The forest and the tree

Educated as a forester in the Netherlands, prior to switching to management consulting, I have been trained to look at how the many people in the Netherlands interact with the few forest areas available and to optimize stakeholder interests. Let me explain this, as its relevance for HR will become clearer in a moment.

A forest area has many uses and many stakeholders. From the forester who maintains the forest for a specific purpose (e.g. timber or nature protection), the owner of the forest (forestry company, individual or state), the nature enthusiast walking around the forest, the sporty person running or cycling, etc.

In forest management each stakeholder has different interests and views on the forest. Optimizing these interests requires an understanding on how to design experiences optimized for individual stakeholders leading to an overall optimized experience for all stakeholders.

For example, when you walk, your perspective on the scenery is different from somebody who cycles on an all-terrain bike. The difference in speed creates a different perspective on the attractiveness of the landscape. The relative “smoothness” of a forest path creates different perspectives (a smooth path is useful for those in wheelchairs or older people, compared to a track covered in obstacles which is of big interest to those who do orienteering or all terrain biking), etc.

In this “game” of optimizing, even if trees are a crucial part of the forest, looking at an individual tree will not allow you to see the bigger picture, hence the saying “ei näe metsää puilta”.

Enter the comparison relevant for HR

An organisation has many stakeholders such as owners, employees, society, etc. Stakeholder optimization is often the task of the CEO, who tends to delegate the “employee stake” to HR.

The opportunity for HR people in Finland is related to the “forest and the tree” discussion.

Typically, much focus is put on the individual (tree), without understanding how it is not the individual but the interaction between individuals (forest) which matters in strategic management.

Studies from among others the world of football, ice hockey and baseball have shown that teams consisting of two-star players (to attract the audience) and otherwise average players have better results.

What am I hoping to say? Look beyond the capability and brilliance of the individual.

Let’s take two concrete examples:

1. In recruitment focus on how a new individual´s entrance will impact the team.

Every HR professional knows about the use of psychometric tools. Fewer know that if we take one of the most validated tools, the Big5 personality test, its replicability across cultures is weak. An introvert Dutchman can be considered an extravert “Finn”. Why is this relevant? Because if we recruit on personality types, assume they are similar across cultures, and we forget group dynamics; we will have checked the “recruitment” box, but by doing so brought in a new dynamic into the team. If the team’s culture is not ready for this dynamic, you risk upsetting the status quo. Obviously if you do this purposefully you can guide a team’ s transition, yet often what I have seen in practice is that recruiters only focus on the task at hand “recruitment” and forget the “retention” part. Only for an infinite loop of recruitment to start shaping….

2. In talent development, focus on how by developing teams you can develop individuals (as opposed to the other way around).

As in the example given from the sports world, we know that raising the average produces more overall sustainable talent on a group level as compared to raising individual excellence. The Finnish education system is the perfect example. On average Finnish pupils score very high, yet you will, when compared to e.g. the USA find relatively less individual excellence.

For talent development this means that you, as an HR business partner, can produce much more sustainable talent development on an organisational level (as compared to individual talent) which benefits the organisation (meaning people add more value for a longer time) as opposed to putting lots of focus on individuals (the so-called “hipo´s” or high potentials) with the risk of leaving an organisation empty-handed when that individual leaves.

The best way to create group-based talent development? Create a group dynamic which positively reflects on people taking time to study and actively embed “learning” (as a proxy for development) in the organisational practices and measures (should you use them). Basically, put your emphasis on actively building a “learning culture” with peer pressure doing the work for you.

Egbert Schram

Egbert Schram is a Dutchman, residing in Finland. He acts as the Group CEO of Hofstede Insights, a global cultural advisory, advising individuals, organisations and governments on the impact of culture on work life. Currently having operations in 60+ countries, and a global practice of about 150 people (of which 93% outside of Finland).