Fish Bowls and Talent Pools

When I was a kid, our community hosted a carnival each fall. Every year, either my brother or I won a goldfish by sinking a ping pong ball into a tiny cup. (In retrospect, it must have been traumatic for the fish swimming around in the cups; but for us, it was exhilarating.)

Upon returning with our new treasure/family member, my mother would pull out a small glass bowl and turn it into our fish’s new home. In answer to our annual appeals for a larger bowl, she would explain that we needed to manage the size of the fish and that if we put it in a bigger bowl, it would grow and grow out of control… “and we can’t have that,” she would say.

This memory came back vividly this week after working with several groups of managers.  Their organization wanted them to embrace talent development, create plans for each of their staff members, and actively help those around them grow. My job was to understand why this wasn’t happening. So, the interviews and focus groups began…

“If I develop my people, our other offices are going to raid my talent,” they would say (….and we can’t have that).

“Start letting people know that they have potential to grow and their heads swell up…they’ll become unmanageable,” they would say (….and we can’t have that).

“Just about the time I get employees operating really well, they head off to the competition for a few more dollars,” they would say (….and we can’t have that).

Managers everywhere are protecting their talent and proactively addressing potential ego and expectations problems by keeping their people in small bowls.

But small fish bowls lead to small talent pools!

The only thing more dangerous to the status quo than developing people… is not developing them. Remember that these glass bowls are clear. Employees can see what’s going on elsewhere. And the aquarium down the street looks pretty attractive to someone who’s tired of swimming around in circles.

Employees have development on their minds… whether managers raise the issue or not. And those people for whom it’s withheld are likely a large portion of the 52% of employees planning on searching for a new job this year.

But here’s the other thing. Managers who withhold development are left with small fish forever. Sure, they aren’t growing talent and capability for the competition…. but neither are they growing it for themselves or their organizations. They become stuck with a staff that’s sub-optimized and less skilled. But at least those people aren’t going anywhere else.

Successful leaders share a more constructive development mindset. They:

  • Think beyond the bowl. Your best strategy for enhancing employee engagement and driving business results is to always be looking for the appropriate aquarium/pond/lake/ocean for each individual. Supporting the unique development needs of each employee builds high levels of engagement. This engagement translates to discretionary effort that drives productivity, innovation, customer satisfaction, sales, and more.
  • Anticipate a pipeline payoff. Leaders who know how to develop talent build high levels of loyalty among employees. Does that mean that their employees never leave? No. But as you develop your own skills and reputation as one committed to helping others grow, you’ll be a magnet for the best and brightest. You’ll find ways to shorten growth cycle times, bringing people more quickly to high levels of performance and contribution. You’ll have an always full talent pipeline of individuals who can contribute powerfully to the organization… however long they choose to stick around.

So, if you want to expand your talent pool, it might be time to trade out those small bowls… and be ready to see your fish (um, employees) start growing.

How big is your own bowl? What’s happened when you’ve helped move employees to bigger aquariums? Share your fish tales with us.


Julie Winkle Giulioni
Julie Winkle Giulioni
Julie Winkle Giulioni is a guardian of growth, defender of development, and promoter of potential in today’s workplace. She’s the author of  Promotions Are So Yesterday: Redefine Career Development. Help Employees Thrive and co-author of the international bestseller, Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want. Named one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 speakers, Julie offers memorable and actionable live and virtual keynotes and presentations worldwide. Julie is a regular columnist for Training Industry Magazine, SmartBrief, and contributes her thought leadership around career development and workplace trends to The Economist and other publications. You can keep up with Julie through her blogLinkedIn and Twitter.

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