The 2013 New York City Elections: How Not to Develop a Talent Pipeline

In a few weeks, New Yorkers will go to the polls to choose their mayor, comptroller and representatives for a variety of other municipal offices.

The final "choices" on the general election ballot comes after a primary season that included beyond-humiliation candidates such as Anthony Weiner and Elliot Spitzer; uninspiring, big-city liberal caricatures straight out of Fox News central casting; as well as stale career politicians whose sole value proposition was, "I've been waiting... patiently!"

The whole process and the final slate of candidates reminds me of the joke about two old ladies sitting in a diner. One says, "The food here is terrible," and the other replies, "Yes, and the portions are small, too."

How did a global talent magnet like the Big Apple find itself choosing from a buffet of mediocrity for its political leadership? I don't know for sure. But I do know that the realities and influences on the talent pipeline for NYC's politicians provides some vivid watch-out's and lessons for all of us to consider as we seek to attract, retain and develop the best talent for our own organizations.

No Social Promotions -- Ever

The NYC political scene is similar to a deli counter. When they call your number at the deli, if you've waited patiently and still have the crumpled ticket in your hand, you get to buy a pound of ham, guaranteed. It's a fine, equitable system to sell cold cuts. But it's not optimal to pick leaders with vision and a diversity of experience to lead in the headwinds of complexity, unexpected risks and unseen opportunities.

We have all witnessed path-of-least-resistance promotions. They are usually nice people who have demonstrated loyalty and integrity and have made an important contribution to the organization's past performance, and successes. And they are absolutely the wrong person to chart a course into the future.

Social promotions act like invisible shrapnel that rips across the organization, sending a clear message that more-of-the-mediocre-same is rewarded, thereby repelling star performers, while simultaneously making C-student colleagues actually feel more comfortable. And to external candidates, it sends the message that knowledge-of-us trumps: market knowledge, customer insight or understanding industry mega-trends.

"No social promotions" isn't veiled ageism or any ism against long-timers. Organizations should value and reward loyalty and longevity. But the most respectful way to treat that long-time, still-the-same employee is to put (or keep) someone in the job they are best suited for.

Develop Your Bench. No... Really, I-MEAN-IT. Develop Your Bench.

Quick: Name a current Member of Congress from New York who has demonstrated leadership and vision on the national political scene. [Cue the sound of crickets.]

Why is the New York congressional delegation so lame? Look at their minor league farm team -- we'll call them the Albany Hacks. These "players" are taught terrible habits and are conditioned for cronyism, backroom dealings and generally ignoring the will of the people. Think of a pitching coach that helped pitchers nail the batter in the thigh. The same can be said about many State Houses, but the Albany Hacks put other state capitals to shame. So are we surprised that when they move up to the Big Leagues they are so lame?

Developing Your Bench is a management maxim we all vigorously assert, and agree to, and then forget or ignore. Here's a test: How much did your company spend on letterhead, last year? How much was spent on training your people? Are the figures close? Now look at your R&D spending. But wait, to do that, you need to turn the page in your ledger from "Expenses" to "Investments." Training should not be thought of as an expense, or "something nice to do" to reward employees. Training your people should be approached in the same objective (even cold-hearted) way an airline invests in jet fuel futures -- it should anticipate future market trends as well as act as a hedge against future challenges.

In order to avoid breeding a stable of one-trick-ponies, put your best and brightest into a regular rotation of new on-the-job skills building opportunities. This, too, is easier said than done, especially for smaller organizations. It means taking your best salesperson and putting them into operations. It means putting people into roles they haven't done before, where they will make mistakes. It means being deliberate and purposeful about the long-term future of your organization even though it will involve present day disruptions and even risks.

Go Fishing in Far-flung Ponds

Bobby Kennedy. Hillary Clinton. Love them or hate them. But all can agree they had more vision, leadership and impact than any other elected official that New York has sent to Washington, D.C., in decades. And both of them put their names on the ballot in New York before they had even fully moved to the Empire State. Carpet-baggers? Maybe. Who cares?

When we hunt for talent, we usually do so in very familiar territory. Our own networks. Our past employers. Our traditional competitors. Know-before-you-buy is certainly important in hiring. But in an age of constant market disruptions and re-sets, should we only rely on the same old pool and profile of talent for our pipeline?

Source candidates from non-profits or academic institutions for new perspective in strategic roles. Look deliberately in different geographies for a role based in your home market. Reconsider the internal candidates that "didn't have the right skill set".

Hire a few 'F--k You' Candidates

In his first run for mayor, Michael Bloomberg bankrolled his campaign with millions of his own personal billions. He could have taken every eligible voter to a nice prix fixe lunch.
A Billionaire's Ego Run Amok... Perhaps. But starting on his first day in office and until his last, Michael Bloomberg owed a debt to just one person -- himself. This liberated him to approach decisions, large and small, in a completely different way. To be clear, he made some mistakes. But they were his own and not the result of paying back unhelpful allegiances.

Hiring people who really, really want to work for us creates harmony. It results in smoother daily interactions. A new hire's gratitude for the job affirms that the company is doing well. Personally, it makes us feel... good.

But what if you had someone in your organization who wasn't solely focused on keeping their job? What if there wasn't violent agreement in every brainstorm? What if sacred cows were called out that others chose to ignore? Perhaps other colleagues would pressure-test their own thinking a bit more before presenting it to an "anti-social" colleague.

We can't actively recruit bomb-throwers. And those who don't provide "a safe place" when their colleague engage them will probably not have many colleagues engage them after a while. But there benefit to having healthy -- even uncomfortable -- challenges to disrupt some of the comfort and go-along-to-get-along that exists in most organizations.

Lessons from a New-York-State-of-Mediocrity

So as New Yorkers are faced with their "choices" becoming their "leaders," take heed and don't let what happened to the democratic process in the Greatest City on Earth happen to your own organization.

Take talent seriously. Provide current employees with challenges and accountability that will pave their own professional pathways for years to come. For talent targets, hang a sign that clearly says, "Open for Business... for Innovation... for Professional Opportunity... and for Personal Challenges and Commensurate Reward"