The Hidden Risk: The Feeder Pool Problem

As if the challenges of finding and attracting qualified talent and dealing with the Boomer retirement tsunami weren’t bad enough, companies are now facing an even bigger and more imminent threat – the problem in the middle.

One of my clients had this not so pleasant discovery recently. They were confident they had covered the front end challenge and were attracting and training new talent pretty well. And they were aware of critical knowledge in the heads of people soon to retire and taking steps to capture and transfer that knowledge. What they weren’t addressing, in fact didn’t know about, was the problem in the middle. When they put pen to paper (or numbers into a spreadsheet) and began to look at the middle tier or feeder pool for critical senior level roles, they were astounded to discover, they had a major gap.

The potential repercussions of this talent gap are enormous. These are the people and jobs that make up the most critical tier of the organization, the people and jobs that are responsible for the organizations growth and ultimately, their survival.

And this is not a gap you can easily fill. You can’t hire it from the outside because so much of the most important knowledge is proprietary. And you can’t grow it quickly. You can’t take a good engineer with a good base of knowledge and put them into a senior role and magically expect them to move from competent to expert. You get to expert by doing, by applying knowledge in different contexts, by making mistakes and learning from them.

In the old days we had time to grow our experts. We had time to provide them with the opportunities they needed to develop. We threw them into learning environments and they learned.  But somewhere along the line, perhaps in the challenging economic environment of the last few years, we stopped doing that. At the same time, change sped up, complexity increased and in the blink of an eye, we got further and further behind.

So how do we solve this problem?  Admittedly, it’s not an easy one. In fact, solving this problem may be one of the key challenges of modern times.

First step, identify the organization’s most critical skills.  What must you do well in order to remain competitive? What are your core competencies? What separates you from the competition?  Take a look at this not only in today’s terms, but also in tomorrow’s terms. How are things changing and what new skills and competencies must you have in order to compete tomorrow?

Second, identify gaps and risk areas. What areas are supply and demand challenged. In other words, where are you competing for talent or at risk of losing talent?

Third, prioritize. There is only so much time and money, so it is essential you prioritize opportunities. Identify criteria that will help you determine where you’re most at risk and where you’ll get the biggest payoff. Look for synergies between projects.

Fourth – rethink the job/role.  If you have a gap or supply/demand inequity, how might you redefine the role or the ideal candidate to improve the odds of filling the gap.

Fifth, and perhaps the most critical (and also the most difficult), how can you compress the time it takes to move people from novice to competent and competent to expert. Research suggests, that small movements in compressing the competency curve result in big savings and even bigger impact.

We’ve covered a lot in this post and only scratched the surface. These are big challenges with important payoff. Stay tuned for more on this subject and please share your ideas.

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