Julie Cogin

Smart phones are designed to make you feel indispensable. Forever on tap, on line, alert to the beep or vibration of an incoming message, you are chained to the workplace.

Imagine a CEO who is always available, a senior manager who can decide every major operational decision, whether in the office or on holiday.

What is this connectivity doing to workplace culture?

Managing talent and succession planning will fail if executives don’t delegate responsibility.

At an executive education session on talent management I presented recently, each of the 80 or so executives had their smartphone sitting in a prominent position on the desk in front of them.

The room was full of highly committed senior executives looking for the secret to attract, engage and retain the best talent in order to propel their businesses forward or outdo the competition. The behaviour of folks in the room was consistent with every other executive audience I have encountered in recent years. There was good exchange of views and listening to examples of workplace practices or troublesome issues.

Yet everyone leapt out of their chair for all breaks or group work activity to call the office or at the very least check their smartphone for email, text or incoming calls, certain something must have gone pear-shaped in their short absence. Every single person in that room had a smartphone accessible to enable regular (in some cases meant several times each minute) checks for action.

The irony of the situation was that this behavior is a major impediment to talent management – the very topic of the day. Let me outline three reasons why.

First, if you can always be contacted to deal with emergencies, urgent situations or the usual bushfires that come up you’re not encouraging others to make decisions in your absence or assume greater responsibility. By not providing employees with the autonomy to make decisions about how they can best deal with difficult situations you reduce their motivation and ability to take risks, try new things and be creative.

Remember the days when senior executives took leave and someone talented was coached and prepared to “act up” in that role? What a win-win situation for the person on leave who could really experience the benefits of a vacation or professional development opportunity – as well as the individual with the chance to develop new skills, be exposed to matters they may not be in their regular job and gain experience or recognition to prepare for their own advancement. It seems this approach is now lost.

Second, the addictive smartphone behavior I observed during this session (and on many other occasions) where executives immediately answer emails and phone calls any time of the day (and night), encourages that behavior in others. The cascading effects are likely to block the development opportunities of those below and impede succession planning right down the line. Also important is the signal sent across the organisation on managing work and non-work responsibilities, let alone the message this communicates on well-being.

Third, during the session those most addicted to their device argued that they wanted to be “available” to their teams (and boss) or it was an extremely busy time of year, while some confessed to a high sense of wanted to be needed or in high demand. And while I don’t believe anyone is indispensable to an organisation, creating a situation where you are in a high-demand position, invaluable or needed for all key decisions prevents your own progress to more interesting roles. 

A key component of any talent management program is the “make” versus “buy” decision. Irrespective of whether you “make” your talent internally by developing people for roles or “buy” your capabilities in from the labour market, both require a concentration on improving the return on investment efforts (from recruitment or development activities).

This means protecting that investment by creating a work environment where people can thrive and want to remain as well as generating sufficient internal opportunities to enhance skillsets. And there is no better way to improve a skillset than by temporarily promoting talent, where you can also test them by seeing how someone performs before giving them a ‘leg up’ the corporate ladder.

Also – from a purely accountant’s perspective – if you look at the costs of recruiting staff, and the risks inherent in taking on a virtual unknown, it is clear that internal promotion has obvious advantages: firms can save a lot of money by promoting those with obvious abilities, and the only way to do that is if the hierarchy permits a temporary promotion to see how they perform.

Having their boss switch off – both physically and mentally – for a couple of weeks is a great way to do this. The boss won’t be away long enough for any real damage to be done if those standing in prove mediocre, but it’s long enough to give a good test run, and see if promoting talent is a cheaper alternative than ‘buying’ someone new in.

I am a big supporter of smartphones, laptops and other mobile technologies as they can enhance productivity, provide greater freedom and flexibility, however they also may be your organisation’s major impediment to talent management.

However switching off that phone and having genuine time out of the office is the best way of securing talent for the next generation – and saving the company money.