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Exclusive: Employers urged to break the talent myth and invest more in line managers

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Companies need to break the 'talent myth' and put most of the money they spend on high-flyer development into line manager training and recognition, Chris Bones said at a Valedictory Lecture to mark the end of his tenure as Dean of Henley Business School this week.

Bones, who is ranked as the sixth Most Influential Thinker by the HR community, for 2010, told an invited audience that talent as a term needs to become inclusive rather than exclusive. 

"It has to be about everyone in an organisation, not just the few, and it needs to help us understand how we harness the power of every employee, not just the super-powers of a few ‘high flyers’," he said.

Acording to Bones, the war for talent has fuelled the phenomenon of the ‘narcissistic organisation’, led and peopled by individuals who are reinforced in their self belief every day by systems of reward and promotion that confirm their abilities.  

"These leaders are not just infallible, but they get paid at levels that reinforce their superiority above the rest of us mere mortals," said Bones, citing statistics showing the unequal rate of growth of CEO and leadership rewards versus that of the average wage-earner despite their performance. For example, in the UK in 2007 chief executives earned on average 98 times more than the average for all UK full-time workers.  Ten years ago the pay differential was 39 times that of the average worker.

"When you get this reinforcement of personal worth within a corporation displaying all the signs of being narcissistic you have the ingredients for a tragedy," Bones declared.

He called this generation of leaders the L’Oreal generation, believing they deserve high levels of remuneration because they are worth it.

"This is a generation that had even more chance than usual of falling into the knack of human beings for making the wrong choices. Sustained by the belief there was merit in instant gratification and self aggrandisement, reinforced through their standing as ‘talent’ and underpinned by cultures of compliance from others looking to acquire similar levels of personal wealth they would inevitably look for ways of building even greater levels of personal reinforcement and recognition," he said.

He added that many of today’s corporate leaders are rewarded far more like the entrepreneurs than corporate stewards, being rewarded as if they had put their own capital at risk.

"The majority of us, however, are not entrepreneurs.  We sell our skills to others rather than exploit them for our own benefit.

We risk capital that belongs to others and our actions are far more likely to damage the reputation of the brand or public service or charitable organisation than our own, " he said.

Bones also had harsh words for recruitment firms, saying their role and influence in the appointment of non-executive directors should be taken away. Instead, public companies whose share capital is available for the public to buy should advertise openly for non-executive positions.

Talking about the cult of the leader, he said this had diverted investment, focus and support for line managers, yet they are critical to delivering the organisation’s goals and long term objectives.

"Organisations undermine these managers by letting them get squeezed between the top and the bottom, by removing too many of them so that their spans of control are excessive and by undermining their authority by communicating around them and not letting them have sufficient power to act, especially on poor performance and on issues of ," he said.

"The high flyers will get there because their line managers will do a brilliant job, without the line managers doing such a job, the rest of the organisation will become sclerotic and regardless of your high flyers, it will fail to perform," he added.

Bones concluded that the talent myth and its role in driving executive remuneration is an example of the ‘Lake Woebegon Effect’, a term derived the book written by American author Garrison Keillor about a town where ‘all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average’.

"This, psychologists tell us, is the human tendency to rate one's capabilities and performance highly in relation to others," said Bones. Until this changes there will not be authentic leadership.

To read Bones' full speech, click here