Victoria Atkinson White: How do you curate human potential?
Courageous institutional leaders work to hire and develop the next generation of leaders -- even knowing that those leaders likely will leave to work somewhere else, writes a managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
I recently congratulated a well-respected leader for hiring and developing a particularly stellar young leader. “Your employee is clearly bright and capable,” I said to the senior leader. “What do you see next in her future?”
The leader looked at me as if I had spoken treason. “I have spent all this time getting her here. I need stability! I can’t think about where she is going next.”
The senior leader may not be thinking about where her young hire is going next, but the hire most certainly is.
Few remain with a single institution for the length of a career. Families move. Technology has enabled us to change jobs without leaving our home office. Travel is as easy as ever.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that the average job tenure is 4.6 years nationwide, but in the religious world, it is only three to four years.
Hiring well takes effort and time, and it’s understandable that senior leaders would focus their attention on trying to buck this trend and retain staff through competitive benefits and a positive work environment. A stable staff is safe and predictable -- but it’s not a mark of a vibrant institution.
The work of a senior leader is to cultivate an institutional mindset of incubating talent.
Vibrant institutions take fresh talent and mold those hires into excellent leaders in their field -- not just leaders for a single institution. Courageous leaders seek out, nurture and support rising leaders, even knowing that those leaders will leave for other work one day.
Pastor and filmmaker Marlon Hall, who teaches in Leadership Education at Duke Divinity programs, is one of these courageous leaders. He sees himself as “a curator of human potential.”
Let that sink in.
A curator of human potential.
Courageous leaders curate human potential not just because Christian institutions need leadership development but because it is part of their own calling.
Paul modeled this beautifully for us in the potential he curated in Barnabas, Silas and, most clearly, Timothy. Paul had the courage and self-awareness to acknowledge that he could not do what he had been charged to do on his own. He also knew he had to cultivate the kind of leaders needed to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. There wasn’t exactly a hiring pool of potential early church missionaries.
Paul knew that if he did his job well, those he trained, encouraged, challenged and mentored would leave him.
That is what courageous leaders do. They see the bigger picture of institutions and the development of leaders within them. They have the courage to look past the fear of bright young talent leaving their institutions and instead develop that talent for the present and future value of their institutions and others. They have the courage to curate human potential today to have excellent leaders tomorrow.
So if you accept the reality that your staff is going to change, how can you think of your institution as a generative organization, constantly recruiting, training and deploying leaders rather than dwelling on the stark statistics of hiring pools and staff turnover?
How can you look at the job requirements for your next hire as an opportunity to bring in someone incredible, someone everyone looks at and says, “Wow! How did they get him?”
Imagine yourself in an interview conversation like this: “I know you have a number of opportunities right now. Let me tell you why I think you would be an excellent fit here. If you give me three years, I can promise that you will have experiences in X, Y and Z. You will lead A, B and C teams, and you will develop 1, 2 and 3 skills and 4, 5, and 6 connections. You will help our organization reach H, I and J goals, so that you will have essentially worked yourself out of a job. At that time, you will find a new challenge either inside this organization or perhaps outside. I will help you do that. I want to set you and this institution up for success, and that means developing you as a leader.”
If you make that kind of clear investment in your hires, your institution will gain the reputation of developing leaders. Potential employees will come to you because of what they know you can offer them.
It is not treasonous or disloyal for institutional leaders to think of their hires’ overall careers. High staff turnover doesn’t necessarily reflect a failure in the hiring process; instead, it may mark success in developing human potential, and in deploying more competent and well-trained leaders into the workforce.
Paul had the ability and intellect to attract, train, mentor and nurture talent, as well as the courage to send these missionaries out into the world. His results are pretty impressive. Imagine what yours could be.