Developing Talent is like Fashion Design

Published on 2015-01-22

Developing Talent is like Fashion Design
THE TASK OF LEADERSHIP is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there. So said John Buchan, a Scottish novelist, poet, and politician who was Governor-General of Canada from 1935 to 1940.
Buchan’s opinion was in line with the Chinese expression “知人善用” (zhi ren shan yong), which means knowing the people the way they are, then to best position them to maximise their personal and organisational growth.
The same can be said for drapery.
Say, what? Yes, drapery – the art used by fashion designers to test the way fabrics fall, hang, and fit onto the human form, and how the fabric’s thickness, stiffness and weight influence the look and feel of a finished piece of clothing. Fashion designers cannot simply throw their greatness onto the model. They must elicit the greatness of the design by understanding the curves that are already present on the model. And without a good understanding of the fabric’s nature, it is difficult to put the garment in the display of fashion critique’s detail oriented eye. [quote float=”right”]They must elicit the greatness of the design by understanding the curves that are already present on the model.[/quote]
In many ways leaders are just like fashion designers. In order to develop people and move them to the next level, the first questions leaders need to ask themselves is that “how much do I really know about my material (talents)? What is their nature? What is their strength? What is their weakness? What can I do to understand their desired goals?
So, if the analogy of drapery can be applied to employee development, perhaps, so too can the stages that a fashion designer follows in the creation of their finished piece – the talent.
Stage 1: Discovering and Building
Oscar De La Renta might not be a household name, but that depends on the property price of those households. De La Renta, you see, designs for the rich and famous. Arguably the biggest entertainment news for 2014 was the wedding of George Clooney to Amal Ramzi Alamuddin, and it was De La Renta’s dress that the new Mrs Clooney wore to the alter.
When De Le Renta was interviewed, he said “Any girl from any walk of life dreams of that special dress, and I try to make that dream a reality for her.” With this approach, he spent time to discover Amal’s perspective and building the understanding between the designer and the customer. De Le Renta and his design team collaborated on the dress design, and ultimately deciding on an effortless dress with Chantilly lace and hand-embroidered embellishments. [quote float=”left”]There was no misunderstanding because there was constant feedback.[/quote]The end result? A truly regal gown, fit for a Hollywood royalty wedding. Amal was delighted because the final product was exactly what she wanted. There was no misunderstanding because there was constant feedback.
And it is feedback, or the lack there of, that causes a lot of problems in the workplace.
How does your organisation establish an effective feedback program to help develop strengths and mitigate weaknesses it its talent? Establish a formal channel whereby the employee and your company mutually agree to a 4 to 6 month ‘mutual evaluation period’. Define the regular feedback meetings as ‘Goal Setting Meetings’ or ‘Career Kick Off Meetings’.  If the initial fit looks great, there is a good chance all parties will be happy.
Stage 2: Exploring & Performing
During this fitting process, both in drapery and in on-boarding, it is important to get rid of redundant features.
When I worked with some of the line managers from a bio-tech company on the topic of management skills, they repeatedly expressed the frustration in the effort required to motivate their staff to fulfil their potential. “Why are younger generation of 80s and 90s coming to the boss asking for promotion, when they haven’t proved their value by the actual performance?” they would ask.
The best way to retain employees is to stay in touch with what they’re thinking – that is, what features are important to them, since they might be very different from their managers, 20 years their senior. An important feature to a manager, might not be an important feature to the talent. A sense of belonging, challenging work, regular feedback, and the opportunities to problem solve, are but a few of the ‘redundant’ features that may actually be critical to the talent. Leaders and talent management personnel should respond to needs based on individual strengths, talents and sustained interests. Explore these features over a ‘fitting’ lunch meeting, once a month, and be open to what’s important to the talent. You’ll improve the fit even further.
Stage 3: Accelerating & Repositioning
Organisations talk about empowerment, autonomy, work life balance and independence, but they are not something that managers can really ‘give’ employees. These are traits and characteristics that an employee needs to pursue and embrace themselves. A manager is responsible for the work environment and team dynamics that enables the employee to pursue these important traits.
I talked with a leader from a FMCG firm and she pointed out to me a few of the outstanding performed middle managers at her firm were promoted from a beginning position of secretary. Compared with their peers who were hired externally, these former secretaries showed better results and received higher performance feedback. Many reasons lie behind this, but one obvious factor is that they have a strong and positive connection with senior management. Their former boss was usually very good at providing advice to accelerate their former subordinates’ learning, and redirect and reposition their efforts, if necessary. [quote float=”right”]No two women are the same shape, and likewise no two talents are the same.[/quote]
For skilled designers, it usually requires two fittings, although three fittings are sometimes needed for complex designs. Well planned coaching and mentoring sessions are like these fitting sessions, as they can be constructed to respond to the blossoming expertise of the talents and provide an environment that supports and encourages talent to self-initiate and self-direct performances.
No two women are the same shape, and likewise no two talents are the same. Once managers realise that there is no such thing as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ leadership style, then the sooner they will be able to develop their team into one of high performance.