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Bob Wagner

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What can HR learn from the X Factor?


As we settle into the winter routine of watching the X-Factor on a Saturday night, is there anything that HR professionals can learn from the hugely successful programme? After all, the purpose of the show is to find and nurture talent in a bid to discover the ‘next big thing’. 

Some people seem destined to be highly successful – the likes of Michael Jackson and Beyonce have achieved superstardom status – and made it look easy. But for the rest of the population, talent is often there but needs a little nurturing to bring out the full potential.

The first challenge is finding talent: successful X Factor contestants may wow the judges instantly, or get through to the ‘bootcamp’ stage based on their potential, or even be singled out from what was originally a group.

Organisations can learn a lesson from this – they shouldn’t expect talent to fall into their laps, they need to look at each individual’s potential. Looking within an organisation and giving staff the chance to showcase talent and ideas not only serves as an engagement tool and unlocks potential, but it could also positively impact on profits by saving on recruitment costs.

To draw on another popular TV programme, Dragons’ Den, contestants are given funding if the Dragons believe that they can deliver on their promise of return on investment. Giving staff the chance to air their ideas and receive feedback, and possibly investment from the board, is a great way to motivate staff whilst also uncovering areas for business ventures that may not have been previously considered. Front line staff are often much more aware of consumer needs than those tucked away in a boardroom, so they can provide real insight into market demands and areas for growth.

For this type of initiative to succeed, staff must be given time to develop and showcase their talent and ideas, and creativity be encouraged. Google’s ‘20% time strategy’ is a successful example of this in practice. One day in five, engineers are given time to work on individual ventures that aren’t necessarily in line with their job descriptions. This is how tools such as Google Earth were born.

Giving staff time to be creative is one area for progression, but others may need support in finding out where their weaknesses lie. There are a number of tests available on the market to find out strengths and weaknesses and providing staff training in area’s that they are traditionally weak will help to build on confidence and performance. Although many employers won’t be able to whisk staff off to a luxurious sea-facing house in Barbados, Simon Cowell style, for ongoing mentoring – managers should time take out to nurture talent and work on areas for improvement.

Taking time to build on individual’s talent is extremely important, but only if it complements the future of the organisation. Many organisations are unfocused when it comes to knowing target markets and the people needed to reach business goals successfully. Therefore training budgets typically end up being wasted and untargeted – resulting in little impact being felt. If organisations, and leaders, had a strong vision of the direction they wanted to take the business in – they could ensure that the right people are in place to take them there.

Conducting business as usual, whether that be hiring carbon copies of previous and existing employees or not changing to meet consumer needs, is a tactic organisations can’t afford to adopt. The format of the X-Factor show has changed over the years to keep things fresh – such as the live audience auditions, introducing new judges, and inviting star guests to assess the final contestants. Businesses that understand market needs and make changes will protect themselves from stagnating and becoming irrelevant. Such tactics involve elements of risk and change may not go down well at first with target audiences but, with thorough research beforehand, change can be very successful.

Expecting the unexpected and being flexible to diversions in strategies is also crucial when managing change – something the X Factor capitalised on in the last series when the twins John and Edward appeared on stage. Who would have thought that appearing on a show that is supposed to find talented singers, would launch Jedward onto such a successful career path with concerts and their own TV show? 

On the whole, the link between the X Factor and HR is a bit tongue-in-cheek but, to give the show credit, it has propelled many everyday individuals into successful pop careers through nurturing talent and providing them with golden opportunities. So there is something that HR can learn from this – if you can mobilise your staff towards a common cause, whether achieving a number one hit or reaching sales targets, it can really serve to engage and motivate people towards striving for success.

Bob Wagner is MD of DPG (Development Processes Group)

One Response

  1. The Feedback Factor

    Bob makes some excellent analogies in this article, I just wanted to add one other observation which I find very useful in discussing the value of giving ‘feedback’.  One of the issues that the show highlights for me is the impact that failing to be honest with people about their skill set can have.  With great regularity we see individuals who believe that they are very talented singers finally receiving the news that their family and friends never dared to tell them.  It is a devastating blow and one for which we don’t see the real consequences. 

    The lesson I believe is that as managers (and parents!) we have a duty to provide feedback at an early stage in the employment relationship so that people are clear about their performance and are able to develop to their full potential.  Without that feedback people are left to believe that they are doing a great job until finally someone has the ‘audacity’ to challenge their behaviour.  Untangling that web of beliefs can be a long and challenging one for all concerned.

    Lindsay Hawkins, Cultivate Training & Development Ltd


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