LeakYour deep bench of emerging leaders doesn’t matter when the talent you have is undermined by unrealistic, punishing demands.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a dynamic talent pool is the key to winning that elusive human capital advantage. Attracting a deep bench of high-performers that delivers a diverse pipeline of future leaders can not only ease succession planning pressure in the long term, but it can also provide a platform for strategic growth and expansion in the short term.

Similarly, most prescriptions to broaden your talent pool — elevating your organization’s brand to create a broader appeal among top talent, capturing the imagination of the market with unique and flexible benefits packages, and using slick social media campaigns to gain traction — also focus on the external marketplace. Unfortunately, this outside focus creates a distraction from a more significant piece of the talent equation.

While it’s common to refer to the “war for talent” as an abstract event that occurs beyond the walls of the organization, a more significant and tangible war for talent occurs closer to home: it’s the organization’s internal struggle to leverage the capacity of its emerging leaders for maximum impact without imposing unrealistic demands that undermine their performance and well-being.

The old adage that “the best way to expand your organization’s talent pool is to take care of the talent you already have” has never been truer. Unfortunately, this is an often neglected front in the war for talent, and the lion’s share of resources and focus is poured into the external efforts of talent pool expansion, recruitment, and selection.

The bottom line is that your talent pool is only as deep as your capacity to engage your people in ways that engender their sustainable contributions over time.

Getting the best and brightest high-potential leaders through the door makes no difference when they burn out or fade away because the demands they face outpace their capacity to address them by a wide margin. Unfortunately, this inverse equation wreaks havoc in the vast majority of today’s organizations, and it could be the damaging leak in your company’s talent pool.

To know if your organization is caught in this damaging cycle, consider the experience of today’s average manager and assess whether your culture sustains the destructive conditions reflected in these numbers:

  • 80 percent of managers say that the demands they face are increasing.
  • 66 percent say “workload” is the top cause of their stress, outranking “people issues” and “job security.”
  • Nearly half of managers say they struggle with a lack of focus and clear direction.
  • 61 percent of managers say they are working below their optimal levels of energy.
  • 51 percent say increased workload has a direct, negative effect on their well-being.

For generations, credible voices have described these dangers, which we’ve literally baked into the role of managers. From epidemics of managerial burnout, to the current tidal wave of disengagement that affects leaders and their teams in profound ways, the trend seems unavoidable. But if these warnings and stark numbers aren’t compelling enough, consider a finding from the Corporate Executive Board’s 2013 study: The average manager has 12 direct reports, compared with 7 before the recession.

At face value, this leap represents a 40 percent increase in the average manager’s workload. Between the lines, this means a significant draw on the dwindling time and resources associated with everything managers do, from setting expectations, to establishing priorities, to monitoring accountabilities, to supporting ongoing productivity, and to managing the countless small moves required to sustain the overall effectiveness of their teams.

FloodSaid another way: this increase in direct reports means 40 percent more goal-setting discussions, weekly check-ins, difficult conversations, annual reviews, and so on. Where does the additional 40 percent of time, energy, resources, and focus come from to help your managers meet the demand?

The moment that demand begins to outpace capacity, a series of impossible trade-offs become the norm as managers get caught in firefighting mode. Which goal rises above all your other priorities? Which “fire of the day” gets extinguished while others are selectively ignored simply because there are too few resources available to put them all out? Which project receives funding while other high-potential opportunities languish?

These are just a few examples of the critical assessments, judgment calls, and decisions that frame the ultimate concern for managers. Within each of these difficult questions, you see the endless set of trade-offs managers must make when stuck in what I call “the manager’s dilemma.

In this zero-sum game, each managerial move generates a give or take with vital consequences for the team and organization. More importantly, it leaves managers caught in an exhausting cycle in which there is always unfinished business.

If your emerging and established leaders are inundated by the manager’s dilemma, then you’re at risk of nullifying any external wins in your war for talent. Therefore, it’s vital to make a parallel investment in resources to address the fundamental imbalance of demands that exacerbate the inverse equation and produce conditions that are ripe for the dilemma to emerge.

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