What does it mean to be a Young Turk and how can leaders identify and empower these people in their own firm?
Jason Mlicki: So, you’re calling this podcast Managing a Young Turk, and I told you before we did this, that I’m not familiar with the phrase, “A Young Turk.” And there’s actually a podcast called I think, the Young Turk or something like that, because I was sort of scanning the web about it. So, my first question to you is, what is a young Turk? Where does that reference come from? What does it mean? Do you know, because I wasn’t familiar with it, and I chose not to look it up because I wanted to actually have you, in the moment, tell me what it means, so I could react to it, just spontaneously.
Jeff McKay: It’s a term I’ve been using since college.
Jason Mlicki: Oh, wow.
Jeff McKay: So, it’s definitely-
Jason Mlicki: So, it’s like 100 years old.
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jeff McKay: It came out my college days at Illinois state, and it was used to describe up and comers. And people that were disturbing the status quo, and it has both a positive and a negative bend to it. One is that we’re going to reevaluate and look at everything that we’ve done. We won’t accept we’ve always done it that way. So, in that sense, it very much challenges the status quo, which is positive.
Jason Mlicki: But that mentality can also be a thorn to people who have done things a certain way, is that what you’re saying?
Jeff McKay: Yeah.
Jason Mlicki: There’s a positive and negative to that. I mean, it’s usually a good thing, but it can be perceived a bad thing by certain people, maybe partners in certain practices.
Jeff McKay: And like the conflict, I can use that word between sales and marketing, it’s not a problem to be solved, it’s a tension to be managed. So, I think Young Turks come in, they’re smart, they’re idealistic, and they challenge us to think about what we’re doing, but they’re not wise enough to appreciate the collective wisdom over the ages, and why we do what we do. And I think there’s a healthy tension there. And I just, the word has always resonated with me, because of that tension and maybe because I was referred to as one of those early in my career, and took it as a badge of courage.
Jason Mlicki: As a compliment.
Jeff McKay: And courage. And it served me well and it has not served me well. It’s advanced my career, but it has also, I think, inhibited it sometimes. We talk about career limiting moves, and I think everyone who’s worth their salt, pushes the envelope. If you’re not upsetting somebody, your probably not doing anything. But I like it in terms of talking about high potentials, because I think most high potentials, not all, but most, are Young Turks. And they lift their heads up out of the hole early and look around when they’re small.
Jason Mlicki: And in this context, I want to point out real quick, and make sure that I’m clear on how we’re going to approach this dialogue, is when we’re saying a high potential, it can be anywhere in the business. I mean, it doesn’t have to be, if it’s a consulting firm, it doesn’t have to be an up and coming consultant. It can be someone in the marketing function. It can be someone, anywhere in the business, that has potential to really have a meaningful impact on the future of the practice, right? Is that the lens we’re using here?
Jeff McKay: Yes. And not just the practice, the firm.
Jason Mlicki: The firm. Okay, well I meant the … I was using the phrase, “The Practice,” as the firm, so totally agree with you, okay. Now, I have a second clarifying question, before we start getting in to this, and is that do we want to approach this … I guess my question is, are we saying when we say identifying high potentials, are we talking about that sort of systematically, meaning that if I’m relatively high up in the organization, I don’t have direct interactions with the bottom of this organization, how do I identify them from afar? Or are we talking about how do I identify them directly as a manager, at the manager level? I have this group of people reporting to me, which one of these are my high potentials? How do we want to approach this dialogue?
Jeff McKay: Boy, that’s a great question Jason. I think we should approach it from both sides.
Jason Mlicki: Okay.
