Stop Trying to Make Talent Management Chicken Salad Out of Chicken “S@#t”

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Oct 28, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

While the old saying reflected in the title is rather crude, in a Made to Stick Make your point sticky by using analogies that pack a punch” kind of way, it describes the talent management strategy many employers employ.

You’ve probably witnessed this “strategy” at least once in your career.

Maybe you’ve worked in an organization that repeatedly tried to rehab highly dysfunctional employees, despite years of evidence that such efforts were futile.

Maybe you’ve worked for an employer that launched a major customer service or “high performance culture” initiative, without addressing the C and D players who don’t have the skills, psychological make-up, or desire to make that vision a reality.

Perhaps you’ve even had the pleasure of inheriting a “problem child” when hired to manage a team, and you wondered why that person hadn’t been fired years ago.

An ominous warning

I was reminded of the price employers pay for this approach to talent management while talking with a senior leader a while back. She was my contact with an organization bringing me in to speak to their management team about how they can create a more engaged, resilient workforce.

As she described the management team, and what to expect from the group, she warned me about a fellow senior manager.

This woman, a 20-year veteran of the organization, had major turnover and morale problems in her department. She was also notoriously difficult to work with.

My contact warned me that this woman was a loose cannon at meetings, including programs with outside speakers. She had no qualms about jumping in with antagonistic comments or inappropriately challenging questions.

I asked my contact if this senior manager’s behavior had been addressed in the past.

Crafting a strategy – for dealing with one employee

She said this woman’s boss — the president of the company — had never confronted her about this. However, she confided, she and her colleagues had recently conducted a closed-door meeting about how to best deal with their problematic colleague.

Think of that.

They are conducting closed doors meetings strategizing on how to best deal with this person. Think of the time and energy they spend outside of that meeting trying to deal with — and work around — this one person.

Besides the lost productivity, consider the impact on the organization’s efforts to create a positive culture.

How seriously do you think the rank and file employee will take leadership’s new initiative about making their workplace better, when they see such morale-damaging behavior tolerated?

It’s not just about toxic personalities – it’s about capability

As I mentioned in the opening of this article, having a “Making Chicken Salad Out of Chicken S#%t” approach to talent management doesn’t just relate to toxic personalities and behavior, it also relates to capability.

It’s about trying to execute a strategy with people who don’t have the ability to execute that

I often see this in the customer service world and with managers. In customer service, some people just do not have the “Service Gene” or the emotional intelligence to provide the caliber of service that can support a Best In Class customer service vision.

With managers, some simply do not have the emotional intelligence or the interest in people required to support a high performance, Best Places to Work culture.

Trying to achieve such goals with these people is like trying to make chicken salad out of, well, you know what.

You must have the right raw materials

I’ll leave the chicken salad metaphor behind and use something a little more palatable to build on this idea: a gourmet dish.

Great chefs know that their amazing culinary skills cannot offset the effect of sub-par ingredients. They might get a “B” quality dish, but not an “A+.”

In the business world, I’ve encountered many leaders with an ambitious vision but who try to get there with a team populated with C and D players.

Over the years, I’ve talked with many managers who expressed frustration over employees repeatedly demonstrating the same toxic behavior or poor performance. Despite the fact that each conversation with the employee is like Bill Murray’s experience in Groundhog Day, they continue trying to rehab the person.

They continue trying to make chicken salad out of chicken s#@t.

As you probably remember, one of Jim Collins‘ main points in Good to Great was that Job No. 1 was to get the right people on the bus, and in the right seats. The importance of this cannot be overstated, especially if you have a small team, where every employee has a huge impact on morale and performance.

It’s reality time

OK, so it’s time to reflect. Think about your vision and the strategy you want your team to execute.

Think about your plans for the future. Then, mentally scan the people on your team and ask yourself:

  1. Am I trying to doing the talent management equivalent of trying to make chicken salad out of chicken s$%t?”
  2. Do I have the right ingredients — i.e. “the right people on the bus, and in the right seats?
  3. What conversations do I need to have to get clear about my answers to these questions.”


This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.