I am an economist who also holds a PhD in organizational learning. Most of what I do professionally, however, falls under the realm of economic development. Job creation, wealth creation, and quality of life are the cornerstones of that work. I am interested in organizational performance because healthy competitive organizations are critical to any region's vitality and its capacity for economic survival. Healthy, thriving, sustainable organizations are those that attract, grow, and keep the best and brightest talent.

So I split my time looking at two major areas- - what the future of work looks like and the "hows" and "whys" of successful organizations. I am focused on three factors: 1) the increasingly short supply of talent as new technologies and new industries emerge, 2) the diverse demographics of the workplace, and 3) the attitudes about how work fits into one's lifestyle, especially in developed countries.

So organizations are faced with increased (and global) competition for talent, a workforce comprised of people with different cultural perspectives, and a workforce whose primary objectives may increasingly have more to do with lifestyle than a paycheck. These factors piqued my interest in organizations that can consistently attract and keep the best and brightest- - what I call talent magnet organizations or TMOs.

We all know about the famous TMOs, such as Google, rumored to have nine jobs for every 3,000 applicants, or Southwest Airlines, where one person in 40 gets hired. These firms have strong brand recognition and big budgets. My interest, though, is in small and mid-sized enterprises and how they accomplish TMO status. What are they doing differently? What skills do leaders at these organizations have that differentiate them from those in non-TMO enterprises?

While my research on TMOs is just getting underway, I've noticed some leadership patterns that are emerging.

Staying committed to learning. Cultural anthropologist Jennifer James says that in times of great change, the most important thing a person can do is to build broad knowledge. This breadth allows both nimbleness and agility when change occurs. In all of the TMO organizations I have visited the leaders were continuous learners and voracious readers. These leaders also insisted on a commitment to learning from every member in the organization. In fact, many of these companies exhibit all of the elements of Senge's learning organization. At one organization, the only sign hanging in the training room was a quote from the CEO's father that said, "When you're green- - you grow, when you're ripe- - you rot." Monies set aside for employee education and training and the incorporation of learning into the performance review system demonstrate their commitment.

Taking a democratic approach. While this varies, most of the TMO leaders I have interviewed have very open and nonhierarchical systems. A comment that I heard again and again from these leaders was, "the people who do the work know best how to do the work." These leaders believe that innovation (especially process and product innovation) comes from the edges of the organization, not from the top.

At larger organizations, I have noted a move to team approaches. The teams are given much of the responsibility for performance assessment and even the hiring and firing of new team members. This is not to say that the leaders have abdicated the responsibility- - to one degree or another, all of these firms have reports of key metrics that are provided to the leadership on a weekly or even a daily basis. I have seen numerous methods of varying technical complexity for keeping these leaders informed.

Exercising empathy. I have been surprised at how many of these leaders describe the value of diversity in their organizations. They seem to recognize that having a box of 64 crayons yields a richer picture than a box of eight. But they were acutely aware that blending diverse groups of people with different cultural backgrounds has both benefits and pitfalls in terms of management.

Although leader personalities varied from quiet introverts to boisterous drivers, all have exhibited an innate ability to relate to others- - to be empathetic, to walk in their shoes. These leaders were the epitome of the management by walking around (MBWA) method that was popularized by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in the early 1980s. By walking the floor or visiting multiple site locations every day, they not only bond with employees but also pick up key information about the health of their companies.

Being skilled storytellers. This characteristic continues to fascinate me, and I truly believe this may be one of the true differentiators in the leaders of TMOs. Down to the person, these leaders have all been committed storytellers. I don't mean evangelical stories before big crowds like we hear from Steve Jobs. Nor am I talking about rich, embellished Will Rogerish tales. Instead, these leaders appear to tell very functional, compact stories, mostly on a one-to-one basis or before small groups as they make their daily MBWA rounds. They seem to use stories as a conduit for teaching the values that are important to the organization. They use them to bond people who come from diverse cultures into the common cultural fabric of the organization.

More interestingly, these stories seem to be viral- - the workforce knows and shares them, as well. And in keeping with their democratic ideals, in more than one case the leaders have asked an employee to share a story about the organization with me rather than telling it themselves.

Exhibiting a bias for doing. Leaders at TMOs exhibit a need to take action. Frankly, this seems paradoxical to me given TMOs predisposition to learning. (I have been part of organizations so committed to learning and strategizing that they never got around to the doing part.) While the terminology of the TMO leaders varied, they talk more about execution or implementation than about strategy. How these leaders know where to draw the line between study and acting is something I have yet to discover.

One thing that was noticeable was that their "doing" did not always result in the expected outcome. Those failed outcomes, however, were not discarded or ignored. Instead they were harvested for lessons learned, and many of those lessons learned were imbedded in the stories that are shared as organizational knowledge.

As mentioned, I have only recently undertaken this project and am just beginning to gather data. In addition, I have yet to interview leaders of non-TMO organizations. I have difficulty imagining that non-TMOs will line up at my door to act as controls in this research, so I can't say with certainty that these five patterns are the most important factors differentiating leaders of TMOs. What I do know is that every TMO leader I have interviewed has them.