Three things talent professionals must know

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Pretty much every report I read on talent management and succession points to high levels of dissatisfaction in organisations. CEOs aren’t happy and the people on the receiving end generally feel the same. We can fix this, but there’s no magic wand. As I reflect on the experience I have from organisations such as Tesco, Thorn EMI, JP Morgan Chase, The Co-operative retail businesses and now at Rexam, there are three guiding principles that I believe will give a definite advantage.

1. Know your context

I worked for a company where an MD said to me that he’d seen more of me in the past few weeks than he’d seen of my predecessors in the past five years. At that moment I realised why these predecessors had found it difficult to land their work.

It was great that this MD saw my interest as positive. His welcome allowed me to get to know his business and the people. I was able to consult, test and build approaches in collaboration. And it wasn’t just about throwing out the old stuff, as a lot of it was still very much worth having. It was about paying attention to how and when to best engage the business.

It’s not about the model

I have invented approaches to talent management in financial services that retailers would dislike, and my teams have taken work done by others and merely re-packaged it to better suit the business context. I know it’s fashionable to knock the nine box model – and even for organisations that are more accomplished in their talent programmes to kick it out entirely. But for those who are just grappling with the subject, or not that accomplished, it can be a great way to get everybody on the same page. It’s not about the model – it’s about creating the space for the conversations and selecting the right approach for your context.

But contexts are ever changing. Everything I see and hear screams ‘link your talent strategy to the business strategy’. But I haven’t stumbled across many organisations that have been able to ruthlessly stick to a stable five-year-plus strategy. Strategies are built, reviewed on a quarterly basis and budgets cut accordingly. Opportunities present themselves to acquire or divest that are just too good not to capitalise on. Offers are made that the board has an obligation to listen to and, when the occasion is right, accept.

This underlines the need to get out there and network and develop close relationships with business leaders, the strategy and finance teams, as well as your HR business partner colleagues. This will enable you to build greater agility into your work and react accordingly.

You must be expert on your business, its people and context to make a truly positive difference.

2. What gets measured gets done

Yes, I can’t claim to have come up with this but it is one of my favourites. To have the right measures you must have a clear philosophy and agreed outcomes. And these must be signed up to by your key influencers, as well as being fully in sync with your culture, values and people-related practices. If there is any disparity the programme will fail. With these in place, you are well positioned to determine your key measures and what you need to track.

At Rexam, when we talk about ‘talent’, we don’t only mean individuals with unique or special skills. We mean the ability, the passion and the potential that everyone contributes. Our talent is all of our people. From this philosophy and our agreed outcomes we have developed our measures and progress is very visibly measured through our balanced scorecard.

Speak the right language

For me, this demonstrates the importance that the business places on managing our talent. And if your goal is to improve how your work is  perceived by your senior leaders, there’s nothing better than being able to speak their language – ‘we’ve delivered as we said we would on 70% of our succession plan moves; our internal career moves have saved us over £300,000 this year in recruitment fees alone’. These are facts that senior leaders and finance teams like to hear.

3. It’s the duty of all

By far the biggest obligation lies with the executive leadership team. If they’re not prepared to put in the effort needed you will be constantly frustrated. To test this, try and establish a talent steering group from members of your top team. At Rexam, our executive leadership team fully contribute to the development of our succession and talent plans. They actively sponsor our emerging leaders and experienced leaders’ development programmes. Our board spends time getting to know our potential succession candidates.

The need for harmony

It is also essential that the HR team works well together. The talent team and HR business partner community need to be in harmony. If they’re not, confusion will reign, especially in heavily matrixed organisations – leaving HR with a great deal of egg on their face. Ensuring that the HR leadership team has full involvement in developing the overall talent philosophy and outcomes is critical.

In Rexam, the HR leadership team has collaborated to develop the principle that we are an inclusive, merit-based organisation where performance and potential are regularly discussed. And people trust that the processes are applied consistently and fairly. Agreeing this approach ensures that our work is fully harmonised.

