Talent management: what can we learn from the Olympic 'Atlanta debacle?'

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UK Sport has been basking in glow of Team GB’s success in Rio with celebrations in London and Manchester recently.  How times have changed. When Team GB returned from the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, there were no parades.  We finished in 36th position, further down the medal table than Nigeria, Norway, and Bulgaria.

It was the worst performance since the 1952 Games in Helsinki and Britain came away with as many golds as Hong Kong - one. 

There followed a period of national mourning and breast-beating.

The Sunday papers were full of editorials denouncing PC education policies which, supposedly, deterred competitive sport.

Politicians stumbled over one another to demand a better show and pledge more gold medals next time.

It would have been easy for the powers that be to have declared that these things come and go, for one nation and then another.

That Atlanta was formidable for France – but that all the French government grants, schools of excellence, sponsorship and the rest haven't been enough to bring Gallic triumphs in the past even though it had all been in place for years.

Ireland had an Olympic ball at Atlanta because a nation with no Olympic pool turned out a world-beating swimmer all the same.

Fortunately for today’s athletes, we did not brush the disaster under the carpet.

You can't plan for that, they could have argued. Britain, like the rest of the average nations of the world, had good years and bad and this was one of the not-so-good years.

It was, as Malcolm Gladwell might put it, a tipping point. 

Fortunately for today’s athletes, we did not brush the disaster under the carpet.

We knew our end goal. We started the journey and began a process of investing and supporting the top talent that had the best chance of medalling.

We focussed our spend relentlessly.  It began to work in Beijing.  It started to pay dividends in London.

We hit the jackpot in Rio.

Organisational leaders could learn a lot from the way Team GB reacted to the disaster of Atlanta.

Ensuring you have the right talent to build, sustain and respond to the changing world around you starts with clarity of purpose.

It then requires the ability to focus effort where and when it matters most.

Trying to shave a few pounds off the HR budget – rather than focusing on the productivity benefits of more effective people management – doesn’t get you very far.

We recently undertook a study on business agility – you can download the full report here – which was based on in-depth interviews and survey with senior HR professionals at thirty large organisations.

The majority of organisations had HR functions of over 100 staff, an average of more than 100,000 employees – with the largest employing almost 400,000 people.

In total, the organisations taking part in the research represented approximately 3,000,000 employees.

As part of the research, we asked HR directors about the people levers they felt contributed most to organisational agility – of which one of the most critical was talent management.

The majority of them – 67% – reported that their organisations have either undertaken a comprehensive overhaul or significantly changed their talent management practice. 

But despite that, only 27% of HR directors said they had an integrated talent process – with the right talent specialists and technology solutions to secure and manage the supply of key skills. 

Our research suggests that one of the problems is that organsiations are still over-indexing on operations.

Many organisations have made significant investments into programmes to improve the effectiveness of their people management – but despite this it would appear many transformation programmes are still too short sighted. 

Trying to shave a few pounds off the HR budget – rather than focusing on the productivity benefits of more effective people management – doesn’t get you very far.

Only 25% of HR directors we interviewed said they had an integrated talent process.

Ultimately, we don’t see many organisations that are able to join the dots.

This being said, we did uncover some positives including a small step in the right direction, albeit from a low base, since we last undertook this research in 2014.

Then, only 25% of HR directors we interviewed said they had an integrated talent process. 

And we are seeing some pockets of great practice in key areas, too – Shop Direct Group, Sky and Marks and Spencer to name a few. 

Ensuring this [an integrated approach to talent] is an agenda that is shared with the business and owned by managers is what makes the difference.

In general though, it’s like UK Sport  – who were formed following the Atlanta debacle – deciding that the key takeaway from the 1996 games was not to invest heavily in athletes who could podium in the 2000 summer games – but to cut down the number of support staff who were going to accompany them to Sydney. 

Who’s to blame?  This can’t just be laid at the feet of HR.

The HR professionals we speak to know they need an integrated approach to talent. But ensuring this is an agenda that is shared with the business and owned by managers is what makes the difference.

If organisations want to smash the medal target and ensure they are metaphorically celebrating on Trafalgar Square, they will need to focus on the end goal and make sure their top men and women have the tools to succeed – not just on improve back office efficiencies.

About Jane Chesters

Jane Chesters

Jane is one of the founding partners at Orion Partners and leads our strategy and services practice.

Jane has spent the last 20 years in and around the HR function – both in-house in senior HR roles and as a consultant. Her client list reads like a who’s who of household  names: from Sky, Harrods, DHL, Jaguar Land Rover and M&S in the private sector to Her Majesty’s Prison Service and Thames Valley Police.

Jane leads teams to help our clients formulate and assess people strategies, then makes sure they’re set up to deliver them. So they know where they want to go, and how they’re going to get there.  

She is also a visiting lecturer at Henley Business School on HR Management and a qualified Executive Coach. She is married with two young girls and lives in Oxfordshire.

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