What Star Wars Can Teach You About Talent Management

A series doesn’t become the juggernaut Star Wars has without having universal themes that resonate on many levels. One expert highlights the key lessons association execs can learn about effective work environments from the film series.

With the latest Star Wars film sitting atop the box office last weekend, it’s easy to think of the nine-film series as simply riveting entertainment. But the films have resonated for more than 40 years because of the universal themes they convey about the human experience. Keeping that in mind, Star Wars has much to offer us in the field of talent management.

Even without deep analysis, we can figure out the Sith approach of force choking staff to death is ineffective in respect to both employee retention and organization morale. The Jedi approach, which emphasized mentoring and guiding talent along their journey to reach their full potential, seems the clear winner if we’re seeking methods to emulate. But what are the keys to this approach that you can apply in your own association?

To find the answers, I spoke with Mark Peterson, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor who teaches a course that explores Star Wars. He offered his take on the workplace journey, mentoring, and letting go.

Meet Talent Where They Are

The films began in 1977 with Star Wars: A New Hope, which would later become film four in the complete series. The original Star Wars films—as well as the two subsequent trilogies (Episodes I-III and Episodes VII-IX)—showcase a pattern important to workforce dynamics.

“There is this pattern in the films, and I think this is good in management circles,” said Peterson, who has dabbled in management consulting work. “You start off as Luke, and eventually you turn into Obi-Wan, and eventually you become Yoda.”

It is important for organizations to help meet people where they are in their journey, whether it be a novice Luke, a seasoned Obi-Wan, or the grand master Yoda. At each point, they need different tools to help them achieve their goals.

“Everything in Western mythology tells you how to get from Luke to Obi-Wan, and nothing tells you how to get from Obi-Wan to Yoda,” Peterson said. “But there are tools for every stage. If you look at the end of Episode III, when Obi-Wan goes to Tatooine to watch over Luke, Yoda gives Obi-Wan exercises to do so he can evolve.”

Immerse Newbies in the Culture

While the Empire culture seems to be one of trial by fire, where you learn to keep your mouth shut after seeing colleagues murdered, the Jedi pride themselves on immersing Padawans in the culture.

“It’s the distinction between orientation and onboarding,” Peterson said. “With orientation, you give them the parking pass and keys, leave them alone, and they flounder and die. Onboarding is getting them into institutional culture.”

Good onboarding is essential. “Obi-Wan isn’t just giving Luke his parking pass and light saber,” Peterson said. “He’s also getting him imbued in Jedi culture. What does it mean to be this person? Obi-Wan takes him in and says, ‘Here is what you watch out for.’”

In addition to cultural acclimation, it’s important to have a mentor who can help navigate problems that would otherwise stop newbies’ progress. “Those are the things that keep you from getting underway,” Peterson said. “In Luke’s case, it’s all those people who threaten him at Mos Eisley [Cantina]. Obi-Wan helps him get over that, and he meets Han and Chewie.”

Let Talent Shine

In the Star Wars universe, much as in the work world, when you have employees who have been successfully nurtured and mentored, it’s important to know when to let go.

“The reality is, Yoda could have stopped Luke [from leaving Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back] if he wanted to. But he knew it was time to let him go,” Peterson said.

Letting go at the right time helps people grow and succeed. “The holy grail is figuring out who you really are,” Peterson said. “The moment where it happens in [Return of the Jedi] is where Luke refuses to strike down the emperor. He says, ‘I’m a Jedi; you can’t turn me anymore.’”

And while most of us won’t save the universe or restore balance to the Force, we can make a difference by doing our job well. “We learn that by being who you are, you actually make the world a better place,” Peterson said.

You’ve seen the expert’s take. What lessons has Star Wars taught you about talent management? (Feel free to go deep into the canon; we don’t judge.)

The cast of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (Lucasfilm)

Rasheeda Childress

By Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now. MORE

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