Retaining, Maximizing Talent Using Gladwell's 'Outliers'

Cory Bennett

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, was a runaway No. 1 best-seller. His oft-mentioned "10,000-hours rule" – the idea that practicing one task for that many hours will almost guarantee success in a field – sparked frequent water cooler debates around the world. The Cambridge Research Institute saw something a more practical for them – the basis of a talent retention program for their company.

Gladwell’s explained his point – simplistically stated as "practice makes perfect" – in part by referencing a study of Canadian hockey players’ birthdays. Most had been born in the first few months of the year. In Gladwell’s opinion, their success at tryouts resulted largely from the few additional months of training compared to their Fall- and Winter-born peers.

This example struck a chord with Michael Hamm and Jeremy Booth at the Cambridge Research Institute.

"When you try to employ that in the corporate world, we didn’t want to recognize outliers [in performance] simply because they had received better training earlier in their career," Hamm said.

So the Cambridge Research Institute set about making a talent retention and incentive program that would be certain to tap into the staff’s full potential, while creating a positive work environment.

"In the corporate world, we’d like to reverse that trend and make sure that the program is offered to our true top performers and that it isn’t just some arbitrary list of people who can participate," Hamm said.

Hamm and Booth will outline this talent retention program and discuss the steps taken to implement it at this year’s 12th Annual Call Center Week in Las Vegas. Their presentation is called "Converting Principles from Fictional Stories into Action Plans for Business Implementation."

Hamm broke down the "action plan roadmap" of their talent retention program, which targets three groups.

"We wanted to touch as many associates as possible," he said. "We focus on groups within the firm such as high performers, emerging leaders, as well as long-term associates that want to contribute to Cambridge, but aren’t necessarily on the leadership path."

But Gladwell himself gave some further advice to the company after speaking at its national conference recently. Gladwell worried that any company-wide, invitation-only initiative might exclude someone with untapped potential – a concept explored at length in his Outliers.

"So at Cambridge, we’re trying to come up with something that makes everybody able to participate in something that will help their career," Hamm said, indicating that this was in addition to the programs that target certain groups.

To Hamm, retention also includes incentives. Cambridge stresses incentives and goals that are team-oriented (on top of individual incentives) and gives managers and vice presidents budgets to allocate to employees at their discretion.

"Associates are not always 100 percent pleased with their compensation, but when you tie it to a team goal … people feel like they are trying to strive and succeed together," Hamm said. "There’s a culture of morale and teamwork [as a result] because they’re dependent on one another. The process of defining and implementing team goals has been very successful at the firm."

But with the American economy gradually emerging from the recession, talent retention becomes even harder; the talent pool shrinks, while the likelihood of moving jobs for better pay increases. Hamm knows this issue to particularly affect the contact center industry.

"Having any sort of incentive plan, rewards and recognition program or talent retention program is going to be a key focus of any contact center that wants to stay successful," Hamm said.

Listen to the full inteview above.