ATD Blog

Talent, Obama, and Interconnected Success

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Have you scanned the business magazine headlines lately? The scarcity of top talent may be the biggest issue on the minds of executives today in the quest to turn individual potential into organizational success. The data explains why.

For instance, according to research from the Corporate Executive Board, 66 percent of companies invest in programs that aim to identify high-potential employees and support their advancement, but only 24 percent of the senior executives at those firms consider the programs to be a success. Further, only 13 percent have confidence in the rising leaders inside their organizations, down from 17 percent just three years ago.

Finding and fostering the fittest among us seems to be a losing proposition in the minds of weary executives. But how about leaders at all levels? Are they thriving as our organizations enjoy the fruits of their best efforts, focus, and high performance? Here, the data shows a systemic problem, not limited to high fliers.

  • Recent research from Gallup shows that 51 percent of U.S. managers feel disconnected from their jobs and companies, while 55 percent are looking for outside opportunities.
  • According to two comprehensive studies from, the most popular U.S. job search website, 71 percent of employees are either actively looking for, or open to, a new job.
  • The average rate of employee turnover (of which about 75 percent is voluntary) has been growing steadily for the past six years. In 2016, it hit a new high of 20.3 percent in the U.S. As we all know, low engagement and high turnover are extremely costly.

But as the people problem spirals downward, the natural response, as it seems, is doubling down on improving individual performance.

While I am in no way against growing high performers or advancing professional development through adaptive learning, AI, virtual reality, or lightsabers, I suggest the big potential for unlocking consistently better performance in our organizations today, with minimal investment and significant return, is moving from a focus on the fittest among us to creating best fits inside our organizations.

From corporate Darwinism aiming to prop up the most fit employees among us to interconnected expansion based on how well we are able to connect with, contribute to, and benefit from the ecosystem of the people around us; less attention on upward mobility (success to the individual), more attention to outward mobility (success from the individual).

Reaching Our Potential Together

The truth is that inside our organizations (our business units, cohorts, departments, divisions, workgroups, sales teams, customer service centers, regions, offices, and so on), we succeed or fail together—if not in the short-term, over the long run. Success or failure is not a solo flight.

But we come by our bias for focusing on individual performance honestly. We spend the first 22 years of our life being judged and praised for our individual attributes and what we can achieve alone, when for the rest of our lives, the research tells us our success is almost entirely interconnected with that of others.

Need a “Presidential Seal of Approval” to be persuaded?


President Barack Obama touted an interconnected organizational leadership philosophy during his sit-down with ATD President and CEO Tony Bingham at the ATD 2018 Opening General Session. “We set up a structure that was predisposed to the potential and power of the people who were working as part of the team,” the president said. The premise was, “We’re going to give you a lot of responsibility, we’re going to hold you accountable,” he explained. “People respond when you expect a lot of them.”

During his presidency, Obama noted, he also set the example for other leaders in his administration to treat their workers with respect. In meetings in the Situation Room, seated around the table with the president, were generals and secretaries. On the outer ring were the staff of those high-level leaders. Obama called the folks the “people who actually do the work.” So, the president would on occasion ask those staffers what they thought about the topic being discussed. Obama said he did so not only to show the staffers that they mattered, but “I was also sending a message to the principals that they should be listening to their staff and asking for feedback.”

In the workplace, it’s everyone’s job to create a positive culture. “It means that in your organizations, you’re taking responsibility to make sure that the people you work with are treating each other with respect,” Obama said, “You are insisting on continually improving performance.”

So, what would Obama do facing the talent wars?

President Obama is telling us our biggest potential for growth is achieved when we tap into the potential of those around us.

Foundations for Interconnected Success

Here’s a list of seven foundations for interconnected success that can move your organization, and its myriad teams, from what I call our “soft cap” potential, wherein we overemphasize the individual, foster hypercompetitive environments, and remove others from the equation, to our bigger potential, wherein by helping others achieve success, we not only raise the performance of the group but also exponentially increase our own potential.


Structure for success. Leaders must conscientiously create the conditions for success. In one study, a researcher found that employees who work in an environment with a transformative leader (one who inspires with a clear vision and encourages subordinates to create new ideas and outlooks) were significantly more creative and mentally flexible (a condition for innovation) than those who worked for a transactional leader (one who offers praise and rewards in direct exchange for high performance done in isolation).

