Transcript: The Talent Management Myth

Hello, and welcome to this week’s episode of The HR Uprising Podcast.

So, thanks so much for staying with us, and for your comments and feedback on the previous ones. As you know the HR Uprising Podcast is aimed at forward-thinking HR, Learning and Development and O.D. Professionals just like you. My name is Lucinda Carney, and I’m your Host of this Podcast.

5 reasons why the term talent management is overrated

Today, we’re going to look at talent management. In fact, we are going to look at the myths around talent management and then that will be really contentious – I’m going to say 5 reasons why the term talent management is overrated.

So, what we’re going to do here is we’ll do a little bit of challenging around this term talent, ‘talent management’. Then perhaps, we’ll get real in terms of, if we are trying to do this because people are using that term to such an extent, then perhaps, we need to understand how we can embed a talent management strategy, and make it work in our organisation. So, that’s the topic for today.

Okay. So, here is some straight-talking, or this is my thinking. I think this term ‘talent management’ is overrated. Or certainly, in the way, it’s been banded around in some sort of mysterious secret that only a chosen few have the answer to. The term itself came from McKinsey and Co, in a book called The War for Talent. It was about 20 years ago, and this is where there’s this whole focus that actually getting people with the real skills that you need, it was becoming increasingly competitive, and harder to get them.

The term ‘talent management’ has become elitist

Now, I’m not saying that, that’s actually wrong. Getting the right people into the organisation can be a difficult thing to do, whether it’s about the right skills or the right culture fit. But I do feel that the term has become almost elitist. I think it comes with some baggage which is worth challenging. You know, it’s a bit like, engagement. Another one of these jargon terms that actually doesn’t mean anything. It’s got through to the Boardroom to such an extent, you as an HR professional might be instructed to go and put in place some talent recruitment, a talent acquisition strategy, or a talent management strategy, or talent pools.

But does anyone actually understand what this means, or what we’re trying to achieve here? My concern is that just by using this magical term, the Senior Team might just then sit back, safe in their knowledge, that all of their people-related challenges are magically going to go away, and they can get on with the real business of chasing the numbers. I think it provides us with a risk. It’s complacency and I’ve got 5 pitfalls (I’m sure there’s more than that) that might make hyped-up talent management a bit of an issue.

Do organisations actually know what talent looks like?

So, my first issue with talent is, that many organisations actually don’t know what talent looks like..

  • Do you know what talent looks like in your organisation?
  • Could you simply define a measure who’s got it, and recruit for it?
  • Do you know exactly what the job roles are?
  • Do you know what the behaviours are, that would outline someone with low, average and high performance in a specific role?
  • Do you know what the cultural fit would be for bringing someone into your organisation?
  • Are you capable of objectively evaluating people against those criteria, if you do have those criteria?
  • And if you were to define a talent pool, would it be clear cut with everybody in agreement, or would it be subjective?

You know, there’s a lot out there about unconscious bias, would you have confidence that it’s not the usual suspects and there’s bias built-in.

Now, if you are saying yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, fair play to you. Great, I salute you absolutely. But my first challenge is, I don’t think we always know what talent looks like. Talent might vary from one role to the next, and one company to the next. That leads me to my second point.

Talent is often situational

My second point about the word talent is that talent is often situational. So, if we take an example about things like Montessori Schools, they are all based on this principle that we’ve all got talents. We’ve all got strength. There’s been a whole piece about strength-based recruitment. Curt Coffman wrote it in his book full of this path. It’s all about successful organisations. It’s actually about finding the role that fits that person.

Most people don’t join an organisation in order not to perform. But we might well stick a square peg in a round hole, and they could be awesome in the square hole. But we’re not putting them in the role that fits with their natural strength.

So, remembering that actually, someone who’s talented in one role, may not be in another. So, you need to think about that in context. And does that mean that we need to focus on finding people to lay this talent? Or, would it be better for us to make sure that we genuinely understand and nurture the strength of the people that we’ve already have in the organisation, and make sure we’re utilising them effectively. And with that context, you might have a lot more talent than you realise. That nicely links to my third point.

