The Great T Word

t is rare today not to see a subsection of an HR department with the name Talent in it. This has taken over the mantle of Leadership Development, Career Planning, Succession Planning, Human Capital Management, even Graduate Recruitment.  

The image the word brings is one of particularly desirable qualities or ability. Everyone has strengths of course, so are we talking about all people? Some UK Government departments have taken this argument and say that talent management is universal and we should not discriminate. That in effect just relabels that part of HR that is about people development.  It is more common on the other hand to be much more exclusive and confine talent to those with “high potential” – typically defined as expected to make an executive position. However this may be no more than 1% of the organisation, and leadership potential is surely only one of the capabilities we need for success.

If we stand back from the semantics and think about the way value is created, we get a different perspective. Starting from the creation of stakeholder value, we can look at the various tangible and intangible capital components that maintain and build it. Each component has particular people behind it, people who have strategic knowledge, skill and experience directly contributing to value creation. We might call these strategic capabilities, found in individuals and sometimes whole teams. The people that possess these are the most valuable assets – not just people for their own sake as employees (some of whom are quite possibly “liabilities”).

This then broadens our concept of talent but keeps it firmly embedded in business need. It also provides us with the flexibility to adapt to business conditions. Whereas we will always need leadership potential – which is a constant talent requirement - strategies change and adapt to circumstances. Critical capability needs move in parallel. It is often said that the executive who is right for the retrenchment phase is rarely the same for an era of growth, and perhaps even more so in reverse.  So the number and definition of our “talent pools” (as is the commonly used phrase) are not static – there may be a need to create completely new ones in hard times.

Figure 1 – A Framework for Managing Talent
Figure 1 – A Framework for Managing Talent

Defining clearly who our “populations of interest” are is the starting point. In addition to those who show potential for leadership we will want to add at least those groups with critical technical and professional skills that are core to our business. We may also add some individuals who we value particularly for their knowledge of the organisation or for excellent performance, whether promotable or not. Each of these persons are assets deserving their own individual “file”.

There are then four core processes to define and manage. Planning ahead based on business need is the first of these. If the organisation has a sound workforce planning approach this will come naturally – as future demands for leadership and specialist skills are evaluated. However a long term view is needed. Today’s best graduates will become executive leaders in about 20 years time...many would say that to plan for that timescale is crazy in today’s world. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy – result: we never have enough talent. Those companies who still do their best to provide long term careers for their people continue to be successful. Talent “management” – surely means – even in today’s turbulent and often fickle world – managingthe parameters that bring and retain the kind of talents we need.

It’s the second process that is the key. How do we deploy and develop talent? Ask any successful CEO what key event led to his or her success – and they will tell you about a challenge, an unexpected experience – where someone trusted them to succeed. Ask talented people why they leave – and the most common reason will be that they could see no career opportunity. Impatient they may be…but effective talent management knows about that and deals with it.They plan andf make happen continual challenges for their talent.

Retention is third, and is often the most difficult. Retention is about push and pull – “push” comes from wanting to seek new opportunities; “pull” from being seduced into them. The aim always should be to miminise “push”. And the solution is simple.  It’s about continuing (serious) dialogue with individuals about how they are enjoying their work, seeing their opportunities, figuring out their ambitions. It is not rocket science. It is rarely about compensation. Any Talent Manager who is taken by surprise when someone leaves has not been “managing”.

Lastly “acquisition” – fundamental and maybe the most important contribution that HR makes to the business. How dreadful it is when manifestly excellent people are lost because “they must go through our process”. Bringing the right talent into the organisation is strategically so critical. Its not just about brilliant people – it is brilliant people that will become one of us. No wonder Google, that exemplar of recruiting skill, spends so much time on cultural fit. There is little value in bringing in people who just look for a line on their CV and will achieve little for you in the process, however fantastic they look initially.

The sixth component emerges as the most important. It’s about a talent nurturing culture at every level. It’s a pervading mindset which values talent in every respect. Managers who willingly  spend time recruiting the best; keeping close to them in development dialogues, coaching where needed, sponsoring talented individuals in the organisation and trying to understand why people have left and what we can do about it.  It is a culture that allows and (sensibly) sponsors risk, especially in appointments.

One can argue that “talent” will go where it will and cannot be managed. There is truth in this but managing the environment and processes within which talented people – based on our specific needs for talent – really can make a difference. And organisations throughout the world can demonstrate it..and link it to their success.  

Posted by Andrew Mayo on May 18th 2017

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