Hire the manager, access the skills

Assembling the team.
Assembling the team.
Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In today’s fast-moving global economy, marked by an intensifying war for talent even as skills rapidly become obsolete, the question often arises: Do you define the specific skills you need in the recruiting process and hire the specialized candidate who has them? Or do you hire the well-rounded candidate with potential to transform their skillsets through “reskilling”?

From our point of view atop a marketplace for independent consultants, executives, and subject-matter experts, that may not be the right question. More than ever—in the face of fascinating recent research and the emergence of a growing pool of high-end, on-demand professionals who are changing work as we know it—the real question should be broader. The better question will consider solutions that start with hiring and developing great managers and leaders—and then accessing, as needed, the ever-evolving skills your business requires to get its important work done.

A massive Gallup study released earlier this year underscores that the highest-performing companies are those with top-quality managers. According to the Wall Street Journal, Gallup calls it “the single most profound, distinct and clarifying finding” in its history, claiming that strong managers account for a shocking 70% of the variance in company performance.

Gallup once again confirms that the best managers are not “superstars” in terms of work skills (a recognition that goes back to previous Gallup research captured in the classic management work First, Break All the Rules). Rather, the survey, analytics, and advice highlights managers’ ability to effect “engagement”—“a belief among employees that they’re doing meaningful work in a climate that supports personal growth and development.”

But an equally important difference-making effect of strong managers, from our experience, is their ability to develop project workflows and identify, access, integrate, and oversee the appropriate talent for that task. Breaking initiatives down into smaller projects and then into dedicated work streams allows great managers to plug in talent with the precise capabilities to complete the assignments. Projectization is especially valuable for complex efforts—say, conducting a market assessment for a new product or overhauling a supply-chain process—where specific, needed expertise can be identified.

Which brings us to the second part of a successful talent-management strategy for today’s rapidly evolving markets: accessing talent. The latest confirmation on the critical role of managers and the expansion of projectization also coincide with the growth of a diverse, highly skilled agile workforce of independent executives and specialists.

These experts, at the top of their game, have largely gone independent because they prioritize professional control over where, when, with whom, and especially why and how they work, which makes them, in a way, “self-engaging.” And they’re eager to apply their skills to clients’ most challenging and important business issues. MBO Partners has estimated that the cadre of independent earners making $100,000 a year or more exploded 70% from 2011 to last year.

But it isn’t just experienced, high-end professionals whose skills are available on the open market. According to Stephane Kasriel, chief executive of Upwork, more than 40% of 18-to-34-year-olds now freelance.

Tapping into the availability of independent “supertemps” complements “reskilling” efforts, which should also play a key role in any effective talent management strategy but will require time and work to implement well.

So what are the takeaways for recruiters hiring permanent workers? Above all, to avoid  the tendency to create a job spec for a “unicorn,” with an unrealistic wish list of skills and a host of requirements that no human would be able to satisfy. Moreover, some of the skills that will be needed may not even be known when you are hiring (e.g. skills related to the blockchain, AI, and machine learning were probably not part of job specs a few years ago but are critical for many roles today).

Instead, job descriptions should be defined more precisely around the leader’s ability to “projectize” work and then execute those projects well by accessing the right talent to fill specific skillsets needed for individual projects.

Jody Greenstone Miller is co-founder and CEO of Business Talent Group, a platform for independent consultants and executives doing project-based work.