Steve Smith, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Steve Smith, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Member

Steve leads content development, thought leadership and public relations activities as a partner at Starr Tincup. Steve received his B.A. in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Since 2001, Steve has specialized exclusively in human resources and human capital-focused communications consulting after nearly a decade as a newspaper journalist. He has earned numerous awards for his business writing and his blogging and believes that most of life is just showing up and not being a jerk. Full Bio…

Mad Men HR: What Can Don Draper Teach Us About Talent?

Is there a more difficult job in HR than ESPN, a contender for the worldwide leader in sexual harassment? The good news for the folks in Bristol is yes. I’m thinking of Sterling Cooper and its successor firm, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Although fictional, the world of AMC’s Mad Men is really more than good midcentury modern eye candy. Though it’s ostensibly about the ’60s and is supposed to make us feel “you’ve come a long way, baby,” it really says a lot more about our current modern overworked condition and generational struggles in the workplace.

There are a number of interesting riffs on talent in the workplace flowing through any given episode. Consider this clip:

First, a couple of thoughts:

  • Uh, smoking? Let me refer you to page 34 in the Employee Handbook.
  • Scotch? Don’t mind if I do … or should I say, page 32, please.
  • Where’s Don’s EAP? The number’s on the back of your medical benefits card. It’s confidential, dude. IJS.

OK, all of that is pretty obvious. But what about the talent undercurrents that are a little less obvious?

Undercurrent No. 1: Generational (or Communications) Differences?

Oh, of course, there’s the whole theme about the restless younger generation trying to carve out a career niche while the older generation just doesn’t understand. Sounds pretty Gen Y to me. You see, we’re not just talking about 1965 anymore.

So how should Peggy handle this? Well if she’s truly, Gen Y, she’d better update her Facebook status to single. The next thing she’s probably going to do is hit her LinkedIn contacts looking for work. She’s a top performer and a high-potential employee — she worked her way up from the secretarial pool to become a lead copywriter. She’s got chops, and that means she’s got options.

You can complain about obstreperous Millennials all you want, but this is not just a generational trait. I actually think it is more a difference in communication styles. Top performers are always going to be restless and wanting more. Those actually seem like good qualities to me. Why wouldn’t you want ambitious employees who are hungry for more?

So you know how it’s going to go over when Don tells Peggy, “There is no ‘Danny’s idea.’ Everything here belongs to the agency.” And top performers are worth it. There’s no shortage of research on the topic — they generate more revenue per employee, are more likely to stay with the company, etc. It’s up to employers to figure out how to keep them engaged and retained in the long run. Yeah, Don. I’m talking to you.

Undercurrent No. 2: How Do You Engage Employees?

Now that we’ve dropped the e-word, let’s zero in on it a little more via this exchange between Don and Peggy

Don: “It’s your job. I give you money. You give me ideas.”

Peggy: “And you never say thank you!”


Is a paycheck really a thank-you? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think so. It’s part of the equation, but how many business people today really believe that a paycheck is carte blanche to wring every last bit of effort and innovation from your employees? I’d say it’s a pretty small number, but not as small as one might hope.

So how should Don have handled this? Put Peggy’s name on the award entry? Bonus her out for her contribution? Well, yes and yes. But I’d wager that Don could have gotten just as much bang for the buck by saying, “Good job.  I really appreciate your great work. Thank you!”

That “thank you” is a powerful thing. As Dr. Bob Nelson (management and employee recognition specialist and best-selling author) points out, employees are five times more likely to feel valued, seven times more likely to stay with

the company, six times more likely to invest in the company, and 11 times more likely to feel completely committed to their jobs when they are recognized for the value of their work.  This adds up to 57 percent greater effort on the part of employees.

The power of a thank-you is highly underestimated. I believe it is a real shortcut to engagement. That’s why I believe that Rewards and Recognition really is a sleeper category in the world of talent management. If you haven’t been paying attention to this trend, trust me — now is a good time to start.

Undercurrent No.3: How Do You Retain Top Performers?

What is the purpose of talent management? Is it to develop employees or to help an organization become more efficient and profitable? Let’s be clear — it’s totally about the company and the bottom line. However, no business can get there without answering one burning question from employees: What’s in it for me?

Sure, Peggy’s pissed because she didn’t get a CLIO and she’s working on her birthday. But how long is she willing to put up with it? Over the past few years, companies have asked employees to put up with a lot. And most employees have been more than willing to comply because they were afraid not to. But now that things are getting better, expect more of them to decide it’s not worth it.

So what are the options? Sure, money talks — and certainly Peggy wouldn’t mind cashing a fatter check. Lots of companies are taking that approach, with incentive pay, variable comp and pay for performance initiatives. That’s why other companies are putting time and money into career pathing and succession management. Those companies are trying to show top performers/high potentials that there is a future for them in the company. Isn’t that what Peggy is really looking for?

Undercurrent No. 4: Why Do Star Performers Usually Suck as Managers?

OK, we know that Don is a badass creative guy but … would you want to work for him? I mean, just watch the video above, not to mention that his track record with secretaries could be better.  It’s a story as old as time, top performer gets promoted to management and does a horrible job.  This article captures it best:

“Because of their previous success, stars are understandably reluctant to give up the attitudes and practices they think produced their success thus far.  And they’re unwilling to change. They don’t know how to develop or coach people because they never needed much coaching themselves– or so they believe. They don’t know how to deal with people who lack their motivation. Because they’ve never failed, they don’t know how to reflect on and learn from difficult experiences. No wonder many former stars turn into mediocre bosses. If you were a star, be aware that the very success that produced your promotion can now work against you.”

So what’s a business to do? A little management training for one. An awareness that just as employees have been asked to “do more with less” over the past few years, managers have borne the brunt of that stress. And last but not least, don’t ruin your great performers by making them managers.  Provide other ways to promote and recognize people.  Let your stars in functional areas continue to do the work they are great at — and flourish.  Understand where their best value is.

Wrapping It Up: So What?

Maybe I just like Mad Men because I run a creative agency. However, I’m also interested in the talent issues that people inside HR and out are wrestling with every day. What can we learn from Mad Men, The Office, 30 Rock or most any TV show set in the workplace? HR, at its core, is still a human business. We can talk about strategic HR, “a seat at the table” and all of that other stuff. But understanding the human side of talent for the benefit of the business is still something that HR can do better than any other part of the business. Got it? Great. Scotch anyone?

Read previous post:
HRExaminer v2.04

We Rank 25 Online Leadership Personalities This week we feature our first Top 25 List for 2011 - Online Influencers...