• Jill Foley

Part 1: Reassuringly Popular Talent Strategies - The Enemy of Good Talent Management

Most mature businesses invest significant sums of money each year in Talent Management (imagine, for a moment, the cost of recruitment; development, training and coaching; running the annual talent review; succession planning and internal resourcing in your own organisation).

Given that all investments should deliver a return, it follows that this work should be underpinned by a clear Talent Strategy which is tightly aligned to the needs of the business. Right? After all, why would you commit significant resources to work that doesn’t advance your business agenda or contribute to the long-term success of the enterprise?

But this is where traditional approaches to Talent Management fall short. There is either no underpinning strategy, or one that’s based on fuzzy assumptions about what are the ‘right things to do’, rather than robust data and insight about future talent requirements.

In this series of three articles, I will present a new way of thinking about talent strategy and offer tips on testing and improving your own talent management practices.

To start, I will be looking at why reassuringly popular talent strategies are the enemy of good talent management.

To build a robust talent strategy, you need to be able to answer 4 questions:

  1. What talent do we need to be successful in the future?

  2. What talent do we have today?

  3. What’s the gap?

  4. What can we do to close the gap?

Simple enough on paper. Yet most traditional approaches to talent management major on question 2 (the supply side of the talent equation) and spend very little time considering question 1 (the demand side). Whilst it is undoubtedly harder to answer question 1, without knowing what talent is required to be successful in the future, the answers to questions 3 and 4 will only ever be guesswork and assumption. This explains why most talent management strategies end up being an extrapolation of current practice – more influenced by what has worked in the past than what is needed for the future. And there lies the rub: it’s difficult to argue with a talent strategy that promotes activities which are popular and have been successful in the past.

I have seen literally dozens of examples of this. Expensive assessment activities, development and coaching programmes which are high quality, but have endured long past their sell-by date. The clarity about how they advance the success of the business has become blurred over time, but they have become like ‘rites of passage’, embedded in the folklore of the organisation. They are justified because they are valued by delegates - which is often code for “an entitlement that’s expected at key points in my career”.

I understand the dilemma that HR teams face – it’s expensive and disruptive to keep redesigning programmes as business needs change. Scrapping them would send all the wrong signals and nobody is complaining or calling out for them to be changed. So the expedient thing to do is carry on with what has ‘worked’ in the past. Over time, despite drifting out of alignment with the needs of the business, these programmes continue to get positive feedback and they do support personal growth for the people lucky enough to participate. But, when you stand back and look at this objectively, it amounts to a strategy based on popularity, continuity and incremental improvement.

And this is often mistaken for a successful talent strategy.

But a successful talent strategy must do much more than deliver incremental improvements. It must advance the business agenda, not sit passively alongside it. It must help leaders set up for success by investing in building the talent that’s needed for the future. It must secure the resources that will accelerate delivery in the most critical areas of the business. It must help leaders make the right trade-offs between developing the talent they have today and building bench strength for tomorrow.

Talent strategies that are an extrapolation of current practice are, by design, short-sighted. They are also benign. They don’t disrupt the business. They don’t cause pain. There are no winners and losers. But over time they damage the businesses they are meant to serve by jeopardising future success. This shows up in three ways: impaired progress, performance and efficiency, all of which we will explore in the next article.


Questions to Consider

Looking at your own organisation, can you answer the 4 talent strategy questions in a way that gives you confidence for the future?

  • Do you have a clear picture of the talent that you need to be successful in the future?

  • Can you pinpoint the roles that will unlock disproportionate value in the future?

  • Can you quantify the gap between the talent you have today and the talent you need in the future, and based on that, where future business performance is most at risk?

  • Can you identify the skills and capabilities you need to build, when and where they are needed?

If not, it may be time to take a break from the reassuringly popular and rethink your approach to good talent management.

Click here to find out more about how On3 can help you rethink your talent management strategy.