Why “Talent Management” is Never Enough: 3 Approaches to Leading Productive Advancement Teams

Posted September 25, 2017 ·

Advancement leaders today in search of resources on leading the most productive advancement teams quickly will encounter the phrase, “talent management.”  Not only are there a multitude of professional development opportunities awaiting the advancement leader with talent management in the title, larger advancement programs in higher education and healthcare have begun to employ talent managers as full-time members of the team.  The concept of talent management has become so pervasive in today’s advancement world that there are now best practices associated with the concept.

But the concept of talent management may not be the best way to conceptualize how a leader can most effectively attract, engage, and retain the best people to build a productive advancement team.  It may not be helpful to view creative human beings as “talent,” and the best work of a leader may be much more engaging than “managing.”  Simply put, “talent management” may be all wrong.

When we review research on the best approaches to building great teams – attracting and keeping creative and engaged people, there are three concepts regularly identified:

  1. Purpose – team members desire to do work that has meaning for them. In the advancement field, we have the advantage of a powerful mission or purpose:  We build relationships and generate needed resources for compelling missions.  But how often do leaders remind the members of the team of this purpose?
  2. Mastery – team members desire to be competent in their work. People want to be the “resource,” the “expert,” the “go-to” person for the work they do.  For their role on the team, they want to have the sense that they are indispensable.
  3. Autonomy – team members desire to do work that is self-initiated and self-directed. This means that the best team members do not want nor need someone looking over their shoulder on a daily basis.  It means that, for their role on the team, they desire a sense of control.

In thinking about these three concepts of building and leading productive advancement teams, leaders should focus far more on “team member engagement,” than on “talent management.”  Our work is not to manage people, but rather, to provide them with the resources and encouragement to unlock their full potential.  The best leaders adopt the roles of skillful collaborator, strategic reminder, and active listener far more than they manage people.

So, what can you do today to enhance the productivity of your advancement team?  Having served institutions and organizations for almost 70 years, we would suggest these three approaches:

  1. Think like a teacher – the best teachers believe in the potential of others. Yes, they have content knowledge and are an expert in their fields, but what separates the good teachers from the very best is the mindset that they are there to help others fully achieve their potential.  When team members sense that the leader is there to help them become their very best, their engagement increases.
  2. Collaborate on professional development options – in helping team members develop, helpful leaders collaborate with each person to identify pathways for professional development. A thoughtful approach here is to identify team-wide professional development options, such as everyone reading a particular book and discussing.  And, identifying individually-crafted professional development options for each member of the team.  In this way, a leader is both helping the team develop cohesion, while also helping each member develop her unique skillsets.
  3. Be the C.R.O. – C.R.O. stands for Chief Reminder Officer – reminding team members about the purpose of our work and the strategic outcomes we are striving to achieve. Too often we see teams filled with members who are busy, but are not necessarily productive.  Part of the leader’s role is to ensure that work, effort, and resources ultimately lead to an outcome that helps the institution fulfill its mission.  The best leaders remind their teams regularly about the special purpose of their work.  In advancement, we aren’t simply making widgets for profit.  We are serving a greater good and we are engaging with like-minded donors to support that greater good.  Additionally, effective leaders remind others of the longer-term plans that are in place.  Sometimes, the team needs to pause from its daily work to answer the leader’s question:  Is the work we are doing today leading us to achieve our longer-range vision?

When done well, advancement leadership is a complex role.  However, it also is deeply rewarding – for both individual team members and the institution or organization you serve.  When leaders think like teachers, collaborate to help team members become better, and remind people regularly about the importance of their work, they do much more than “manage talent.”  They lead.