Gutting the Talent Bench

Remember The Discipline of Market Leaders? In 1995, authors Treacy and Wiersema described three competencies needed by all organizations: operational excellence (efficient productivity), customer intimacy (“the ability to cultivate relationships”) and product leadership (“offering products that push performance boundaries”). If you haven’t picked up the book in awhile, it’s worth re-reading.

The authors asserted that successful organizations stake their reputation on one of these three disciplines, while also maintaining an acceptable level of proficiency in the other two.

While watching companies implement this book’s principles, I noticed three things...

First, the concepts apply to individual employees, not just organizations. Each employee needs some basic level of proficiency in operational excellence, customer intimacy and product leadership. But each employee is naturally stronger in one of the three and finds the most job satisfaction when engaged in that area.

Second, each manager is naturally stronger in one of the three and tends to prefer “like thinkers” for their teams. This can have a couple of side effects. A team may be understaffed in the other two competencies. Or, a manager may unwittingly show preference for the employees most like them and subtly alienating behaviors toward the others.

Third, apparently not realizing that Treacy’s and Wiersema’s concepts also apply to individual employees and managers, some organizations began an inadvertent pruning process. For example, one firm selected customer intimacy as its primary focus. It identified current employees who excelled in relationship building and focused on getting their input. The organization pointed to these individuals and said “this” is what we want and what we will reward. “This” is how to act. Everyone needs to learn how to do “this.”

The firm did not consider that employees who excelled at operational excellence might have brilliant operational ideas for boosting customer happiness. Or that product leaders might have ideas for enhancing offerings, again to delight customers. Instead, those employees whose natural strengths were in operational excellence or product leadership began feeling sidelined—particularly the product leadership folks, who tend to be outliers anyway in many organizations.

Change your personality...or exit

Employees felt they needed to convert themselves into customer intimacy specialists in order to be valued and remain relevant. Some organizations were essentially asking employees to change their personality as a condition of continued employment.

Not satisfied with a seat on the sidelines and not interested in a lobotomy, these disengaged workers left their employers for greener pastures. Product leadership folks gravitated toward product leadership firms that would reward their skills, or they left to start their own enterprises.

The result? Competency holes. In the effort to become a market leader by Treacy’s and Wiersema’s definition, some organizations fell short because they gutted their talent bench in the two non-focus areas.

My next few posts will look at the product leadership folks—the “idea people”—from a few different angles. My goal: to provide a fresh perspective on how managers can improve employee engagement and retention of this group.


CEOs: What discipline is your organization’s claim to fame—operational excellence, customer intimacy or product leadership? How are you doing in the other two areas?

Managers: Which of your employees excel in operation excellence? Customer intimacy? Product leadership? Which group do you find more challenging to manage and why? Do you subtly favor one group over another? (If you are not sure, visit the free questionnaire at You may discover that your answers vary by group.)

HR: If you look at your company’s attrition, is it disproportionally from one group? If you have a way to slice and dice your engagement data, does one of the groups report higher engagement?

Employees: Which of the three disciplines is your greatest strength? Have you ever experienced a workplace situation where you felt your strength wasn’t valued? If yes, I hope you’ll share your story below.

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