freeing_workers_potential.jpgBusiness leaders who once scoffed at the idea of a mobile workforce now welcome it. They extol the benefits of lower overhead, higher morale and greater productivity. Today, they’re advocating for change, for disrupting traditional structures like office spaces, cubicles and timesheets. Yet true mobility involves more than remote work arrangements. Talent mobility — allowing workers to take on different roles and develop new skills — is the missing piece of the puzzle. Yet to realize the value of talent mobility means letting your best employees move upward and onward. And that notion is rekindling old anxieties when it should be igniting the spark of fresh opportunities.

Talent Mobility Signals Growth, Not Loss

Remember the panic and trepidation we braced ourselves against at the end of 1999? We even gave it an ominous name: Y2K. Every era’s end feeds on some morsel of fear, some catalyst to an impending doomsday. At the brink of Y2K, the worrisome threat involved the breakdown of computer systems on a global scale — machines responsible for finance, utilities, infrastructure and weapons. Nothing happened, of course, and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.

This sense of dread and pessimism is often called “fin de siecle,” an idiom that describes the uncertainty people experience between the closing of one cycle and the onset of another. Simply put, it’s fear of the unknown — that something even worse will result from the change.

Despite much progress, it seems that some business leaders have fallen back on past insecurities. Naturally, a manager wants to keep his or her best workers in their roles. We in the staffing industry reinforce these habits by touting the importance of retention. And it is important. However, just as we must reconsider what “mobility” really encompasses, we must also expand our concept of retention. Keeping top talent in their current roles would seem to make sense. You’ve found an amazing worker and things are running smoothly. The problem is that this mindset leads to “talent hoarding.”

Talent hoarding may actually hinder your retention efforts. Employees today seek ongoing development, an advancing career path and the opportunity to learn new skills. These traits make your workforce stronger. They empower talent to grow and innovate. By keeping them caged in a static position, we hold them back. And in doing so, we hold back the expansion of our organizations.

In many ways, the problem and its solution are issues of perception. Some people succumb to the uncertainty of change — the fin de siecle despair. Others, however, gain a sense of wonder and excitement when new doors open. I prefer the latter. The end of a familiar time shouldn’t signal closure, it promises opportunity and improvement. Talent mobility is just one avenue that starts us down that road.

Understanding Talent Mobility

A fascinating study recently published by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) found that managers who cling to their best talent actually hobble their businesses. Of the 665 companies assessed, nearly three-quarters of the lowest-performing organizations engaged in talent hoarding. The most productive enterprises made talent mobility a priority and rewarded managers for developing their workers.

“Talent mobility is about being able to rapidly and strategically identify, develop, and deploy talent to meet the needs of the business, its customer, and the aspirations of its employees,” said Lorrie Lykins, Director of Research Services at i4cp and co-author of the study. “Our research found that prioritizing talent mobility directly correlates to higher market performance in areas that matter most to business leaders–profitability, revenue, customer satisfaction, and market share.”

Building this culture of mobility happens almost organically when managers invest in developing their best workers and offering them opportunities for new assignments. While that manager might be letting a trusted and exemplary employee leave the department, the overall organization still retains the worker. Not only that, the business gains the chance to groom and refine the skills of great professionals.

This practice bolsters retention and prepares a new generation of leaders — a concern for most businesses right now. The report also detected a higher likelihood that these new leaders will reciprocate and mentor future generations. “Over time,” Lykins says, “this creates a cultural legacy of leaders and a cultural shift that can help managers overcome the urge to cling to high-performers.”

Building a Culture of Talent Mobility

Launching a thriving talent mobility campaign requires work. It also necessitates a shift in thinking and business culture. Here are some of the recommended steps for accomplishing these goals.

Reward managers and hold them accountable. “Leaders must be held accountable for developing their people if talent mobility programs are going to work, yet 63% of respondents said their organizations have no formal reward mechanisms for managers to develop and promote talent,” Lykins explained.

If the organization doesn’t encourage its managers to help employees grow, it becomes far easier to settle on talent hoarding. It also becomes more difficult to promote workers to other teams or divisions. A stagnating worker is a harder sell to another manager.

Rewards alone can’t assure the program’s performance. Accountability for reaching or missing talent mobility goals must factor in, as well. Talent mobility should be seen as a workforce strategy where performance reviews and incentives are linked to how well managers develop their people.

Make career advancement criteria transparent to talent. If employees don’t understand the mission or the goals they should be working toward, how can they enhance their skills, move up through the ranks or follow a career path? According to i4cp, high-performance organizations are 4.5 times more likely to publish criteria that are transparent to the entire enterprise. They’re also twice as likely to prioritize the movement of workers.

Let’s pretend the job is ultimately to build a car, yet the workers don’t know that. You find a candidate who demonstrates tremendous aptitude in designing engines. She asks what the engine will power, yet receives no clear answer. In the end, that’s all she does for the organization.

Now let’s say the manager moves her to another department where she learns aerodynamics. That manager transfers her to fuel system design. As she progresses, she learns critical skills that apply to the wider construction of the perfect vehicle — the company’s end goal. Not only that, she starts to conceive her own ideas based on all the knowledge she’s acquired. She pioneers a revolutionary new model and begins leading others. Eventually, she becomes an executive and continues to push the business in lucrative new directions. That’s how talent mobility creates success.

Set clear goals with talent. Once a career path is defined and outlined, milestones should be established and communicated. Managers can facilitate progress by assigning talent to projects that will help them build up their experience, skills and responsibilities. Ongoing training and peer coaching ensure that workers have the resources they need through every phase of the career path.

Another suggestion is to match talent with tasks that satisfy organizational objectives at the same time. Workers fulfill their vocational aspirations while the business attains its desired outcome.

Foster independence. A mobile workforce operates best when talent, or talent teams, are trusted and given reasonable autonomy. The same rings true with talent mobility. A thriving mobile business culture becomes a shared responsibility with shared rewards. Managers can’t bear the burden alone. Employees must invest in the success of the program if they want to see personal results and advancement. Preventing workers from exhibiting their strengths, skills, creativity and evolution will erode morale and participation.

By encouraging talent to make decisions and explore new aspects of themselves — and the business — we can instill more than a sense of respect; we begin teaching them how to work as effective leaders and develop future teams.

Building Forests Instead of Cages

Mobile technologies have ushered in the on-demand era. We enjoy real-time access to information, consumer services and people. Mobility is our mantra, even in talent acquisition. Virtualization has become an essential part of business. We’re developing mobile job apps and embracing mobile recruiting. We’ve already accepted the concept — and value — of mobile workers. We must now charge ahead and cultivate a truly agile workforce that demonstrates continual growth and performance.

There’s a famous quote by the French poet Jacques Deval: “God loved birds and invented trees. Man loved birds and invented cages.” We may long to keep our best workers close to us, so that we may enjoy the fruits of their labor and the wonderful things they create. However, we can never truly unleash all of their talents until we liberate them from selfish boundaries. Talent mobility is one way we can plant more trees in our forests instead of constructing new cages. With that freedom, a simple chirp soon becomes a powerful song that brings us greater joy.