Lessons for talent managers from Abdul Kalam

Abdul Kalam questions every talent managers’s innate biases and challenges them to find talent at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’

It is time managers revisit their stereotypical notions of who is talented and what talent is

Now that the surge of emotions over the demise of India’s former President APJ Abdul Kalam are slowly ebbing away and the nation has paid its respects to him at Rameshwaram, it’s time to sit back and reflect on what we can learn from the life of APJ Abdul Kalam.

People in all walks of life can learn a lot from him. But the lessons he holds for talent managers in India Inc are subtle and harder to put a finger on. We need to look with care and seriousness at his remarkable career and life to find invaluable lessons on how to weed out talent stereotypes as we source, select, groom and develop talent.

Confined to the 9-box grid

Most talent managers form strong impressions about people by looking at attributes such as where one is born, raised or educated. They don’t expect someone born in a nondescript, small, southern town, to a poor, minority family and raised in the vernacular-medium of education to become a Vice-President of a company, let alone being the President of India.

Kalam questions every talent managers’s innate biases and challenges them to find talent at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ and not at the top – as is usually done.

Most successful companies are believed to be only in the private sector, especially foreign-owned multinationals. Talent managers in these companies would not have hired someone working for DRDO or the Government, normally suspecting them of lacking requisite skills or attitude.

What chances would Kalam have had to be hired into the blue-chip corporates, especially because he hadn’t attended any of the IITs or IIMs?

Our talent managers lack the know-how to assess people for their vision, hunger and passion. Our competency frameworks and assessment centres are still just scraping the peripheries of the zone in which true talent lies. Talent managers across India Inc are busy building a talent pipeline with high potential (or HiPo) employees being groomed as leaders of the future. They have sophisticated tools to identify top talent and put them in the top corner of their much celebrated 9-box grid. (A 9-box grid is a commonly used tool to aid in a discussion of employee strengths and development needs.)

Checking the boxes

The leader of the future, in most of their opinion, has to be aggressive, dynamic, charismatic and articulate, with an executive presence. Kalam would not have checked any of these boxes and would perhaps have miserably failed all talent assessment. He had a thick south Indian accent, wore ordinary clothes, acquired charisma only because of (and much after) his extraordinary accomplishments in India’s nuclear programme. Talent managers should look at Kalam’s journey, his grit and determination, and understand how talent blooms over time when some one decides to build one’s own destiny.

Talent managers build careers for the HiPos. They assess their skills, analyse their potential and ‘broker’ their careers behind their backs. Kalam had no talent manager providing career tools and counselling to him. He simply worked. Not for any title or position, but for a mission. Kalam built his career toiling for decades in remote government labs in small towns of India.

But over all those painful years he was teaching himself and others skills and expertise that made a nation proud. Companies with Ivy League managers are struggling to contain costs and produce ‘nano’ style products. Kalam taught the world that satellites can be launched and missiles built at a fraction of a cost of those built in so-called advanced countries.

Talent managers ask yourselves: whom will you promote — those who build revenue models on paper for fancy investors or the one who indigenously builds low-cost missiles?

India Inc’s talent managers shout from roof tops on the need for having more leaders with empathy, and a genuine concern for their people. Yet most of India Inc is largely led by ‘feudal’ leaders lording over their people while learning sophisticated lessons in employee engagement. And here was Kalam who would go out and take the kids of the busy scientist in his team to the exhibition — for the subordinate was busy at work.

Talent biases

Even on his last day in Shillong, as we now learn from social media, he was concerned about the poor security guard standing in the Maruti Gypsy ahead in the cavalcade and found time to meet him to convey his appreciation in his characteristic warm and humane way. He led his people with strong values and deep empathy. Talent managers should worry why all their evangelism is not producing a fraction of such leadership?

Kalam questions the wisdom of how we source, select, groom or confer leadership on people. The life and the values he chose to live by should alert every talent manager of India Inc to revisit their stereotypical notions of who is talented and what talent is.

One Kalam – through grit and perseverance, and almost miraculously, made it to the top. But imagine how many more Kalams must be languishing in vernacular, rural schools or in government departments in India because they can’t get past the biases of many of our city-bred talent managers. Isn’t it time to reinvent talent management?

S Chandrasekhar is President & Global Head of HR at Dr Reddy’s. Views expressed here are personal.

Published on August 11, 2015