Jeff McKay: How our listeners and firms choose … If they choose to agree with any of this, and take it with them, that would be up to them. I think at it’s very core, you have to do it as a manager and a leader within your own functional area.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: I also think, if you’re a great leader in a great firm with a high performance culture, you’re going to reach across silos, functions, within that firm, and you’re going to identify and empower the best talent. And I just think the best leaders are always, always on, looking and assessing talent, to add to their teams or to their organizations and to help others be successful, either within the firm or the practice or outside the firm. Because they’re great teachers, they’re great leaders, they understand relationship. So, I think it’s both.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. It was interesting to me, because I feel like I have context at the manager level from just running an agency, being part of an agency for 20 years and running it for 10. I’ve not worked in a really, really large firm or really, really large company, and certainly not at a senior level, so it would be very difficult for me to offer too much advice on systematically, if you’re very high up in a firm and a very large firm, how do you approach that? And so I’ll be looking to you to kind of maybe chime in some thoughts there, since you’ve really worked in some of the largest firms in the world right?
So, I have another thought by the way, so we were saying … So I know, it’s a shock, but identifying and managing the high potential employee. I actually, as I thought about this, I was trying to process how I wanted to approach it. I actually think we need to start in a sort of a prequel scenario, which is hiring. I mean, I would argue that I … I was reflecting on my own experience, the high potentials, the really amazing talent that we’ve had come through our agency over the years. And it starts at hiring right? It starts at just understanding the types of people that can have an impact on your organization, and then grabbing them when they emerge. And sometimes grabbing them, even when you don’t necessarily what to do with them. And I have a story on that one, that I was going to tell you.
Jeff McKay: Let me hear it.
Jason Mlicki: All right. As you know, my business Rattleback, is a second generation business. So, my dad started this business back in the 70s as a design practice, and that’s why I came to work for him. And so I was in a client service function and I’m in a client meeting. I’m sitting in this client meeting, and my phone’s ringing. And it’s probably one of those old fashioned flip phones if I can recall correctly, because this is a while ago. And I look at the phone, and it’s my dad. And I’m like okay, and I kind of keep the client, because I’m in this client meeting. He’s knows I’m in an important client meeting. So, I don’t pay much attention.
So, the phone rings again, and this is strange, why would he keep calling me? He knows I’m in this key account meeting, what could he possibly need? And so I said, “Let me excuse myself for a minute.” So, I step out of the meeting, I grabbed the phone, I answer it. And he says, “Hey, I need you to come to the office right now.” “Why? I’m in a meeting, what do you need?” He’s like, “This copywriter just walked in the door, and I want to hire him, right now. I need you to come and interview him.” “Do you realize I’m at a client meeting right?” And he’s like, “Yes. I need you to stop the meeting. I need you to come interview this guy.” And I’m like, “Okay, well you realize that we don’t have a posting for a copywriter. We’re not looking for a copywriter, correct?” “Yes, I know. But we need to hire him anyway. I’ve been looking for this talent for 20 years.”
Okay, so I do what he asks and we end up, I meet with the guy. And we hire him, and he was a total high potential employee. Just had a huge impact on our agency and in the kind of two or three years that he was here before he moved on to other things. And it just struck me as you have to have that sense of the type of talent that can have a meaningful impact on your business, whatever it is you do. And in the moment, I mean normally I would make the case that you want to hire slowly and fire quickly.
Meaning, be very methodical and systematic about how you hire and who you hire. But when that talent shows up at your door, you need to understand what they look like and be poised to really act quickly, when it does present itself. So anyway, that was my story. It just strikes me that it starts at hiring, that if we’re not really clear on the type of people that we believe are high potentials, then we’re going to miss them at the early stages, and we might be too cautious or we might be too risky right? And make poor hiring decisions quickly.
Jeff McKay: Yes. I think that’s very true. The one exception to that in my experience, is the area of marketing and professional services firms. And it’s the result of where marketing has traditionally sit in professional services firms. Often times when, and this was particularly true earlier in my career, but when I came in to organizations, often time the people that were in marketing were not professional marketers. They had stumbled in to marketing. Maybe they had college degrees, but they were executive assistants or some kind of project manager that was assigned of that management or data base management, or some kind of very tactical role, based on a productivity school mindset.