Promote leading from every seat. If you believe that leadership and influence are limited resources given only to those at the top, it shuts off the part of your brain that could be searching for new possibilities or opportunities to lead. When you let go of the idea that only certain people have the power to lead, you can dramatically amplify not only your own power but the power of the group as a whole. If we want potential to thrive, we must inspire and enable others to lead from every seat.

Recognize biases. As Sigmund Freud wrote a century ago, “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them.” In a complex and hyperconnected world, where poor decisions can multiply as if in a chain reaction, breaking free of unhelpful biases (blind spots, stereotypes, prejudices, and pre-judgements) has never been more important. So, what’s the best way to overcome biases? Collectively. Organizations and teams have the best opportunity to become aware of bias in ways that individuals cannot. Once they are identified, you can put strategies in place and make for effective decisions.

Democratize praise. A good leader praises the people who make success possible. A great leader does not merely praise other people, but rather turns other people into praise providers themselves. In one research project in partnership with LinkedIn, we found that if an individual received four or more touchpoints of praise over the year, the amount of praise that they provided to their peers doubled, creating a virtuous cycle by which praise continuously multiplies.

Shift the story to success. We are magnetically drawn toward vivid images of the future. Positive or negative, research shows the more vivid the visualization, the more real it feels—and the more likely it will impact our behavior. Only when we recognize this as leaders can we begin to move away from a vicious cycle where our mental images feed our fear to a picture of the world, and an outlook, that gives us power. If we want people to be excited about the direction we are giving them, we need to similarly elevate their collective vision of what a positive world can look like.

Celebrate. Celebration is the oxygen of realizing our big potential. If we want to sustain the gains we have achieved, we need to keep breathing it in. Celebrate small wins and large. Celebrate strengths. Celebrate meaning. Celebrate you, celebrate me, celebrate we. When we celebrate with others, we are more aware of belonging, the strengthening of our social bonds, and the meaning of interconnected success.

Create shared meaning. Meaning is that “unbalanced force” that keeps us going, especially in busy or stressful times. Finding meaning in one’s work can be the single biggest motivator and an unending reservoir of motivation and resilience to overcome whatever challenges arise. Not only is leadership a choice, so is meaning. The very best way I have seen to reconnect with meaning is to create a visual narrative of it. In fact, the act of memorializing meaningful moments provides you with a source of fuel you can tap into anytime you are running low. What’s more, by involving others (creating shared meaning and memorializing it), you make this a collective source of ongoing momentum and energy.

Want to learn more? In my latest book Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness and Well-Being, I provide five actionable steps toward achieving our big potential by helping others achieve theirs. For more information visit

About the Author

International best-selling author Shawn Achor is one of the world’s leading experts on happiness, success, and potential. His research has graced the cover of Harvard Business Review, and his TED Talk is one of the most popular of all time, with more than 17 million views. Shawn spent twelve years at Harvard before bringing his research to neary half the Fortune 100, as well as places like the Pentagon, impoverished schools in Africa, and the White House. His research has also been published in top psychology journals and featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Fortune. His interview with Oprah Winfrey and his PBS program have been seen by millions. He now serves on the World Happiness Council and continues his research.

Achor also partners with the nternational Thought Leader Network. For over two decades, ITLN have worked on the forefront of organizational advancement in collaboration with the world’s most distinguished thought leaders to deliver big ideas and best practices to a global workforce. ITLN, in partnership with Shawn Achor, assists organizations around the world in bringing happiness research to life at work and in education . . . through research partnerships, training, and large-scale interventions. The Happiness Advantage │Orange Frog Workshop™ and its accompanying parable by Shawn Achor, The Orange Frog, are designed to deliver key lessons from The Happiness Advantage while also serving as a rallying language for teams, organizations, and individuals to provide the foundation for sustained positive behavioral change. This change is linked to core work routines and best culture practices, supporting desired business results and educational outcomes.

Today, ITLN and Achor have created the largest and most successful positive psychology training for organizations and educators in the world. Their work impacts every dimension of human potential performance, intelligence, creativity, leadership ability and health – in an increasingly interconnected world where our biggest potential lies in our ability to influence others.

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