Are You Sufficiently Talented at Managing Talent?

A Few Thoughts About the Elusive Art of Creating a Truly Happy Workplace

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Elsewhere in this, the Talent & Culture Issue of Advertising Age, a bunch of agencies, ad-tech shops and media companies offer their thoughts about office culture in response to questions that were lobbed at them by Ad Age reporters. Among the queries: "What skill is your most junior talent lacking?" and "What skill is your most senior talent lacking?"

Credit: Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

Asking those two questions in concert -- covering both the young'uns and the elders -- was a good call. Over the summer, I learned what can happen if you don't fairly and judiciously address everyone's possible shortcomings in the same breath.

In June, as part of an AdAge.com series we called the Media Guy Mailbag, readers wrote in to ask me questions and I answered them -- but in one case, I turned the tables. Leo Wong, then newly graduated from Syracuse, emailed, "What do you believe is an agency's biggest pet peeve for an entry-level millennial who is just starting their career in media/advertising?"

Since I'm not an agency, nor do I work at one, I passed the question along to actual agency people. I headlined my post, "Agencies: What's Your Biggest Pet Peeve About Entry-Level Millennials?" -- and then the blowback began.

Without reading the post, various readers (or, uh, nonreaders … or headline-only readers) started to jump down my throat in social media. The presumption was that I was mindlessly harshing on millennials -- even though my headline took the words right out of the mouth of a millennial who was admirably seeking career advice/perspective as he entered the marketplace. The responses on Twitter, for example, included "Enough with the millennial-bashing, please. It's getting old." And, "My biggest pet peeve is generalizing and stigmatizing a generation."

Understood.

Some inexperienced employees might, you know, sometimes lack … experience? Of this we shall not speak!

Likewise, we shall not mention any possible/theoretical issues that may or may not surround certain more, uh, experienced employees. (One tweet in response to my June post suggested that I write about the "millennial pet peeve regarding boomers who don't know how to use a computer but make 3x salary.")

Or, to put this all another way: Man, y'all are so touchy!

I flashed back to that dustup as we were putting together the Talent & Culture Issue. And I confess that as I was reading through the survey results for the Best Places to Work part of the package, I wasn't quite sure how I was supposed to feel -- or how you're supposed to feel.

Inspired? Sure, of course.

Jealous? Maybe a little. (Ad Age doesn't have unlimited paid time off, damn it!)
Happy for all the happy people? Maybe. (Harrumph.)
Vaguely suspicious? Definitely.

The truth that all office workers know is that riding just below the placid, cheery surface of even the seemingly happiest workplaces are vaguely formed and forming resentments -- not just the cocky entry-levelers vs. the grizzled veterans and vice versa, but Department X vs. Department Y, and Jim Halpert vs. Dwight Schrute and so on and so forth.

One of the recurring messages of this issue of Ad Age is that "talent" is everything -- as in, "We're in the talent business" -- which, is, of course, a far preferable sentiment than, say, "The programmatic algorithm is everything" or "A robot could do Creed's job."

There are, yes, lots of nice, specific ideas about keeping the "talent" happy and motivated in this issue, but I wonder how realistic it is to bottle/rebottle the magic. Because when it comes down to it, there's no standard checklist -- no mandatory list of ingredients for a happy workplace.

For instance, as the Ad Age staff was tallying the number of our Best Places to Work that are dog-friendly, one of our editors brought up this incredibly annoying dog -- this yippy little jerk (so small someone once accidentally stepped on it and broke its leg) -- that hung out at one of her previous places of employment.

One person's perk is another person's misery inducer.

As a grizzled, quasi-Zen veteran of office life myself -- I like to think of myself as Creed-esque -- I have to say that if there's one thing that makes for a happy, or at least a happier or happyish workplace, it's a culture of self-awareness. Specifically, a culture where people are encouraged -- trained, if necessary -- to understand how their actions affect their coworkers.

I'm talking about not only talent, but talent management -- the elusive, rather miraculous process of figuring out how to get awesome, ego-driven people to play well with other awesome, ego-driven people… awesomely.

Bottle that and you're good to go.

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