MentoringIn a connected but keep-your-distance world, how do we achieve return on impact in our strategic relationships?

In my view, today’s leaders need to navigate two trends that will create disruption when they collide if not managed successfully. These trends are the open talent economy and a pervasive lack of skill in strategic relationship development. Organizations need access to talent with strategic relationships, but individuals are not being mentored or trained in the mindset, the roadmap, and the skill set necessary to generate return on impact from those relationships.

In the open talent economy, people have replaced capital, real estate, and raw materials as the essential assets of any business. Instead, businesses deal in knowledge. The global, hyper-digital world has created a marketplace where leveraging internal and external talent has never been more important. Stacia Sherman Garr wrote in a 2013 Deloitte research bulletin Why Reputations and Networks Matter in the Open Talent Economy, that “success will likely result from individuals with organizational influence collaborating with individuals…who possess essential expertise or have strong connections to a network that has that expertise.”

Today, leaders must assemble the smartest people and facilitate their knowledge acquisition and sharing. In a globally connected workplace, those people may or may not be traditional employees, and they may be anywhere in the world—an evolving mix of full and part-time employees, independent contractors, ex-employees, and individuals with no connection to the company other than their web of socially-enabled relationships. Today, the quality and scope of your talent’s network may be your chief competitive differentiator, because those networks help your people build collaboration teams, solve problems, and execute initiatives.

“That sounds great,” you say. “Get me some of those smart, connected people and our organization will leverage them to fuel our growth.” Not so fast. In my consulting work I have consistently seen that people lack fundamental skill in identifying, nurturing and sustaining strategic relationships, and organizations fail to train, model, or provide mentorship to develop those skills. This situation will likely become worse as the next generation of talent starts rising through the ranks. How will these individuals develop the relationship skills they need to meet the demands of the open talent ecosystem?

Sherry Turkle, author of the 2012 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, addressed this in her March 2012 TED talk. She describes an 18-year-old boy saying wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.” She finds that young people are uncomfortable about real-time conversations because “you can’t control what you’re going to say.” Because young people are not yet comfortable with the messiness of human life, Turkle says, they “turn to technology to help [them] feel connected in ways [they] can comfortably control.” Garr also noted that today “many individuals have a ‘net persona’ they use as their primary medium to communicate with others outside their immediate circle of friends and family.” These individuals lack the confident in their convictions to “be themselves” in unmediated situations.

Am I seeing doom and gloom ahead as the open talent economy demands strategic relationships from individuals who can’t put down their devices and deal with the people in the room? Not exactly. In fact, these young “netizens” may be ideally adapted to the new norm. Their broad social networks extend their reach, enhancing their capacity for knowledge sharing and collaboration. The highest performers on your staff will be nodes that link disconnected networks, increasing your enterprise’s agility and innovation.

The open talent economy works online—exactly where the best new talent is most comfortable. The kids will be alright. Up to a point, that is—the point when they rise to a level where real-time, in the room, push-and-push-back, senior-level work gets done. We need to help them grow into the demands of leadership, and they’re not going to learn those skills “alone together” on their mobile devices.

The skill I foresee our young talent needing most, and soonest, is skill in selling themselves and their work. It is high time to mentor mastery of the #NewNorm—eight behaviors I have identified that enable individuals to capitalize on their strategic relationships. (Check out It’s Time for the #NewNorm! for the list of behaviors.)

Deloitte’s research suggests that as much as 90 percent of information people take action on comes from other people in their network. In other words, relationship equals priority. Effective organizations will encourage their talent to develop extensive and resilient networks, in order to make their objectives a priority inside and outside the organization. The benefits will accrue equally the individual and the organization.

Nour Takeaways:

  1. As a leader, you need smart people able to learn and share knowledge, deployed in flexible, non-traditional employment relationships.
  2. The best new talent is comfortable working online in flexible, “free agent” configurations, where they can mediate their relationships by projecting an idealized “net persona”. That’s fine for frontline work, but doesn’t prepare them to move into leadership roles.
  3. Your young talent needing to be mentored in selling themselves and their work, the #NewNorm—eight behaviors that enable strategic relationship capitalization.
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