Top Talent

Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down focuses specifically on how leadership can strive to maintain profitability and retain its star performers even during downturns in the economy. The book is broken up into two main parts. Part 1 examines why a recession can cause such harm to employee morale and efficiency. Part 2 then lays out practical steps on how to tackle these issues.

Hewlett discusses the need to focus on the talented individuals in an organization; not to take them for granted. While the stars may not be the target of a layoff, they may still leave after one due to work stress and other issues. For many of these individuals, their top reward is not necessarily money but instead often challenging/ stimulating work and high quality colleagues. For women there are also additional draws of recognition and respect.

Layoffs and recessions may create a bunker mentality amongst the "survivors", bringing on stress and health issues which affect efficiency. Safety nets at home may also be suffering. Only 31% of high performing women are married to men who make more than they do.

A key solution is for leadership to communicate openly, honestly, and frequently. It can take eight or more viewings of a message before it sinks in, even in ideal situations. In rough economic times the listeners can often be, understandably, distracted.

It’s hard to overemphasize how critical the leadership skills of each person in management are. When people join a company, they look at its overall reputation, its benefit package, and other larger issues. However, when people leave a company, it is often due to their relationship with their boss. A strong relationship can help them weather a wide variety of other issues. A poor relationship can drive them away despite a wonderful company package.

Much of Top Talent focuses on women in particular, as they are often disproportionally lost during rough times. Three key areas of interest for women are flexible work environments, an ability to fulfill their ambitions, and a way to explore altruistic desires. These can often be provided without any budgetary strain.

Top Talent also provides practical advice that is good for all employees during all stages of recession and growth. Stress is insidious. Continual stress can cause physical issues, emotional issues, sleep issues, communication issues, and much more. It is critical to help all employees learn how to manage and mitigate any stress issues in their life. Exercise can be key to helping the body remain healthy and able to handle the hurdles of life.

So there is a great amount of valuable advice offered in this book. What are some of the issues I found with it?

First, the writing is not always clean. Hewlett describes how "... one employee in Amsterdam e-mailed Richardson to say in his fifteen-year career at the company fifteen years he had never felt so touched" (p. 42). The book could definitely have used another pass with an editor.

In the same vein, the language used sometimes seems to have a non-American angle which might hold a different meaning. When Hewlett talks about "Forbes ran a cover story that featured a picture of five knock-your-socks-off ... female bankers" (p. 77) to me that phrase means "stunningly beautiful" which I felt was highly inappropriate. I dislike judging women based on their body shape. I think what she meant was "stunningly intelligent" - but better phrasing would make that clear.

Next, I disagree with some of what is being promoted as "absolute truth". In one section Hewlett recommends a participant’s advice that "People are much more productive when they can avoid office chitchat" (p. 60). While this might be true for robots, I have heard from many telecommuters that they feel lost and disconnected explicitly because they no longer have those water cooler conversations. They feel left out and abandoned, and it negatively affects their productivity and morale.

Finally, I am a woman. I am all for supporting women in business. But with a title of Top Talent, I found the book to be heavily pushing all the ways to keep women vs keeping all talent. It is fine if the author wanted to focus on women. In that case, she should have subtitled the book "Why it is critical to keep women on board during a recession" or something similar. I am a strong believer in a book making clear what its focus is. I absolutely think more books should exist to help support and maintain women in the work environment. At the same time, I believe books should clearly and accurately let potential buyers know what they contain.

Well recommended.

I purchased this book with my own funds in order to use it as a textbook in a Leadership class.

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