Why strengths, not skills, will get us through the talent exodus

Herd MSL CEO Skye Lambley outlines why the industry needs to support a strengths-based approach to talent management to avert a complete exodus from the industry.

When it comes to talent, we’ve got it back to front. We hire candidates based on their skills and capabilities, then we train based on their flaws and failures. As a result, we spend our time focusing on the wrong things. That has serious consequences for them individually, but also for us collectively as an industry, because it means we are not playing to our strengths.

We’re heading into a time of great emotional conflict. On the one hand, all (vaccinated) Australians are looking forward to enjoying greater freedoms, and we anticipate returning to the office to rejoin our colleagues and revel in company culture and the familiarity of being together. On the other hand, after spending the better half of 18 months stuck at home, our teams are understandably hungry for growth, challenges and change.

We are sleepwalking into a significant ‘talent exodus’. Maintaining a short term focus on skills instead of strengths has the potential to decimate our industry over the coming months. In a competitive market, with a limited talent pool, it’s a buyers market. Which is why agencies that want to attract and retain the best talent, need to rethink their approach. For too long, people have been managed by identifying and overcoming weaknesses. Instead, a focus on strengths is leading to a much higher retention rate and diversifying agency capabilities.

At Herd MSL, our experience during this period has been the same as many others. We have doubled down on employee experience, charged the team with autonomy to make the right working conditions for themselves, and worked with our team to create a clear picture of their career path ahead.

We have felt the pains of losing talent – some, for great reasons, such as following their purpose or landing their dream in-house job. We’ve also had a couple who have been swayed by overinflated industry salaries and a promise of the grass being greener.

Our solution to weathering the imminent exodus is a radical shift in the way we define, recruit and grow roles – focusing on strengths instead of skills. We started this journey two years ago and have seen an incredible shift in the way we engage our people as individuals and as a group. Ultimately, this facilitates a much more strategic view of our talent, our teams and our capabilities.

We have invested in developing the ‘Strengths Profile’ of every one of our team. Every employee, and potential employee, completes an online survey that measures 34 individual strengths. These profiles provide insights into their key strengths aligned to four key areas : Strategic thinking, relationship building, influencing and executing. We share these strengths openly with the team and have discussions about what that means for the way we work together. As a result, we are able to place talent appropriately and build clients teams with the specific blend of strengths required to be successful.

We have seen three key ways this approach is helping us prepare for the talent exodus:

Expanding the talent pool

While technical skills will always be important, we have been able to expand our reach into non-traditional candidates by prioritising the strengths we need from them to complement the existing team. We know that skills can be grown, but strengths are innate, and by focusing on these we have been successful in bringing more diverse experience into the teams.

Staff productivity, morale and empathy

People work best when they are working to their strengths. This fundamental belief has allowed us to really focus on building the strengths and capabilities of the teams where they are most naturally suited. Instead of dwelling on areas to improve, we create a vision and schedule for progression which leans into the passions of the individual and increases retention.

A non-linear path for growth

Through focusing on strengths and not skills, we have been able to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of our team – empowering them to deepen their self-reflection and be bolder in coming up with ways in which the agency can grow around what they need from work. At Herd MSL, this has resulted in the development of best-practice working groups where individuals with specific drivers and motivations can partner to build out practice areas and develop a plan for growth with them in the driving seat. We see this as integral to ensuring our agency is future-ready and gives staff the means and autonomy to respond to the challenges in the market they deem most important.

Strengths-based management has allowed us to create deeper levels of empathy and job satisfaction in our agency. It helps our employees understand more who they are, and what they want. We know that our people are our most important resource, and we are committed to creating an agency culture that acknowledges individuals to build fulfilling careers. Not only is this helping to increase retention, but it is also deeply attractive to prospective candidates – and will ultimately ensure that we are on the front foot over the coming months as the great talent exodus comes into effect.

Skye Lambley is the CEO of Publicis Group agency Herd MSL. 


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