Making the most of our nation’s talent


Patient capital (Acumen Fund), crowd-sourcing (Kickstarter), socially-focused businesses (TOMS), new avenues for volunteerism (Catchafire), B Corporations, forums and message boards with volumes of free and constantly updating content making you your own expert (Hacker News, StackOverflow, Everything Longboarding), university-quality blogs and educational tools (SteveBlank, AVC, Khan Academy)… There is an undeniable evolution taking place affecting what talented people feel motivated to do. People are engaged in work more than ever, spending their priceless time and creativity on pursuits they find meaningful, and in many instances traditional incentives like compen$ation seem to be taking a back seat.

One related question rolling around my mind is can you foster an environment in a startup / small business / organization / corporation / etc that promotes these levels of engagement, attracts and retains real talent, and at the same time benefits the core business? It seems so, but the process slow.

I recently had dinner with a group of good friends, all close in age and levels of experience, all with professional lives in flux. More than half had left “secure” jobs out of varying frustrations, others were still in school furthering education and holding out for something more “meaningful”, one was returning to culinary school (a passion) and working another job (less passion) and one was preparing to return to school but also extremely excited in her role as head of a store in lower Manhattan (the exception).

While incredibly inspiring to see everyone actively pursuing their passions and interests, it was equally frustrating that so few had found professional environments (the list included various world-class companies) that genuinely complemented and nurtured their talent and ability. Only the “exception” seemed to be thriving in professional setting that valued her talent and provided what was necessary to spark engagement and creativity. This snapshot of friends was not a unique example. Masses of talent are going to waste. Large corporations sitting on tremendous pools of talent seem only capable of accessing them for the bare-minimum of needs; operating at click here the lowest-common-denominator. Small businesses and start-ups seem to be doing a better job, but could also improve.

With all respect, there are certainly “dues” that need to be “paid” across industries in order to evolve professionally, but at the same time it seems relatively obvious at this point that no one wants to feel small and inconsequential in their role. Furthermore traditional financial incentives, “job-security”, and benefits that once made “paying dues” tolerable, may no longer be the most effective means for stimulating and engaging a team. Talented individuals are not leaving positions because of these push points or because they don’t want to work, as refuted by their willingness to devote massive amounts of time and energy to projects and activities similar to the ones listed above. Instead, they are leaving because they are not engaged, have little autonomy and direction over the work that they devote themselves to for 90% of the day, and as a result begin to not care. In more primitive times, showing up for the 9-5 to get your carrot (or avoid the stick) was a functional system for generating results. However carrots and sticks don’t seem to be working as well anymore.

Team members, co-workers and employees need to feel more empowered. They need to have leeway to develop their own projects and talents, create their own teams and build their own mini-businesses within the larger environment. Give people the time to work on ideas that may not appear entirely relevant at first glance and just trust that you made the right decision in hiring or partnering in the first place. Allowing for greater autonomy will almost never be at the expense of the core business. It may certainly lead down dead ends, but it will also lead to breakthroughs that add new facets to the business, and in all instances it will foster the engagement and motivation necessary to retain and attract talent.

The confluence of technology, education and science makes these times very lucky. Motivated and talented individuals may finally experience a future that successfully stimulates that unused 90% of their brain. However, barring some exceptions, we are still struggling through a period of transition in which the professional world has not entirely caught up with our evolving needs and motivations.

So stay tough and believe in yourself; somethings gotta give.

Best of luck in all your current endeavors.