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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
"A recession is a terrible thing to waste", so says author Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her new book "Top Talent". Her thesis is that people, particularly top people are more likely to change organisations in a recession than at other times. This presents both an opportunity for enterprising organisations to gain some good talent and a challenge for those organisations who are perhaps not so good at hanging on to their top talent, to keep them.

In part 1, Hewlett presents the evidence that suggests top talent are more likely to move during a recession than at other times. Fortuitously, Hewlett and her colleagues had set up a research study prior to the recession to look at the issues (challenges in work, motivation, engagement, life/work balance etc) facing top performers. Thus they have been able to look at before and after statistics, comments and trends amongst a wide range of top talent people. This provides much credibility to the book's conclusions and recommendations.

I found some of the statistical information fascinating and quite illuminating. For example:
* 31% of people who survive a layoff, subsequently "walk out the door".
* Between June 2008 and June 2009, 14% of college graduates in the US lost their jobs. Of these, 32% were fired and 68% voluntarily left.
* As at June 2009, 22% of "high potentials" are now working an extra 9 hours per week.

But for me, the really interesting stats were around trust, loyalty and engagement and the differences between high performers employed in Wall Street firms and those employed elsewhere both pre and post the recession. There are some real messages here for CEOs, senior managers and HR managers that make this book a great investment.

In part 2, Hewlett outlines the steps to take to retain top talent. There are eight strategies which have been developed from the discussions with the study group of top talent and 55 one-on-one interviews with top performers. As well as Hewlett's observations and recommendations, there are numerous verbatim comments from managers that provide excellent examples of what managers need to do to retain top talent.

This is a great little book. 132 pages in total, well written and easy to read. I have one criticism. For a visual person such as myself, there were not enough graphical representations of the stats in Part 1 to provide the "big picture" clarity I needed. It was often necessary to re-read a paragraph to gather the stats and their implications.

That said, I would highly recommend this book to any HR person serious about people development and to practising managers and particularly senior managers who have an influence on acquisition, development and retention of top talent.

Bob Selden, author What To Do When You Become The Boss: How new managers become successful managers
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
This is one of the volumes in the "Memo to the CEO" series published by Harvard Business Press. The purpose of each is to have a well-recognized expert on a major business subject provide a brief but insightful analysis of it. In this instance, the expert is Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, sponsor of the "Hidden Brain Drain" task force, and author of Off-Ramps and On-Ramps. Her subject is sustaining the performance of the most talented workers "when business is down" and she shares a wealth of insights during a narrative of only 132 pages. Hewlett responds to specific questions such as these:

Why is a recession "a terrible thing to waste"?
What is "the top talent challenge"?
How and why to create and then sustain a "no-spin" zone?
How and why to think locally and focus on team leaders?
How and why to give workers meaningful non-monetary rewards?
How to develop a fair restructuring process?
How to retain valuable female workers?
How to demonstrate that senior management really cares?
How to re-create pride, purpose, and direction at all levels and in all areas?
Meanwhile, how to expedite your own professional development and personal growth?

Given the space limitations, Hewlett obviously cannot fully respond to these and other questions, any one of which is worth a complete book's coverage. (In fact, I can think of two or three books that have limited their attention to only one of these questions.) What Hewlett provides in a series of mini-chapters are 2-3 key points, usually accompanied by one or two specific examples. Think of each volume in the "Memo to the CEO" series as a briefing, as indeed that was the purpose for which the memorandum format was devised.

Near downtown Dallas, we have a Farmer's Market at which some of the merchants offer complimentary slices of fresh fruit that provide a taste of what is for sale. In that spirit, here is a representative selection of brief excerpts from Hewlett's narrative:

"The best way to keep your prized people engaged is to keep in touch. Get out from behind the barricade of your desk and walk around, visiting workstations and offices. This practice counters the bunker mentality that people fall into under stress. Even good managers need to be reminded to communicate more than usual during times of crisis. ...You can also further reassure employees by expanding the number of people you reach out to directly. Not only does this reinforce a sense of camaraderie, but it also reduces the risk of information being garbled as it's passed along." (Pages 37-38)

"The first step for companies wanting to hold on to - and make the most of - their high-performing women is to understand why they might want to leave. It's not that smart women aren't deeply committed to their careers or that they don't need to work. Our data shows that in December 2008, despite industry smackdowns, fewer than a quarter (22 percent) of high-performing women who had `one foot out the door' planned to take time out of the workforce. Most were seeking less onerous - and more meaningful - work." (Page 80)

"A massive layoff is like a death in the family. It leaves survivors shaken and unbalanced - and needing to talk. Most organizations now realize that to expect remaining star employees to pick up the pieces and soldier on as though nothing has happened is not only unrealistic but unfeeling. A badly handled layoff can sow bitterness and rancor that will fester for years. Although there's no changing the underlying situation, showing genuine sympathy makes all the difference." (Pages 96-97)

"There are few guarantees in these uncertain times. But one thing is certain: only by reengaging your talented employees and instituting management practices that turbocharge their brainpower will you have both the ideas and the commitment to overcome adversity, flourish in prosperity, and continue to attract smart people for years to come. In the words of James S. Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young, `In a down market, leveraging your talent to create competitive advantage is more important than ever.'" (Page 132)

