On helping employees up the ladder

Sheila Talton, chief executive of Gray Matter Analytics,a consulting firm for financial services and health care,says managers shouldn’t hoard their best workers in their own departments, but should help them advance in their careers.

When you were a child, were you in leadership roles?

I was not. When I was younger, I remember being the only African-American in my Brownie troop and Girl Scouts, and I never got picked for anything.

But when I got to high school, I was picked to be an organiser in my high school around civil rights issues. That was one of the first times someone said to me: “Sheila, you’ve got a point of view about this. Why don’t you lead us and tell us how we might want to organise and march and protest?”

I carried that through to college, and I was so passionate about it that I forgot to go to class a lot. As a result, I was asked to leave college, as I like to say, because I spent all my time organising and protesting. That was during the Vietnam era.

So I got a job as a secretary at a forklift company. There was a salesman there, and one day he came over to me — and remember, I was quite militant — and he said, “Why are you here?” I said, “What do you mean, why am I here?” He said: “I’ve watched you. You’re capable of so much more.” He went on to compliment me about how I took initiative, and he said, “Why aren’t you in college?”

I explained that I flunked out because I spent a lot of time organising and protesting. He said that I should go back, and that if I took some really difficult classes at a community college, like quantitative analysis and statistics, and aced them, the college would take me back. “And I’ll tutor you,” he said. I did exactly what he said. I aced the classes, reapplied and went back to Northern Illinois University and graduated on the dean’s list.

When I started thinking about career paths, I thought about discrimination a lot. I asked myself, “What field could I go into where there’s a shortage of talent, and I would be able to ascend and have a lot of success if I were extremely good at it?” I decided on technology.

Tell me about your parents.

My father was a very smart man. He was a labourer, but much of that was because of the time he came along, as well. There weren’t many opportunities for African-American men, but he coached me. He told me to never let anyone define what my path would be, and should be, in life. He was always telling me to be very selective of people. He was very discerning. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust people; it was more about having the right kind of people around you to support you and complement you, and to be thoughtful about it.

My mother always saw the glass half full. I’ve worked in big corporations, but I’ve had many entrepreneurial roles, including this one. I think I get a lot of that from my mother because the thought of not being able to succeed never really crossed her mind.

How do you hire?

There are certain people who love change, and some who don’t do well with change. And change is part of being in technology. One of the things I’ve learned in selecting people is to discern who will thrive on change and then put them in roles where the waters are going to be choppy.

One question I ask is, “Tell me about a situation, either with one of your former bosses or perhaps with a client, where it was really difficult and the outcome was not good.” What I listen for is how much ownership and responsibility they showed in trying to steer through the choppy waters. If they show leadership, that says to me that they welcome change. Another question I ask is, “Tell me about your successes and how you accomplished them.” I listen for words like “we” and “us.” If I hear a lot of “I’s,” that tells me a lot about their ability to collaborate.

I’m really looking for transformational leadership — leaders who actually drive transformation rather than just reacting to it. In the technology world, there’s a number of very successful, large corporations that are now finding themselves having to react to transformational change. Some of that is just because you get to a certain size, and it’s just so difficult to turn the ship as quickly as you need to. That’s why you have most of the innovation coming out of smaller, more nimble companies.

What advice do you give to graduating college students?

One of the things I say to them is: “Find the voids and fill them. There’s no shortage of things that are not getting done. In large organisations and small ones, there are always voids. Go fill them.”

Other mentoring advice?

One thing I’ve done a lot over the years is to push my stars out. I’ve had a number of people who worked for me who were really good at what they did. And many times, when I would be sitting in meetings with my peers and they’d say, “I’ve got to hire somebody to do this,” I often would offer up some of my people for them to interview.

Many of them would ask me why, and there are a few reasons. It’s very important that my team know that I’m invested in their career. Second, it’s the right thing for the organisation. Third, it gives me influence in that other part of the organisation.

But a lot of managers want to hold on to their stars because they help them look good.

Well, eventually you’re going to lose them anyway. You may as well be proactive, because people don’t forget that. Then, if you need anything in that part of the organisation where they’re now working, they will help you.

But you’re right. Many managers actually try to hoard their people, especially their good ones. Then, with the ones they want to get rid of, they’ll say to you, “You know, I’ve got just the person for you.”

© New York Times



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