Reflections on Strategic Talent Management (STM)

Kok How Lee

This piece is primarily an adaptation from my STM assignment submitted two weeks after TIEMBA Module four in Beijing during the fall (a beautiful season to be in Tsinghua). The module as well as the great times spent with all my awesome classmates are all still fresh in my mind.

Reflections of Strategic Talent Management (STM)

For me, the Strategic Talent Management (STM) class was an eye-opener, not so much for the content, but rather for the way it was delivered. In fact, the key learnings were so deeply etched in my mind that upon reflecting nearly two weeks later, I could still remember most of them vividly, as if they had just happened yesterday. Of which, three things that struck me most are: “Will you love me forever?”, “知之为知之,不知为不知, 是知也” and “Did you see the shark?”. I shall elaborate on each one of them specifically.

Will you love me forever?

To me, this one sentence that Professor Lee asked in class encapsulates the essence of STM. While every woman and man all secretly wishes that unconditional love exists, the reality is our answer probably lies closer to what Professor Lee says – “if you remain lovable”. Similarly, in the work context, the iron rice bowl is becoming a relic of the past. In an employer-employee relationship, both the employer and employee will increasingly not hesitate to walk away, if they realise that the relationship is not a mutually beneficial one. The implication of this relationship is made even more stark by the fact that in the current knowledge economy, intangible assets now contribute 85% of the value of the S&P 500 index, up from 15% four decades ago. Of this 85%, human assets probably account for a significant chunk.

Therefore, to maintain this healthy relationship, a more responsible and sustainable approach is to help both parties appreciate in value and remain “lovable” to each other. This mindset, I believe, forms the basis of HR Version 4.0 – Talent Asset Management. Prior to this, my thinking was still stuck in HR Version 2.0/3.0 – Human Resource or Human Capital Management, for my staff but perhaps even more so for myself. Somehow, I used to feel a mild sense of guilt if I didn’t devote all my working hours to delivering value for the organisation, without realising that my capacity to deliver more value for the organisation relies on creating more value for myself.

Now, I no longer feel guilty for upgrading myself during office hours.

And while we are on this topic of love, a somewhat related question pops up – What do you do when you no longer love a person? What happens when the skill sets of some employees become irrelevant as a result of the external environment (e.g. mega trends such as technology, regulations etc) and/or company restructuring/transformation? In the context of STM, this was addressed in class, as well as in the NETFLIX case study – the right thing to do would be to let the employee go, so that he/she could find a better fit and realise his/her potential somewhere else. Of course, we should try all ways and means to make this process a less painful one, including offering a decent severance package. 

As a manager/leader, I have a responsibility to my subordinates to make sure that they continue to create value for themselves as they deliver value for the organisation. As an employee, I have a duty to the organisation to ensure that I continue to push the boundaries of my own potential by not neglecting my own personal and professional development.

Stop: Delaying my own personal and professional development to complete deadlines. Stop feeling guilty when working on personal/ professional development during working hours.

Continue: To treat my relationship with my staff as well as my bosses as one where we continue to help one another remain “lovable”

知之为知之,不知为不知, 是知也

Another model that came up frequently during class was the conscious/ unconscious competence/ incompetence model. Professor Lee used the example of the 3D shark image to explain the differences between the different states of awareness.

Reflections of Strategic Talent Management (STM)

Personally, I think this model can be an extremely powerful tool for both learning and to better understand another person. Let me elaborate.

Firstly, by always assuming a position of conscious incompetence, it helps to motivate an individual to keep finding out more and continue to learn. Of course, assuming such a position necessarily entails some level of discomfort for it is not easy acknowledging that one doesn’t know anything. However, at the same time, it can also be very liberating as the act of acknowledging that frees you to be able to make mistakes.

Secondly, this model can also be effectively applied to help understand other people’s perspectives and motivation. Take the case of Stanley Han for example. During class, Stanley highlighted the situation of his staff (millennial generation) always wanting to take on more responsibilities and tasks, even before they are proficient at what they had been assigned. While it is easy to assume the position of conscious competence because of our position, this always makes it difficult to understand where the other party is coming from. Our professor correctly pointed out that it is wrong to say that the millennial generation is a "strawberry generation", but rather because of a lack of understanding of what motivates them.

Coincidentally, I happened to chance upon a commercial by United Overseas Bank called “Right by Every Generation”  after the module which resonates with this very point. The tagline for this campaign “We understand that even though each generation expresses themselves differently, the same values define us” is precisely the point Professor Lee was trying to get across in the lesson.

Start: Learning to be comfortable to be always in a state of discomfort.

Stop: Assuming that you know everything and that you are right, especially if you are a subject matter expert and in a position of power.

Continue: To always remain curious and keep learning

Did you see the shark?

Reflections of Strategic Talent Management (STM)

While the 3D shark image was largely used by Professor Lee to explain the concept of conscious/unconscious competence/incompetence model, I had a slightly different take. For me, I found the shark visualisation exercise/analogy more appropriate for another key learning that was emphasised during class, and that is the “Leading = Learning * Teaching * Changing” model. Learning how to see the shark is not enough, you must teach others to see it. Teaching a few to see it is not enough, change only happens when those who now see it pass it forward, and show the rest how to see it. Only then will true transformation start to occur.

A student learns, a teacher teaches, and a manager changes (things). However, as a leader, doing any single one or two of the three is not enough, a leader needs to do all three. That is probably why the model uses multiplication, instead of addition. As Bruce Lee once said,“To know is not enough, you must apply; to be willing is not enough, you must do”, it is only through learning, teaching and changing that one can claim to be empowering the lives of many.

Reflections of Strategic Talent Management (STM)

Finally, not everybody will be able to see the shark. Some people may take longer, some may never be able to see it. As a leader, it is important to accept the fact that not everybody will be able to see the goal/vision/strategy you have and that eventually, one cannot have everyone on board.


Finally, I shall end this reflection by sharing a piece of Chinese literature I learnt two decades ago as a high school student. While we were taught the meaning of the literature, it is not until after the STM course that I had truly appreciated the deeper meaning behind it. The title of the piece is “An Essay about horses”, written over a thousand years ago during the Warring States period:



First, the horse connoisseur (also known as BoLe) must exist before the horse with the “ability to run a thousand miles in a day”. While it is not uncommon to find a “thousand miles - horse”, it is extremely rare to find a BoLe. And that is why even when such horses exist, they suffer indignity at the hands of servants and die in exhaustion in the barns and are not known for their ability to travel a thousand miles.


“Thousand miles – horses” consume much more than normal horses do. Grooms who do not understand this, will not feed them sufficiently. Hence, even though they have the ability to travel a thousand miles in a day, with insufficient food, they will not have enough energy to display their talent. They may not even be able to compete with normal horses, not to mention about travelling a thousand miles.


By not spurring them in the right manner, feeding them too little to show their prowess and not being able to communicate and understand them, yet raising the whip and exclaiming “There are no good horses in this world!” … Sigh… Are there really no good horses? Or is it because one can’t recognise good horses when one sees them?

Strategic Talent Management is exactly what this ancient literature was trying to convey and that is, discovering true talent requires one to be able to fit the right person to the role. Just like what Albert Einstein once said “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

In addition, strategic talent management also requires providing talent with the right environment, conditions and motivation for their talent to shine through.