Sylvia Ann Hewlett organizes the material in this book according to a "menu of pragmatic inventions that outlines how organizations can do a much better job of managing talent in troubled times." She discusses each of the eight (e.g. "Show that top leadership cares") and all of them are eminently sound. However, I presume to suggest three concluding points. First, especially during "troubled times," success or failure of initiatives will depend almost entirely on attitude, not on any given strategic or tactic. Henry Ford spoke to this point long ago when observing, "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right." Also, with all due respect to C-level executives, any organization (regardless of its size or nature) needs effective leadership at all levels and in all areas of operation. Finally, it would be a mistake to forget that immensely talented workers are human beings who, like everyone else, need to feel appreciated, need to believe in the value of what they are asked to do, and need a workplace environment within which their personal growth as well as professional development are constantly nourished.

Those who share my regard for this book are urged to check Darrell Rigby's Winning in Turbulence and Bill George's Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis as well as Brian Carney and Isaac Getz's Freedom, Inc., Ram Charan's Leadership in an Era of Economic Uncertainty, Geoff Colvin's The Upside of the Downturn, Donald Sull's The Upside of Turbulence, and Women Want More co-authored by Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre.
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Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down focuses specifically on how leadership can strive to maintain profitability and retain its star performers even during downturns in the economy. The book is broken up into two main parts. Part 1 examines why a recession can cause such harm to employee morale and efficiency. Part 2 then lays out practical steps on how to tackle these issues.

Hewlett discusses the need to focus on the talented individuals in an organization; not to take them for granted. While the stars may not be the target of a layoff, they may still leave after one due to work stress and other issues. For many of these individuals, their top reward is not necessarily money but instead often challenging/ stimulating work and high quality colleagues. For women there are also additional draws of recognition and respect.

Layoffs and recessions may create a bunker mentality amongst the "survivors", bringing on stress and health issues which affect efficiency. Safety nets at home may also be suffering. Only 31% of high performing women are married to men who make more than they do.

A key solution is for leadership to communicate openly, honestly, and frequently. It can take eight or more viewings of a message before it sinks in, even in ideal situations. In rough economic times the listeners can often be, understandably, distracted.

It's hard to overemphasize how critical the leadership skills of each person in management are. When people join a company, they look at its overall reputation, its benefit package, and other larger issues. However, when people leave a company, it is often due to their relationship with their boss. A strong relationship can help them weather a wide variety of other issues. A poor relationship can drive them away despite a wonderful company package.

Much of Top Talent focuses on women in particular, as they are often disproportionally lost during rough times. Three key areas of interest for women are flexible work environments, an ability to fulfill their ambitions, and a way to explore altruistic desires. These can often be provided without any budgetary strain.

Top Talent also provides practical advice that is good for all employees during all stages of recession and growth. Stress is insidious. Continual stress can cause physical issues, emotional issues, sleep issues, communication issues, and much more. It is critical to help all employees learn how to manage and mitigate any stress issues in their life. Exercise can be key to helping the body remain healthy and able to handle the hurdles of life.

So there is a great amount of valuable advice offered in this book. What are some of the issues I found with it?

First, the writing is not always clean. Hewlett describes how "... one employee in Amsterdam e-mailed Richardson to say in his fifteen-year career at the company fifteen years he had never felt so touched" (p. 42). The book could definitely have used another pass with an editor.

In the same vein, the language used sometimes seems to have a non-American angle which might hold a different meaning. When Hewlett talks about "Forbes ran a cover story that featured a picture of five knock-your-socks-off ... female bankers" (p. 77) to me that phrase means "stunningly beautiful" which I felt was highly inappropriate. I dislike judging women based on their body shape. I think what she meant was "stunningly intelligent" - but better phrasing would make that clear.

Next, I disagree with some of what is being promoted as "absolute truth". In one section Hewlett recommends a participant's advice that "People are much more productive when they can avoid office chitchat" (p. 60). While this might be true for robots, I have heard from many telecommuters that they feel lost and disconnected explicitly because they no longer have those water cooler conversations. They feel left out and abandoned, and it negatively affects their productivity and morale.

Finally, I am a woman. I am all for supporting women in business. But with a title of Top Talent, I found the book to be heavily pushing all the ways to keep women vs keeping all talent. It is fine if the author wanted to focus on women. In that case, she should have subtitled the book "Why it is critical to keep women on board during a recession" or something similar. I am a strong believer in a book making clear what its focus is. I absolutely think more books should exist to help support and maintain women in the work environment. At the same time, I believe books should clearly and accurately let potential buyers know what they contain.

Well recommended.

I purchased this book with my own funds in order to use it as a textbook in a Leadership class.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 30, 2009
I am truly baffled at the positive reviews out there on this book. This book did not have any new content for me. On the subject of talent management of star performers, Marcus Buckingham's books cover topics in greater detail and with more supporting evidence. Hewitt even has a reference to Buckingham in the book.

This may be useful if you are a manager that is truly clueless as to how to management talent / top talent. If you are familiar with other material on the topic, I really do not think this book will add anything to your knowledge base.
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