And they had just kind of grown in that role, and just took on a little more responsibility here and there. But they didn’t have formal business degrees or a marketing discipline, from a technical perspective. And I’ve had many high potential people come out of those situations, and I think that’s a result of how they were identified as high potential. That there was so much more there, but was not unleashed. But then they were given an opportunity to prove that. So, I think that would be the one exception. Ideally yes, I would go out and I would get the best talent and bring it in from the start. But that’s not always an option for us.
Jason Mlicki: And to your point, and maybe it’s not the topic of the podcast, so a question I have is, so in those instances, do high potentials just emerge? Meaning that, they sort of step forward and are asking for more opportunity to take on more responsibility, create more value? Or do you actually have to actively find them, in your experience? How does that work?
Jeff McKay: Yes and yes.
Jason Mlicki: Okay.
Jeff McKay: I think most often, they step forward. They don’t necessarily step forward and say, “I want to do more. I want to be something other than I am.” But they demonstrate a capability in a situation. They are the people that have the courage to speak up and bring insights in venues where they wouldn’t normally be expected to contribute. And to me, that’s always a tell tale sign, of something greater inside somebody. They step outside of their narrowly defined role, and they challenge an idea because in their heart, they have a better idea. They have a good understanding of the situation, and they’re willing to take the risk. That is a great subset of identifiers for me, as a leader, around a HighPo. But I don’t think there is a single channel that they normally take. And I’ll give you a couple of examples.
The first one was a young woman at a firm was at, who was friends with one of the people on the marketing team, but she was in a support function in IT. She was helping people set up their PC’s. She, and I knew her, but at five o’clock one night, she showed up at my office door, and asked if she could talk to me. And I said, “Sure, come on in.” And she shut the door and she sat down, and she said, “Jeff, I want to do more. I want to be more. I want to join your marketing team. You’re just doing really cool things and I like working with these other people. And they just say great things about what you’re doing. I want to change careers and I want to get into marketing.” Okay.
Jason Mlicki: So, she was in an IT support function you said?
Jeff McKay: Yeah.
Jason Mlicki: Okay.
Jeff McKay: And I said, “All right, tell me more.” She said, “I will do whatever it takes. I have to maintain all my hours in IT, but if you could give me a project and I will work on it, early in the morning, at lunch, after hours and give me an opportunity to demonstrate what I can do.” And I was like, “Wow, okay.” And we gave her a project and she just blew it out of the water. I gave her another project, she blew it out of the water. I gave her another project, she blew it out of the water.
Jason Mlicki: Now, does anybody know this is going on, beyond the marketing function?
Jeff McKay: Nobody knows this is going on, other than the people-
Jason Mlicki: This is skunk works.
Jeff McKay: Associated with the project.
Jason Mlicki: Yes. This is a skunk work operation. Someone saying, “I want to do this on the side. And will you help me?”
Jeff McKay: Yes.
Jason Mlicki: Okay.
Jeff McKay: And we worked that way for six months. She demonstrated her capability. I could not add her to my team. I made phone calls on her behalf to other marketing leaders, and I said, “You have got to talk this woman.” And I think the second call I made, they hired her after two interviews. And she was on her way as a marketer.
Jason Mlicki: I want to come back to that, because that’s an interesting point.
Jeff McKay: Okay.
Jason Mlicki: This is an instance where someone raises their hand, and just says, “Hey, I really want to be a part of this. Can you enable me?” And she demonstrated some willingness to take some risk, to step outside her norm. She spoke up and said, “I have something to share.” You would not expect to come from me, given where my role in the organization is. So, now let’s talk about the flip of that. Let’s talk about the opposite side, which is okay, what if they’re not raising their hand? What if they’re just sort of passively stewing away and they’re the person that will never necessarily voluntarily offer up a new perspective? But if you ask them, they’ve got a really compelling perspective to share. How do we identify those folks?
