Talent Management
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By Liz Wiseman

Chris, a training executive for a large, multinational firm, gathered his team at an offsite retreat to refocus their priorities for the next six months. Chris’ management team consisted of veteran training professionals with a wealth of experience.
Are Rookies your Most Valuable Players?

But Chris had also recruited two new players, Sara and Angela – both were experienced sales leaders but novices in the employee-training arena.

Each member of the management team was asked to craft a “challenge question” – a concrete objective that would focus the team’s energy on quick, sustainable wins – and then share it with the group. The veterans went first. Carina began by explaining that she ignored Chris’ list of priorities and came up with her own. Greg laid out an ambitious challenge – one that sounded lofty but offered no starting points. Carlos articulated a challenge to introduce a new online program. When asked how he would engage the executives inside the company, Carlos brushed it off, declaring, “I’ve learned to keep the executives out of things. I usually just ask for their opinion on issues that don’t really matter. I know what needs to be done.” Each of these veterans missed the mark by relying on their own expertise.

Next came the rookies. The newest member of the group, Sara, nailed it. Her challenge question aligned with Chris’ priorities and would garner attention and support from internal clients. The rest of the team was stunned. Next came the other rookie, Angela. Her challenge was good, but not yet great. During the next work session, while the others worked independently, Angela sought guidance from the workshop leader. In round two, Angela nailed it while the veterans were still struggling.

When business cycles are spinning fast and organizations need to pivot and move in new directions, experience can become a burden and inexperience a blessing.

The research on rookies

A recent study looked at 400 workplace scenarios and compared how inexperienced versus experienced professionals approach a particular type of work.

The research showed that being a rookie – facing a new problem or a challenge for the first time – can provoke top performance. Rookies are unencumbered, with no resources to burden them and no track record to limit their thinking or aspirations. Certainly they bring openness to the work, but more importantly, a desperation-based learning kicks in, causing them to work smart and seek guidance and feedback. In the realm of knowledge work, rookies tend to outperform those with experience, especially when it comes to innovation and speed.

In the current reality of the knowledge economy, innovation cycles spin so quickly that many professionals never face the same problem twice. Those who will thrive in this environment are not just the rookies, but the “perpetual rookies” – those who, despite years of accumulated experience and knowledge, retain their rookie smarts and draw on the power of learning to solve the new problems they and their firms face.

Revitalizing your company’s rookie-smarts

As companies grow and become successful, they can easily settle into a comfortable place and lose their rookie edge. Savvy HR leaders can employ a number of talent management practices to ensure the company is fully using their rookie talent, building powerful teams (that utilize the strengths of both inexperienced and experienced staff) and maintaining a rookie mindset across the company.

The following talent management practices can foster this rookie mindset and maintain agility across an organization.


Instead of hiring for experience or specific job skills, hire for learning agility. While there are numerous instruments that test for learning agility, the four traits present in perpetual rookies are a good guide – curiosity, humility, playfulness and deliberateness. According to Google’s HR chief Laszlo Bock in a 2014 New York Times article, the least important hiring criteria is expertise. But at the top of the list are learning ability and intellectual humility.

Bock explained their hiring strategy, “There’s so much coming at us so fast, and it creates an extraordinary cognitive burden. We need people who are smart and learn fast and humble enough that they don’t have to carry the load of knowing it all themselves.”

Job design

With a growing emphasis on the development of high-potential talent, it is tempting to offer the stretch assignments to a small minority of top talent while the vast majority stagnates in comfortable jobs. Everyone needs to be fed a steady diet of challenge. In surveying approximately 1,000 professionals, individuals reported being ready for a new challenge every three months. While job promotions may be scarce, new challenges exist in abundance. Encourage managers to think beyond promotions and instead present their employees with new challenges at regular intervals. When designing job roles, ensure each job has a rookie component and then rotate talent to keep people in their rookie zone.

Team composition

Design work teams that blend the best of what rookies offer with the savvy of veteran staff. When a team is varied, working together can be harder, but it can also produce better outcomes, especially where creative, cutting-edge thinking is needed. To ensure innovative ideas get implemented, pair a rookie who wants to change the world with an experienced operator who knows how your world works.

Leadership practices

While rookies are more capable than most people imagine, they need thought leadership and guidance. Rookies need managers who know when to rein them in and when to unleash them, and they need to be placed in an environment conducive to learning and insight. In particular, they need leaders to provide:

• Freedom with direction – Provide space but set clear direction by clarifying what needs to be accomplished and direct them to experts who can guide them.
• A constructive challenge – Offer a stretch goal, but don’t overwhelm them. Right-size the challenge so they contribute quickly and build confidence.
• A tightrope and a safety net – Give them a challenge that puts them on a tightrope, but make sure someone is there to catch them if they fall.

Learning and development

Many organizations have slipped into the cycle approach to development, conducting training consistently at regular intervals (e.g., quarterly management classes, annual management meetings). While these predictable cycles seem purposeful to the HR team, it looks like random acts of training from the learner’s perspective. We don’t learn because the calendar says it is time to; we learn when we need to.

Resources are wasted on talent that has no appetite for development. People in the workplace are most open to learning when they are:

• Brand new to their role
• Facing a daunting challenge
• Coming out of a painful failure or loss
• Returning from an epiphany outside their normal terrain
• Unclear how to get to the next level in their career

In each scenario, individuals are working in new territory – they are in rookie mode. Wise learning and development leaders will target development and coaching efforts when people are in rookie assignments and are most open to learning.

Succession planning

As you review candidates in the succession planning process, factor in each candidate’s learning agility – are they curious, humble, playful and deliberate? Look at their job history to see if they have a track record of success in rookie assignments. This might be the best predictor of their ability to handle a stretch assignment.

Better understanding of the intense learning and contribution that can occur when people are in rookie mode allows us to rethink and refocus our talent management strategies. In so doing, we can create a more vibrant organization for rookie and experienced employees alike.

In a rapidly changing world, experience can become a burden. Careers stall, innovation stops and strategies grow stale. Being new, naïve, and even clueless can potentially be an asset if leveraged properly.

Rookies (both new employees and long-standing staff in new assignments) are more capable than we might expect. Instead of having them “warm the bench,” managers can set their sights higher, put them in the game and tell them to contribute immediately. In the current work environment where the game is changing fast, we might find that they become some of our most valuable players.

Liz Wiseman is a researcher, executive advisor and speaker who teaches leaders around the world, and recently authored the book Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.

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