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Talent management - broadening out the talent pool

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6th Oct 2011
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Despite commonly held views to the contrary, effective talent management does not have to be expensive.

It also does not have to be all about measuring, tracking and recording the activity of high achievers to the apparent exclusion of everything else.

A key question in this context is that, if there is any truth to the widely-held belief that talent is scarce, surely it would make sense to spend less time on metrics and more on increasing the supply?   But there may be more employees that are of high value to the company than you think. I can’t be the only person who has put someone that I have categorised as the ‘best of a poor bunch’ and who has often been bypassed into a post that needed a top class person, only to find that they did a great job in very difficult circumstances.   And I am not just talking about lower-level managers. I have also seen this phenomenon at board level too.   Assessing current performance is only a starting point   While it is important to assess the current performance of managers, it may also be necessary to make allowances for the situation in which they have been placed; to understand what opportunities they have been given to shine and to grasp how well they have been supported and steered by senior executives.    It will also not likely be enough to simply evaluate managers’ ‘competencies’ as the very word itself implies mediocrity and usually bears little relation to real talent. Instead it is valuable to know what special skills and outstanding talents that they may have demonstrated outside of the traditional ‘required competencies’ list.   But bear in mind that, while some high fliers will have had the chance to seize opportunities and show off their heady mix of talent and determination, others will not have had that chance - and we should endeavour to establish why not. A key problem here is that, like everything else, if special skills are not used, they will decay.   Should we bet on the favourites or outsiders?   Those individuals who have shown a mixture of skill, determination and an attitude of striving to be the best will need to have suitable opportunities to grow and develop made available to them.   As a result, it is necessary to evaluate the quality of your typical annual performance review and ensure that it is fit-for-purpose in helping to reveal an ‘elite pool’ in which different managers can fish.   While it will always appear more chancy to bet on those individuals who are classed as outsiders, many people shine only when they are given something challenging to do. Therefore, annual performance reviews should always include information about what people would like to try.   All too often, however, this question is not asked even during ‘one-to-one’ meetings and, all too often, individuals are not given the chance to discuss different opportunities. This situation means that a desire for new experiences is left only partially addressed at best.   The value in looking beyond the chosen few   Being brave and presenting one of the more junior or less high-flying members of a team with a challenge can reap dividends. For example, if you are expecting a ‘state visit’ from a very senior manager, the usual approach would be to give any designated presentations yourself.   But how much better to get one of your team to do it, explaining as you make the introductions that the individual is closer to the job than you are. You get a double benefit – a more motivated (and also probably terrified) team member as well as respect or brownie points for employing people of calibre and for putting a strong team in place.    But if you do it again, ensure you give the job to a different member of the team, not least to avoid creating ‘Crown Princes’.   Another approach might be to put a promising junior colleague into a project team that includes some very senior ones to boost their exposure – but again, ensure that opportunities are spread fairly.   Another consideration, meanwhile, is that people can get stuck in a rut if they remain in the same position in the same team for too long. It may be disruptive to swap people between jobs as each one will have to be briefed carefully and may even require additional training.   But the advantage is that the team will be more flexible and knowledge is less likely to be lost if someone leaves. Such an approach also helps to prevent people from becoming stale.   How affordable is talent management activity?   Talent management is an expensive proposition if you send people off to Business School in the US for six months, not least because once one staff member has had the experience, others will want to follow in their footsteps.   It is also expensive if the favoured few return with ideas above their station or are under-employed when they return and leave as soon as any unenforceable restrictions allow.   It is less expensive, however, when the organisation’s own senior managers are actively involved in the development of high potential individuals. They can take a substantial part in training activity or, better still, lead discussion groups on topics important to the business.   Both senior leaders and those attending gain from the experience –managers from having their ideas tested and learners by being exposed to management thinking and important management issues.   But keeping good records also helps in ensuring consistent development. Having the necessary documents in place to structure discussions around each individual’s abilities, progress and possible future career path during performance reviews is crucial to ensure that they are meaningful and lead to concrete action rather than empty half-promises.

John Pope is founder of management consultancy, John Pope Associates.

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