Jeff McKay: Great question. I don’t think most Young Turks sit there, by very definition.
Jason Mlicki: I’m not so sure I agree with that, keep going. But I’m not so sure I agree with that, not right now. I would have agreed with it a decade ago, but right now, the nature of work is changing in a way that actually makes introverts much more valuable. And some of your high potentials are going to be mild introverts or possibly extreme introverts. So, keep going.
Jeff McKay: All right. So, here’s how I’ve identified them before. Normally, they are gifted in some core skill or capability. It may be problem solving, it may be creative. It may be able to connect pieces. It may the capability to ask a question at the right time, around some narrowly defined project. But normally you see them excel at something, and as a leader, I want to know, is there more here? Do they have other skills? Or can I take this skill and expand it out to some other application? And I’ll reach in to the organization, and find someone like that, that has a core capability that might apply somewhere else. And if they are introverted, but they have a desire to excel, they will accept that offer. So, it’s almost the exact opposite of my IT person. I reach out to them, but they are not going to pass up the opportunity.
They will perform, given their personality. And I think you raise a great point about the introversion, within the context of how they’re able to perform at a high level. And in terms of getting more out of them, I will start to push them out of that comfort zone, in one or two ways. One will be having them interact with different types of people or areas. Or loading them up with more and more and more work, to see how they respond to the workload. Do they develop new processes? Do they come and talk to me and manage up well about the workload? Do they negotiate and prioritize the workload? Do they bring in other resources that could help them, in order to help others develop as well? Because they recognize skills in those others. So, I think those are other ways to kind of test the metal that they have in that situation.
Jason Mlicki: Okay. So, it’s sort of like either the core skill that you need inside your team, you’re looking for, and when you find that person, the expectation is that they’re going to seize the opportunity when it’s put in front of them. They’re not going to back down. They’re not going to hesitate. They’re going to say, “I’d like you to take on this bigger role,” and they’re just going to embrace that very quickly. And that’s sort of a tell tale sign that you’ve got someone here, that could be really high potential for the firm.
Jeff McKay: Mm-hmm
Jason Mlicki: Okay.
Jeff McKay: I think a third way I’ve seen high potentials get uncovered if you will, is a change of leader. When I’ve come in to organizations, everybody wants to impress the new leader. So, they rush to tell you what they’re doing and what their skills are and what they like about where they are. And I’ve always, when I’ve gone in to a new organization, just wiped the slate clean. And I think that’s one of those things I do, that often partners may not like, because they think well, I’m going to give you my opinion on this person, and I want you to follow through and eliminate them or whatever the case may be.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: You’re a new leader, you can roll heads. And I’ve never done that. I’ve never done that. I’ve always come in and said, “Hey, I don’t care who you’ve alienated. I don’t care what your reputation is, I’m hitting reset and you have an opportunity to begin again.” And I’m very clear about my expectations, and I can talk a little bit about that in just a few minutes. But I always come in, just clean slate. That gives people another opportunity to self select like we just talked about.
The third way of going about this, and this was a unique opportunity, but it won’t be unique to leaders, particularly in larger firms. I joined a firm as one of four regional leaders in North and South America. And after nine months of being there, I was promoted up to be a manager for my peers. And that was … That’s a difficult situation for a new leader. But those nine months, operating with these other marketing leaders as a peer, allowed me to understand and see them in a very different light, had I just come and been their leader directly. And each of these leaders could have been in the role I was in, in their own right. But they didn’t get the role, for whatever reason, for whatever reason. But each one of them had this incredible potential that wasn’t being realized, for any number of reasons.
