What I Learned About Nurturing Talent from My Middle East Gardener

Photo by istockphoto.com
Photo by istockphoto.com

You coddle your people way to much.”

If they do not like this company, let them leave. We can hire someone else at a cheaper price.”

The only people who I consider talent at my network are the people on the air. That is all I care about.”

I’m sick of all this culture stuff. Give me a break.”

All these comments were from senior level executives during conversations concerning engagement, culture, or just their people. The third statement was from the head of a major cable network during a discussion at a dinner party back in New York. That was a very spirited discussion, to say the least.

My wife always tells me to just leave the HR stuff when we go out and lets enjoy the evening. But for some reason if it comes up, I will engage.

Who is in charge now?

I thought of those comments this week during some downtime I had between flights. I once had a former boss tell me that this fancy stuff has no value, but as I travel the global landscape, I am noticing that the pendulum has swung.

This culture thing that has been so dismissed by people (like the ones in the comments above) are in for a rude awakening. When you find governmental agencies voicing concern on how to become more attractive to young college graduates, you know that times are a changing.

This new workforce challenge has propelled the topic of linking employees to their workplace — whether you call it culture, engagement, talent management, or whatever — to the top of the heap. There have been numerous surveys that show that talent is THE top concern or challenge facing organizations today.

Main course or entree?

People, Culture, Strategic Workforce planning will become just as important as financial and strategic planning. In order to reach those lofty goals, it does not matter — it has to be done with the talent you have or the talent you acquire.

There is not a way to get around it. Even the best laid plans are history if you do not understand the talent equations that you have in-house. Remember, that strategy is on the menu at your organization, but your culture will decide whether it is the entrée or the main course.

Companies today are scouring the globe in search for the right talent. Gone are the days where you just confined your search to your geographical region and hoped for the best. There is a global workforce developing that will truly become interchangeable.

One of the things that impressed me in coming to the Middle East region is how focused these companies are in securing talent. They are not locked into this mindset that the only available talent is what is in my city. I call it talent across borders.

However, there is another side to using this as an effective strategy. Find them and they will come — for the most part.

What I learned about gardening and talent

When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia, I assumed that because of sunshine and hot weather, I could really engage in my passion, which is outdoor gardening. I immediately went out and bought a trunk full of plants. I spent an entire weekend, digging and planting. Each day I would water, weed, and nourish them. However I noticed in a few weeks that the vast majority were dying or looking wilted. Eventually, all of them died.

One of the gardeners in the compound saw the look on my face one afternoon as I surveyed my front yard. He said in broken English “Mr. Ron, you not prepare the soil for new plants, you just plant and water.”

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I thought because of the sunshine I would duplicate my yard back home, but I did not prepare for bringing in new plants. I hired this gardener and right away noticed a pro at work. He gave me a list of things he needed: fertilizer, top soil, etc. He was preparing for the new arrivals, making sure that he created the right environment for their survival

As I watch this amazing man at work and how his plantings bloomed into the most unbelievable space that I had imagined, I’m struck by the difference between our approaches. In short, he analyzed the environment of my yard and prepared to bring in the new.

What is insanity?

We know the talent we need, and all too often we just go blindly and hire and bring them in without analyzing the corporate soil. When they eventually wilt and leave, we start the process all over again. Einstein (we think) said it well, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

If we were to survey employees across the globe we would find, as one CEO told me recently, that “regardless of the nationality, everyone wants to be treated with respect and to be appreciated.” This was from a globe-trotting CEO/Owner with businesses across the Middle East and North Africa [MENA]. However this mindset must be embedded throughout the organization.

It’s fitting is that this came from a CEO who gets it. From the Board of Directors to the mailroom, this mantra must permeate the entire function. Managers that do not live up to this should not be there. It’s as simple as that.

Employees are always on the lookout to see whether those statements that you purport to live by are actually real or just a figment of someone’s imagination. Every action or interaction that comes about is viewed through the lens of respect and appreciation. There are no excuses for not getting this simple and basic part of the workplace equation right.

Is leadership development an oxymoron?

Leadership development is such an overused term that if you can’t get the basics right, there’s no need for an offsite gathering that some consultant designed. It’s about people and connecting with them, and not some far-flung theory that you will sit and talk about for a few days with a binder which will become “credenza wear” in a few months.

Yes, the pendulum has swung and we will all be better off in the long run when all realize that, at the end of the day, it is that talent outside your door or cube that will get it done. Without them you might as well get used to bad business results. Oh, and that strategy you devised? Wink, wink — it is not going to happen.

I was back in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia this past week, and I stopped by my old compound. Yes, the gardener is still there making it look like a paradise.

Maybe I could get him to teach a leadership development class. I guarantee that people would learn from what he has to say.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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