Line mangers also have an important role to play. They need to be accomplished in identifying performance and potential and supporting their people. And by far the biggest onus must be on the employee. In Rexam, we have embedded this into our philosophy. We expect our people to be realistic and responsible for proactively managing their careers and personal development, wherever it may take them.

In HR we need to supply the support and tools to help them.

Know your context. What gets measured gets done. It’s the duty of all. The guides I use to make talent programmes work. 

About Jackie Lanham

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23rd Jun 2015 12:16

Hi Jackie (we met a year ago)- I really enjoyed your post, particularly the importance of involving the executive and the principle of 'What gets measured gets done' our challenge is of course making sure that it is done well as opposed to just complied with! Sheila from our team is enjoying working with one of your team Mehmet, feeling the benefit of a joined up and collaborative approach in Rexam

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to lucindacarney
01st Jul 2015 11:20

Hi Lucinda, great to hear from you and thank you for the great work that you and your team are doing for Rexam. Yes, I agree how well the process is executed is very important and this is where the individual, their leader and HR all have a role to play.

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29th Jun 2015 10:41

All good advice. However I am thinking the problem lies in the word talent. It implies some these people as special, an elite from the rest of the workforce. We need to focus on all employees. We need to focus on how we drive employee engagement. This is all about building a management culture that cares, listens, develops and stretches.

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01st Jul 2015 11:48

Great to hear from you Michael. Yes, the word talent is not helpful but it has now become part of our language and I think we could be accused of over complicating things if we try to educate it out now. Talent should not be an exclusive term and at Rexam we have developed an over arching philosophy where when we talk about ‘talent’, we don’t only mean individuals with unique or special skills. We mean the ability, the passion and the potential that everyone contributes to this company. Our talent is all of our people. Our feeling is that this philosophy is fully reflective of our culture and values. At the same time I also have a duty to ensure that we understand and develop the robustness of our leadership pipeline and succession plan and this will mean that some individuals will be singled out to ensure they are ready to capitalise on their potential. We then need to work very hard to manage expectations and ensure people do not see this has having the golden ticket! I will always remember the introduction to a leadership high potential programme at a former employer - "well done for getting here and let's be clear just 30% of you in this room will achieve a Director role". This certainly tackled the feeling of entitlement/elitism head on!

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13th Apr 2016 14:20

Jackie, enjoyed your article. Employee engagement must start before the job offer is made otherwise employee engagement is hard to achieve.

≈ 80% of employees self-report that they are not engaged.
≈ 80% of managers are ill suited to effectively manage people.
* The two 80 percents are closely related.

Employers keep hiring the wrong people to be their managers and then they wonder why they have so few successful, engaged employees. Successful employees have all three of the following success predictors while unsuccessful employees lack one or two and usually it is Job Talent that they lack.
I. Competence
II. Cultural Fit
III. Job Talent 



Employers do a… 

A. GREAT job of hiring competent employees, about 95%
B. good job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture, about 70%
C. POOR job of hiring competent employees who fit the culture and who have a talent for the job, about 20%

Identifying the talent required for each job seems to be missing from talent and management discussions. If we ignore any of the three criteria, our workforce will be less successful with higher turnover than if we do not ignore any of the three criteria.
I. Competence
II. Cultural Fit
III. Job Talent

There are many factors to consider when hiring and managing talent but first we need to define talent unless "hiring talent" means "hiring employees." Everyone wants to hire for and manage talent but if we can't answer the five questions below with specificity, we can't hire or manage talent effectively.
A. How do we define talent?
B. How do we measure talent?
C. How do we know a candidate’s talent?
D. How do we know what talent is required for each job?
E. How do we match a candidate’s talent to the talent demanded by the job?

Most managers cannot answer the five questions with specificity but the answers provide the framework for hiring successful employees and creating an engaged workforce.

Talent is not found in resumes or interviews or background checks or college transcripts.

Talent must be hired since it cannot be acquired or imparted after the hire.

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