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What’s the one thing you prioritize most in your leadership role? If it’s not talent strategy, it should be! Leaders today are experiencing a war for talent - and retaining the right talent.

The following is a transcription of a podcast and may contain grammatical errors.

Celia Swanson: Hi everyone. I’m Celia Swanson, and I want to welcome you to today’s Gracious and Strong podcast, where you can discover the authentic and resilient leader inside of you. 

Hello and welcome to the Gracious and Strong podcast. My name is Celia Swanson, and today we’re going to be talking about talent. Talent is the most important asset you can have as an individual, as a leader, and as an organization—and especially in today’s workforce, talent is even a more precious asset to get, keep, and grow. Let’s start with an excerpt from my book, Gracious and Strong. 

Talent is vital to your success and the success of the team. I failed at this lesson early in my career, but the lesson kept repeating itself. I discovered that finding the right talent is one of the most critical responsibilities you have as a leader, surround your gaps and voids with someone better than the person who left. And don’t be afraid to hire people better than you. Never settle. Talent will always reflect on you. You will be defined by the talent you bring into an organization, the quality of talent  you surround yourself with, their ongoing success and the number you promote. Be a talent contributor and not a talent user.

As I said, this is an excerpt from my book, Gracious and Strong. I addressed the topic of talent several times throughout my book, but this particular excerpt comes from the chapter, Leadership is about Relationships. Talent, and the priority talent strategies should play in the success of an organization, is a frequent topic that I share with many of my clients. As I’ve been doing research for a specific client on great leadership, I rediscovered a book called Good to Great by Jim Collins. And where does Jim Collins put the importance of talent strategies and investing in the right talent? He puts it under the first stage of disciplined people. First who, then what is where his depth of research of successful companies and leaders place their focus on talent. Let me read an excerpt from good to great. 

We expected that Good to Great leaders would begin by setting a new vision and strategy. We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus and the right people in the right seats, and then figured out where to drive it. 

As I said, this is an excerpt from Good to Great by Jim Collins. And this book was written in 2001. As I reflected on that statement today, 20 years later, we’re in a war for talent and retaining the right talent. His wisdom is really worth  revisiting. In addition, how can you distinguish yourself as the right talent? I will share a few timeless principles for staying relevant in a world of vast change. And last I’ll share my perspectives on a few critical leadership competencies that I believe are even more important than in the past during these uncertain and challenging times. I hope you will enjoy this episode on talent. 

Let’s go back to the research findings from Jim Collins, the key point of the chapter First Who, Then What are to first get the right people on the bus before you can figure out where to drive. Second is to instill rigor in the people, decisions and processes you put into place in your organization. Rigorous not ruthless, Rigorous, not ruthless was one of the key insights that they found in good to great companies. Rigor is found when putting discipline processes in place for selection, promotion, key assignment, and recognition. It means consistently applying exacting standards at all times, and in all circumstances—especially when you’re focusing at the top layers of any organization. Growth in any organization comes from the ability to get and keep enough of the right people. Investing in talent management, processes and practices that will allow you to instill rigor in your people and practices are some of the most important systems you can build into an organization, but they require rigorous discipline. Be tough on issues, but soft on people was the management philosophy of one of the greatest leaders I ever worked with, Mike Duke. Mike was one of the most disciplined I have ever met. He started every meeting on time and ended every meeting on time. Even if you weren’t finished with your topics, he practiced and lived the discipline of preparation and getting to the heart of an issue. But when it came to people and how people were treated, he applied the principles of respect, empathy, and fairness. Mike is an engineer by education and training, and he grew the transportation logistics division at Walmart with some of its greatest technology innovations and discipline, but he was one of the greatest leaders of people as well. That’s why on the old Wal-Mart home office campus, you’ll find the Global People building named the Mike Duke Complex. 

