Throwing WordsBridge the Talent DebtThe (National) Talent Debt

The (National) Talent Debt

“I’ve got bills, bills, bills and more bills.
Bills, bills, bills and more bills.”
Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor (“Bills, Bills and More Bills”)

What is debt?

Debt has different meanings person by person, and can even be a highly charged word to some. But, there is a clear and simple definition – a debt is something owed or due. It can involve money, an act of service, good will, bad will, or a host of other tangible and intangible things.

There is no need to rehash the events in 2008 that pitched the world, markets, companies and people into financial spin, but it is past time for truth-telling about the collateral damage that occurred in companies as a result. For five years, we’ve been running up the talent debt.

We are doing the bare minimum when it comes to investing in our most valuable asset and (for many companies) the biggest investment and line item on financial statements. Consider – what is typically the first thing to go in lean time? Budgets, right? Too often it has been training and development budgets on the chopping block. And now, we are paying for this talent debt that has racked up, in spades.

This kind of small thinking brings me back to my own small thinking ways (for some things) of my college years when our fraternity composite pictures were scheduled. The dress code for the photo shoot was blue blazers, shirt and tie – “suitable for framing”, so the photograph could end up uniformly hung on the wall of the fraternity house. For me to show up in dress code, there were issues that had to be dealt with. Let’s just say laundry wasn’t at the top of my list.   And ironing? Not even on the list.

So, I put the absolute minimum effort forth. I ironed the collar and the front of the shirt that wasn’t covered by the blazer. Those were the only areas that would be seen in the picture, right? Problem solved! And the problem WAS solved – for the five minutes it took to have my picture taken.

And that’s what we’ve done for the past five years related to investing in our people – we’ve done the bare minimum: that which keeps things neat and pressed where it’s most visible, but doing little or nothing about the rest.

With each short-sighted decision, your debt grows.

Think for a moment about culture as energy on a pendulum. When you are not intentionally building your culture into something meaningful for employees and for your customers, your pendulum isn’t moving. It’s static, on status quo and nothing is happening. Principles around energy tell us at some point the pendulum will move. The question is – in what direction?

So, sure, you fired the guy who was caught stealing – that rule is in the handbook. That’s easy – more status quo. But what about that department leader who can’t seem to keep anyone on his team? When something like this happens unchecked, it is a strong force blowing the company to the negative culture side.   And what about those A Players down in marketing with so much potential to do great things for the company?  Well, budgets are tight, so we’ll hold off on investing in those high-potential folks. They are smart and can figure it out by themselves, right? When these opportunities are missed and status quo is tolerated, know that these tolerations move the culture in the wrong direction.   What you really desire to happen – the extraordinary outcomes of work aligned with company goals – can’t happen.


It’s time to start paying down the talent debt.

How to do that? Well, we look to other debt-paying principles that are time-tested and proven and do even better. Experts show us the way for paying down credit card debt; you start by paying more than the minimum, and focus on the cards with the highest interest rates. How can we apply this to talent debt?

Here’s how:
More than the minimum: Paying the minimum only extends the pain, and never eliminates the debt. Commit to determining what the needed resources are and making these needed resources available.

Highest interest rate cards: Start at the top in the executive suite. Your executive leaders are uniquely positioned to create the needed momentum, vision and inspiration for the entire company.

As with any debt, easier said than done. But the doing is critical.

At Throwing Words our work is about solving business problems through employee engagement and company culture. This blog is for you to tap the time-tested and proven processes we bring to CEO’s to help make their culture what it needs to be to align with their company mission and vision. We also mean to share ideas and inspiration for “the doing” of this important work of talent development – your talent development that will deliver the needed business impacts your organization is striving for.

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