The Boy Scout vs. The Snake Pit

“There are two models for talent strategy,” he explained. “The first is the Boy Scout Model, and the second is the Market Model. But I prefer to call it the Snake Pit.”

I recently had the opportunity to meet with an extremely successful entrepreneur, former telecom executive, and a venture capitalist to better understand how CEOs think about talent. This is what I learned.

The Boy Scout Model

The Boy Scouts of America develop young leaders in a highly regimented manner. By earning a series of merit badges, boy scouts progress through various levels until they reach the top – eagle scout.

Boy Scout companies do the same. They search for inexperienced employees with raw talent that they can mold. These companies tend to be large and established. They have discovered a approach for success, and they invest time and resources to inculcate their employees with the knowledge, skills, and attitude to stay the course.

The Snake Pit Model

In contrast, the Snake Pit is Darwinian. Leaders emerge through a combination of adaptability and resilience.

Snake Pit companies are Boy Scout companies’ foil. They look for individuals with a track record of success, and they release them into the wild. These firms tend to be smaller, more innovative, and more dynamic. They’re not against employee development, per se, but they don’t have the time or the resources to “place bets” on unproven talent.

Which model is better?

The short answer: it depends.

The Boy Scout model can be extremely successful. General Electric, second oldest publicly traded firm in the U.S. (1892), also boasts the oldest corporate university, which it founded in Crotonville, NY in the mid-1950s. Though the company has reinvented itself numerous times, its focus on management techniques has been a key ingredient to its continued success.

But the Boy Scout model can also induce groupthink, which can lead to spectacular failures. For example, many attribute the relative demise of Nokia to its inability to grasp the importance of the user experience in the smartphone market.

On the other hand, the Snake Pit strategy is cost-effective and simple. Its problem is sustainability. Snake Pit companies require a steady stream of boy scouts, and eventually, they will reach a size where a degree of standardization is necessary.

The Snake Charmer Model: A third path?

In The Alliance, LinkedIn Co-founder Reid Hoffman explains:

“If we can’t go back to the age of lifetime employment, and the status quo is untenable, it’s time to rebuild the employer-employee relationship. The business world needs a new employment framework that facilitates mutual trust, mutual investment, and mutual benefit. An ideal framework encourages employees to develop their personal networks and act entrepreneurially without becoming mercenary job-hoppers.”

The business world needs a new type of company: Snake Charmers. Snake Charmers are flat without being anarchic, and they invest in their employees’ development without being dogmatic. This new breed of company understands that Boy Scouts cannot survive in the increasingly flexible and networked labor market, just as Snake Pits cannot reduce the highly-talented individuals to job-hopping drones.

Snake Charmers attract and engage the best talent by providing meaningful work and adding value to the individual that goes above and beyond salary and benefits.

We are making a big bet that this is true.

I believe that Snake Charmers represent the future of high-performing companies in the United States, and I created the Go! program to help them succeed. Go! is a leadership development experience that combines MBA coursework, team building, international immersion, and philanthropy to help companies develop and engage the next generation of business leaders.

Go! may not be part of the solution for every company, but it is emblematic of a new employer-employee paradigm that features flexibility and mutual benefit. Boy Scouts and Snake Pits take note.