And the emphasis on right to people is also one I want to share as important. The right people are your most important asset according to Jim Collins. And one of their unexpected findings was whether someone is the right person has more to do with their character traits and less to do with their specific knowledge, background and skills. Isn’t that exactly what you’ve discovered on your leadership journey. How you treat people, how you navigate complex situations and the character you demonstrate every day are far more predictive about the quality of the leader over skills, knowledge, and ego. 

Well, let’s turn the focus to you. How can you place yourself in the position of being considered the right talent? That designation should not be left up to chance by your organization’s people practices and leadership. You are in control of how you show up and how you prepare yourself to be relevant and valued in the workplace. I want to share five timeless principles for staying relevant, especially now when the right talent is such an important asset and change is such a constant.

Number one, be aware of your surroundings. It is important for you to have an understanding of whether or not your team is already in tune with external change and its implications. In other words, you’ll need to determine whether or not you sit in the driver’s seat or in the passenger seat. When it comes to raising awareness about important trends that are impacting your organization, the goal should be to take the driver’s seat as best you can, leading as the trusted guide your team can depend on for what’s to come in the near future. 

Number two, be the first to know, and the first to share. Ddentifying what rules are actually changing for your industry and finding a way to communicate those to your team sooner rather than later, is the skill I’m focused on here. You can do this by simply forwarding a link to a relevant article or creating an initial outline of an execution plan. You’ll want to ensure that when you communicate, you cover A) how it affects your customers, B) how it affects your organization and C) how it affects your team.

Number three, ask an expert. Sometimes understanding the dynamics of new trends is better left to the experts. In other words, think of who in your network can break down the complexities of a major shift and help you pave a strategic path forward for you and your team. You can hire licensed or credential experts such as economists or advisors to understand some of the pressing trends, or you can ask a member of your team who has experience and new ideas using social media channels, launching big ideas. Just look for who in your network you would consider to be the expert. Be sure to ask early enough that you can stay ahead of the trend and you’ll be well-prepared for the shift before it occurs. 

Number four, have an open mind. Before turning down an idea that seems far fetched, you might run it past several other colleagues with varying backgrounds who can give you unbiased feedback. This means you shouldn’t ask those who will give you the most agreeable answer. You need to look inside your network and intentionally seek out the opinions of those who have different experiences than you or might look at a situation from a new and different angle than you, stretching your thinking beyond what is possible. 

And number five is lead by example. I hope that you are a ferocious reader and you are constantly staying on top of global trends and industry trends. It’s important as a leader to be looking forward, to see the things that may impact your business, and to be curious about those changes and trends that may impact you and your team. If you’re sitting in a room and your organization is not responding to a new trend and, or a new risk, be courageous and be the one who’s asking questions about what do we know and how are we responding? It’s important that you’re the one out in front from your team, bringing new ideas, trends, and challenging how you’re going to respond as an organization so that your organization is ready and prepared. When that change actually occurs. I can’t stress how important this is, especially right now with a constant change that’s happening in the health environment around us. Being a student of reading and studying the implications of COVID-19 just as an example is an important place to be as a leader who’s preparing their organization to respond appropriately.

You see when it comes to change, you simply have to be always prepared to answer the question, how am I going to navigate this change successfully maximizing what’s within my own influence and control. You can be part of leading your organization through change by asking the right questions, staying attuned to the trends and issues, and being an advocate for asking the question: what’s our response and how are we going to be successful at dealing with the risk and rewards of the change that’s facing us. 

That takes us to our third component of our episode today, and that is taking stock in your personal leadership competencies. I’m going to suggest four competencies that seem to be more important in today’s workplace than they have been in the past. Those four are resilience, empathy, adaptability, and valuing differences. 

