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The Danger of Being Too Good at Your Job

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2017-04-11 Joann S. Lublin

It’s bad for business when managers don’t help top employees raise their work profile and advance within the company.

Ever feel like you’re stuck in place at work? You may be so good at your job that your boss isn’t willing to lose you.

It’s called talent hoarding, a manager’s natural tendency to hold on to top performers instead of working to promote them or transfer them to other areas of the company.

Eric Miquelon felt hoarding crimped his advancement when he was an Avanade middle manager nearly a decade ago. He vividly recalls being “hungry to do more” and join the technology consultancy’s North American leadership team.

But his boss’s boss’s boss, the region’s head, “was hoarding a group of high performers” and even resisted letting other colleagues join the team, Mr. Miquelon says. A year later, he got a different executive role at the company.

Now, more companies facing skill shortages are taking aim at talent hoarders. Chiefs at firms such as Avanade consider antihoarding efforts a personal priority.

Lender Ally Financial Inc. allows staffers to lobby certain leaders for promotions. Firms including Ernst & Young LLP reward executives for developing lieutenants—even though they may lose their best to different assignments.

In 2013, Avanade Chief Executive Adam Warby decided he and his management team should fight hoarding, recalls Stephen Kelly, chief human resources officer. The company, jointly owned by Microsoft Corp. and Accenture PLC, was struggling with rapid business growth because managers didn’t want to let their people take other inside positions, Mr. Kelly says. “Everyone only knew their own people.”

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Mr. Warby initiated a push to shift leaders to new roles every few years, telling top leaders in early 2014, “This is a team sport.’’

Clinging to good people is bad for business, a 2016 study concluded. Talent-hoarding managers exist at half of 665 employers surveyed by the Institute for Corporate Productivity, a research group. That proportion rose to 74% for the lowest-performing companies in the survey, as defined by such measures as profit and revenue.

“Hoarding inevitably results in key people leaving—a problem aggravated by today’s mobile millennial workers and strong economy,’’ observes Kevin Martin, the institute’s chief research officer and co-author of the study. The issue persists because managers are rarely rewarded for moving individuals to different units, he adds. “This lack of accountability is a killer,” he says.

Avanade’s Mr. Warby took several steps to expand internal mobility. He insisted that the company’s highest executives identify staffers by their level of readiness for a move, ranging from immediately to three years.

The mandate helped stars like Anna Di Silverio rise faster. Before fall 2015, she ran her native Italy for Avanade and had never lived abroad. She has since been promoted twice and today is the area president for growth markets, living in Singapore and overseeing China, Brazil and six other countries.

Ms. Di Silverio views her advancement as “a well-managed process.’’ But within her regions, she says she continues to chastise managers who attempt to hoard and reminds them to make talent rotations “a natural behavior.’’

Mr. Warby also now spends several days a year discussing the company’s executive talent with his management team.

Participants at these talent forums sometimes still resist a subordinate’s move by declaring, “I need this person,’’ says Toni Handler, another Avanade human resources executive. Fellow executives quickly object, because “it’s not OK to hoard talent,’’ she adds.

Avanade leaders are evaluated partly on how many of their staffers are ready to move now, according to Mr. Kelly. Between formal meetings, Mr. Warby often asks his lieutenants about “who we haven’t moved,’’ Mr. Kelly says.

There is now more job hopping within upper management. Thirty of Avanade’s 240 senior executives have switched internal roles since July 2015, an unusually high proportion for such a brief period, a spokeswoman says.

Ally discourages talent hoarding through career roundtables, where executives typically review potential inside prospects to fill vacancies. The lender’s corporate financial organization takes roundtables one step further, allowing staffers to pitch their qualifications to senior managers who have immediate or imminent openings.

To take part, employees must be performing well based on recent reviews and must have been in their current role for more than a year. Since 2015, 11 finance employees landed higher jobs or made lateral moves following their roundtable presentations, according to Kathleen L. Patterson, Ally’s chief human resources officer.

Among them is Tony Jefferson, hired in 2013 as a first-line supervisor. He says he figured a roundtable pitch might help him move ahead faster because his boss “never set a timeline” for his next Ally role during their career-planning chats. His immediate supervisor did recommend a roundtable appearance as “a good opportunity to get your name and face in front of the senior leadership team,’’ he remembers.

Last June, Mr. Jefferson spent 20 minutes describing his specialized finance training and career aspirations to nearly a dozen financial leaders. Three months later, Ally promoted him to middle manager.

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