Invest a few hundred dollars in a talented person’s career; then watch that person rise to lead a prestigious global philanthropy.
Who wouldn’t make such an investment? After all, helping another person to flourish is intrinsically rewarding, no? All the more so when that person soars to such impressive heights.
Trouble is, there’s no guarantee that investing your time, energy, or money in another person will ever pay off so lavishly. Talent identification involves some science, for sure. But it also involves gut feel, risk-taking, and, sometimes, end-running the bureaucracy and protocols.
So we learn from the improbable, inspiring life of Vartan Gregorian, who died earlier this year after running such iconic institutions as Brown University, the New York Public Library system, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
But before he was all that, he was a disheveled, impoverished immigrant whose plane had just touched down in New York. He had lost his onward ticket to California and struggled to convince a skeptical gate agent that a coveted scholarship to Stanford would be lost if Gregorian didn’t arrive to enroll by the following day.
The 2021 solution? Whip out a smart phone and pull up the e-ticket. But when this occurred in 1956? Cell phones and E-tickets were science fiction.
Yet instead of calling security or shooing the kid away, the gate agent bent the rules—no, he broke the rules—and quietly handed young Gregorian a ticket. And the rest, as they say….
The charming story may seem utterly irrelevant to managerial life. But that gate agent’s dilemma epitomizes a real-life challenge that all managers face: If you never take a chance, some talented people will miss their chance.
For sure, organizations have progressed markedly in professionalizing talent identification, wielding development arsenals that include everything from advanced psychometric tests to 360-degree feedback to finely honed interviewing and annual review protocols.
We make lousy and even unjust decisions when we ignore such tools. But we also go astray when we assume such tools are foolproof. I managed lots of people, used all the tools conscientiously, and still made some lousy calls. I picture a one-time subordinate, for example, whose career really soared….only after I had bypassed him for advancement and he left to work elsewhere.
And an even more insidious problem also haunts us: Our theoretically “objective” processes and tools have sometimes served to benefit those whose socio-economic status gave them lots of early-life advantages, like good networks, internships, and enrichment opportunities. Convinced that we were rewarding talent and merit, we’ve sometimes rewarded privilege, or the “right” look, shape, gender, color, or language skills.
To press the analogy that opened this essay: We’ve all left some could-be Vartan Gregorians bereft at the boarding gate, rather than taking leadership risk and handing over the ticket that might have unlocked their greatness.
The solution is not to throw up our hands, throw out sound process, and resort to gut feel: Uncritical reliance on gut feel is part of what got our organizations (and society) into trouble in the first place.
Rather, let’s wield all the tools conscientiously, but also wield the right attitude, in three specific ways:
Understand people management as a sacred trust. We go wrong when management becomes an ego trip (“Look how many people report to me”) or strictly a financial calculus (“I’ll invest in a team member if I can project the near-term payoff”). Rather, the manager’s mindset should be: “Why on earth am I in this job if not to develop the talent of all those entrusted to my managerial care and leadership?”
Don’t check your guts (and gut feel) at the door: Good leadership judgment invariably involves some calculated risk-taking, including on people. My career blossomed only because managers took chances on me along the way. We’ve all benefited from mentors or managers who saw something in us before we had the confidence or opportunity to show it to the organization at large. Do the same for others.
Don’t forget where you came from, or those who helped you along the way. Gregorian often attempted to track down that airport gate agent, who, “gave me my future,” as Gregorian once put it. His conscience remained unsettled until his autobiography finally offered a way of acknowledging that agent. Likewise: Don’t forget to thank those who nurtured your career, and never tire of reminding your team members that a mutually supportive team culture will redound to everyone’s benefit.
Think of it this way: What epitaph to you want at the end of your managerial career, “Here lies so-and-so, who left some incredibly talented people standing at the gate,” or, “Here lies a manager who gave great talent its future”?
Chris Lowney, author of ‘Heroic Leadership,’ is a one-time Jesuit seminarian who later served as a Managing Director of JP Morgan & Co. He currently vice chairs the board of CommonSpirit Health, one of America’s largest hospital systems. Follow Chris on Twitter, Facebook, and at www.chrislowney.com