Let’s start with resilience. The definition of resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; it’s often described as toughness or grit. Skilled leaders will demonstrate resilience by being confident under pressure, handling managing crises effectively, maintaining a positive attitude despite adversity, bouncing back from setbacks and growing from hardships and negative experiences. Success is really not defined by our best and greatest moments. Success is defined by how many times you fall or fail and how well you get back up again. My personal story about resilience starts with me referencing that I survived five presidents during my 11 years at Sam’s Club. Talk about picking yourself up and starting again. Every time we brought in a new CEO, there was a change of direction strategy. And with that came adversity, but I earned the badge of honor for being the rudder and the constant inside the organization. One that allowed me to be a champion for the people, for the culture, and for the business model. From each new CEO, I learned new skills and I built more courage. I felt a strong sense of gratitude and pride for being the lone executive that helped navigate a great group of talented leaders through the rough waters of transition. And it was at Sam’s Club where I earned the reputation of being gracious and strong. 

Adaptability. Adaptability is your ability to change your approach and demeanor in real time to match the shifting demands of the changing situations and circumstances, skilled leaders pick up on situational cues and adjust in the moment. They readily adapt personal interpersonal and leadership behaviors. They understand that different situations call for different approaches and they can act differently depending on the circumstances. Navigating change can be emotionally intense, sparking confusion, anxiety, fear, frustration, and helplessness. Improving your adaptability can be learned, and it can be key to breaking the emotional cycle. Again, I’ll add a story about navigating leadership changes at the top of the organization, because this theme continued when I moved over to the Walmart US division. I was actually becoming a master of adaptability, which became a valued strength of mine as a leader. One of those bellwether moments that I can recall was when a new senior leadership team was appointed at Walmart US under Bill Simon, the CEO. I admired and respected Bill and his leadership team, but they had not had much time to work together—and certainly hadn’t had time to put together their strategy and priorities before quickly having to go into our annual year beginning meeting. I found the courage and the personal authority to institute a series of alignment meetings for the US leadership team. It was during these alignment meetings that we hammered out our strategic priorities and direction for the merchants and the field leadership teams to align and execute. After several year-beginning meetings where the direction was complicated and unclear, this leadership team showed up with one voice and clarity of direction. It was a very proud moment to see how adaptability made a lasting impact inside the Walmart US organization. And I’m happy to say alignment meetings became a way of working for this leadership team, as well as it allowed them to earn the respect and deliver strong sustained results. 

Empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. As I referenced in the beginning of this episode, real power and energy are generated inside organizations and teams through relationships. Leadership is about relationships. Skilled leaders relate comfortably with people across all levels, functions, cultures, and geographies. They act with diplomacy and tact. They build constructive relationships with people, both similar and different than themselves. They pick up on the interpersonal and group dynamics, and they build rapport in open, friendly, and accepting ways. In today’s uncertain and polarizing world, your ability to show up and demonstrate empathy can be a personal game changer. 

Fourth is valuing differences. Listening and recognizing the value of different perspectives and cultures may be the most underrated leadership competency in today’s workplace. Skilled leaders seek to understand, they contribute to work climate where differences are valued and supported, and they can apply others, diverse experience and backgrounds to driving results. They are sensitive to cultural norms, expectations, and different ways of communicating. Not being open to feedback and poor communication skills can be barriers to your success in this competency. But listening is the key—listening with the intention to seek to understand. Early in my career, I was described as lacking confidence and not strategic, and I had to make a conscious decision to change those two assessments. But I was often caught flat footed when others would talk about current events or global trends. And I took far too long to fill open positions on my team, and I was not focused on the right people on the bus. If I had to do it all over again, these would be the things I would have changed about my early leadership skills and priorities. 

Eventually I did learn the lesson: that talent was the greatest impact I could bring and lead inside my team. And I was given the honor to lead talent management for Walmart US, because I had learned these lessons successfully. In today’s workplace, it is critical that you place talent as your top priority, and that you become a leader known for finding, keeping, and developing great talent. What I learned is that you are defined as a leader by the talent you get, keep, and grow in your organization. What I also learned is that you’re defined as an individual by your resilience, empathy, and integrity as a person. Make talent your personal and professional priority, and you will reap the benefits of personal and professional success. In my upcoming episodes, I will be introducing you to some of the talented leaders I had the opportunity to meet and work with. I hope you’ll join me for my next episode. Thank you for listening.

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