One had the best strategy mind, best program development, understood the business like no other marketer in the business. But she wasn’t doing well because of her style and the way she communicated with leadership. When she got in front of leadership, she tended to ramble on, or not to be able to articulate in business terms, phenomenal ideas. Another one was very savvy politically, and very talented, but she had a real passion for one area of the business and tended to concentrate on that. It was media relations, and she did it impeccably well. And then a third one was a GSD, productivity marketer. She just got stuff done. And the partners liked her for that reason, but she was kind of pigeon holed because that’s all she did. She just got that stuff done, give it to her. She’ll get it done.
So, each one of those had great potential, but it was inhibited by very different factors. That’s a third situation where you have identify it and then adapt how you’re going to unleash it for each of them. And I gave them different roles and a different approach to the issues that they were dealing with, and they just launched. One of them … Go ahead.
Jason Mlicki: I want to ask a clarifying question. We’ve been talking about the Young Turk, high potential employee this whole time. And what do we mean by that? What are we defining a high potential to be? Is it someone that can excel in a very specific skill in the firm, or are we talking about future leaders of the business, the whole business? What are we trying to describe here?
Jeff McKay: In professional services, another great Jason question.
Jason Mlicki: What has struck me about it, all of a sudden I had this trip as you were talking, and I was listening to the story of these three marketing leaders. And the trip I had was, one of the things I’ve noticed is, there are times when you have someone working for you or working in your team, that’s just sort of an average performer. It’s like okay, they’re doing fine, but I wish we could get more out of them. And sometimes it’s just that you got them in the wrong … Doing the wrong things. And then you find out with talking to them, that they’re really excited about something else that the organization really needs. And all of a sudden, you put some training behind that and they get really excited. And they become awesome at that other thing, whereas they were marginal at the first thing.
And that feels like high potential, but then at the same time, was that just employee engagement? Is that just engaging a work force? And is high potential really more about identifying future leaders, identifying the real characteristics of that broader T-Shaped individual that’s going to sort of carry the day at a much higher level?
Jeff McKay: I think in traditional human capital terms, a HighPo would be one, an individual who could rise in the organization to become a partner and/or leader in the firm.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, okay.
Jeff McKay: That’s definition one. But I think a HighPo can also be an individual who has an incredible amount of potential that is not being realized for any number of reasons, at a functional level, at a leadership level. Whatever the gift is that contributes to the growth and legacy of the firm.
Jason Mlicki: I liken it to your capabilities model, in the visionary in the model. My sense is, that in a lot of firms, the visionary doesn’t end up becoming a senior leader in the practice. They don’t become the CEO or the managing partner necessarily, but they’re high potential if you can find them, because they’re critical future thinkers. They’re on the side, they’re bombastic. You know, you’ve described them in a lot of, recalcitrant, all those different terms. But without them, you have no future business, but they may not be the person you choose to sort of lead a group of people necessarily. So, you need the ability to identify those folks as well.
Jeff McKay: I want to build on that. I want to build on it, because you said something that was really important.
Jason Mlicki: Okay.
Jeff McKay: I would combine those two attributes I just shared, in to one simple attribute. And that high potential Young Turks, are those people that make the people around them better.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: Because they demand more of themselves, more of others. And they help unleash it. They know how to get it unleashed in themselves to some degree, or they know that there’s something more there. And that they do that to others. A Young Turk HighPo, who just wants to climb the ladder for their own sake, and is only out for themselves, to me is a Young Turk in the most negative definition. And I would get those people off my team as soon as possible. I don’t care what anyone else says about their ability to contribute to the organization, and deliver results. I don’t want them on my team, if they’re not making others on the team better.
Jason Mlicki: That was a really interesting … Just a great discussion, around how to identify high potential employees. My suggestion is, next time we get together, let’s talk about how you manage them. So once you’ve found the HighPos or the Young Turks in your firm, and you know who they are, what are you going to do to manage them and reward them? And ensure that their success is there with you. Does that sound good to you?
Jeff McKay: I love that topic.
Jason Mlicki: All right. Next time. Thanks Jeff.
Jeff McKay: Till then.