Management Trainees: The Special Ones

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Many companies have got a management trainee scheme in place in which they recruit the ‘creme-de-la-creme’ from top universities, announce their arrival with much aplomb in the organization, give them a two year rotation program, provide them with all the ‘trendy’ training courses, promote them upon completing the two years and then put them on a career fast track. They are the ‘Special Ones’.

Whenever I have conversations with ‘battle-hardened’ middle managers on management trainees they understand why the company is doing it, but that they have two problems with it.

Firstly they tell me that this is all well but their concern is that this kid is going to be with them for a couple of months max and his / her special treatment will create a lot of resentment with other team members whom they count on for the delivery of year-on-year results and the company can’t afford to jeopardize that. Absolutely true and I can feel the dichotomy between the need for short term (prime responsibility of middle managers) and long term development of talent. 

My answer in these situations has always been that being a top talent is not a genetic implant. Everybody has the opportunity for a career. As long as you deliver outstanding results and do it in a way that is compatible with the companies culture you can become a top talent. It’s an aspiration that everybody can have and should be able to achieve. 

And that is where middle manager can play a role, helping their solid performers to acquire skills / experiences and providing them with opportunities to show to the world that they are also capable of delivering outstanding results. So they are then recognized as top talent and being pushed up in the organization. 

The other objection middle managers raise is that putting someone on such a pedestal only sets him up for failure as they become over confident and big headed. This one I feel is much more difficult to answer and I have seen examples where giving your graduates special attention and making them feel they are the ‘special one’ is counter-productive. 

Scientific research backs up this concern. Studies primarily focused on the effect of ‘praise on children’, especially adolescents, have delivered similar insights.

In a scientific study from Mueller and Dweck in 1998 randomly selected students from a  wide range of socio economic backgrounds were provided with problems to solve, after which they were praised for either (1) their intelligence and score, (2) their effort and score or simply (3) the score they received. When provided a second and third set of problems of increasing difficulty the children who received praise for their efforts constantly improved their scores whereas the children praised for their intelligence did the worst and overall declined in score from the first to the third round. 

Ed Wiseman in 59 Seconds states that “praising children on their traits (intelligence, talents) can actually have a detrimental effect as it encourages them to avoid challenging situations, not try so hard and quickly become demotivated. In contrast praising efforts encourages people to stretch themselves, work hard and persist in the face of difficulties.”

So when you praise your ‘Special Ones’ don’t compliment on their abilities or talents. You need to focus on their effort, concentration, ability to overcome obstacles, ability to learn, the way they interacted with people, built a team and the new ideas that they put forward. Make it as practical as possible and make them feel special about the things that matter, not about the traits that they are gifted with. 


– Paul Keijzer

You may also like:
Why Don’t I Praise People Enough,
Your To Don’t List For 2013: How Not To Engage Talent

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4 thoughts on “Management Trainees: The Special Ones

  1. I agree with both arguments, Paul and have the following observations:
    – MT programs are like the Officer Cadre in the military where entry requirements are high. This fact alone contributes to people feeling ‘special.’
    – Generally, people with high IQs tend to behave as if entitled to special treatment and lack of effort
    – Those coming in via MT programs may stay or go – just like all the others so retention will always be an issue. However, having seen stars and disappointments in equal measure, I still feel MT programs are a good way to bring in talent. You can increase the chances of success by having better assessments and stretch assignments, coupled with good mentors.
    – Anyone with an ‘entitlement’ mindset – be he an MT or 4.0 GPA – is going to have adjustment problems in life.

    • Thanks for the additions Leon. Think we both have seen the value of MT schemes and the talent it produces. As always it is more about how the organisation (line managers, other employees and the special ones) ‘deal’ with it rather then the scheme itself.

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