company to avoid shortages of talented, skilled technical people is to grow its own. That requires having managers who are capable of identifying, hiring and developing talented people. While your competitors are dying waiting for candidates with the perfect skills to come along, your managers will hire talented workers and quickly bring them up to speed. But, this requires managers who know the technology and its ramifications, who can actually do the work themselves, and who can find and teach other talented people to do the same.

This is not to say that non-technical managers cannot become good technical managers. Don't let this turn into the "chicken or egg" question. If you're going to promote savvy but untrained people to manage technical operations, you must get them educated in both the theory and application of technology. You can't let them wing it. If you do, soon you will have an entire team that's winging it. Companies blow it when they turn a blind eye to the management of their technical operations and allow marginal but motivated managers to staff and manage technical teams when the manager himself doesn't really understand the work.

It's in there.
If it sounds like I'm advocating apprenticeship and mentoring as a solution to the talent shortage, I am. A company that has a core group of masterful mentors need not hire narrowly. The world is its oyster. Good candidates can be had from many sources and they can be taught how to tackle every new challenge that arises. Perhaps most important, good managers can cultivate those enthusiastic early adopters of new technologies who already work for the company in other capacities. The key is to train those existing employees properly, rather than promote them too quickly into management jobs where, through their na´vetÚ, they will trigger talent shortages.

When you find your company posting overly narrow job requisitions, you need to ask, Are we hiring talent for the long term, or buying specific skills for today's crisis? The most important talent to hire is the manager who can grow more workers like himself. Without that management depth, you're likely find yourself complaining that there's a shortage of good people "out there" because you have too many poor managers "in here".

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