Talent Management is quite elitist

So, my third point is actually and I remember this when we rolled out what the concept to talent management again 20 years ago, in the late 90s, a lot of people found the term quite elitist. I know it’s become commonplace now. But there is this sort of sense, that you have to identify a talent pool, and that’s like say, 10 per cent of the population. So, that’s great, isn’t it? Let’s just demotivate the other 90 per cent! We’ve got to think about what’s going to be motivational for the majority of your organisation.

So, I think, the key for me is about making sure that we’re thinking more broadly. We’re thinking about strength. We’re thinking about everybody developing. I mean you could have a talent pool which is people who are over 55 in your organisation, who have got brilliant strength, knowledge and skills that you want to disseminate further around the organisation. They could be talent because they’ve got all this knowledge that they could nurture others and share with others.

So, I think this is something that we’ve got to think about, making sure that you’ve got a growth mindset and I believe that actually if you’re just focussing your efforts on the 10 per cent at the expense of the majority then that’s a bad idea.

Remember that we might put people in a pool who are on succession plans, or there are certain job types with the sort of ones, which would be sitting on a succession plan.

Now, actually given that I’m talking to an HR L&D type of audience. I think that’s fascinating. So, the business I worked in, you had a sales succession plan. You had an engineering succession plan. And you had a finance succession plan. Did we have anyone in HR and learning and development? NO, because that was easy to replace. HR and L&D, we don’t have talent. We didn’t have a talent pool. We didn’t have a succession plan. Says quite a lot doesn’t it? Maybe, we have to start. The problem lies with us. Anyway, I digress.

If you have a talent pool, unless it’s extremely transparent, objective and seen to correlate directly and fairly with performance, I think that’s a risk, which will demotivate the majority. If you do want to take that risk, you’ve got to be very sure that you’ve got the right people. Because they may well be others who are unrecognised talent, and they’re not going to hang around for long. Those who don’t care, they might stay in your organisation. But that’s not a great thing either!

So, it is interesting and it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy as well there, I think. Do we actually tell people their talent? They put them on a talent pool, then they believe that they’re a talent. Does that mean that they’re going to behave like talent? I’ll come back to that point later.

Talent doesn’t automatically correlate with performance

So, my fourth point though is that talent doesn’t automatically correlate with performance. Actually, there’s quite a bit of evidence out there on that. This is the crux for me. So, we’ve done a brilliant job. We’ve recruited our top talent. Maybe, we’ve paid over the odds. We’ve headhunted somebody with these skills that are really in demand. They were a top performer at their previous company. We bring them in and then they don’t live up to the expectations.

Now, I don’t know about you. I’ve seen that happen a lot of times. Why is it? I think again, like my earlier point, talent is situational. But actually, everybody needs to be well-managed. People who are identified with talent, there may be higher expectations around this. So, they may have a high expectation of what they’re going to get in terms of the psychological contract with the business they’ve been recruited into. But equally, the business might expect them to just come in, walk on water, and fix everything without any kind of good induction, without clear clarity of expectations and great management.

So, the bottom line is, it’s a terrible amount of money can be wasted, if you don’t have a great onboarding process, great performance management, and great talented managers. Think about what we were talking about evident that evidence-based performance on a previous podcast. You want to get the most out of these people you’re bringing into the organisation. If you don’t have these cultures and behaviours in place, literally recruiting for talent is like, filling a leaky bucket.

So I would say focus on engendering a high-performance culture first. Get the right behaviours in place. Get your managers managing brilliantly. Look for people’s skills and talents already in the organisation. Effectively, recruit within and you’ll very well find you don’t have to do talent recruitment in such a high degree anyway. Then, if you do bring people, and you spend money on them, you’re going to get much greater value out of it.

Talent Management can make organisations lazy

So, my fifth point on why I don’t think talent management is a great term, I guess, or why it’s overrated, is that, I also think talent management can make organisations lazy. So, I think that a high-performance culture is everybody’s responsibility. Unfortunately, talent management does tend to sit firmly in the HR camp. It becomes maybe an HR strategic objective, and it’s left there.

Managers think that it’s HR’s responsibility to recruit, measure and develop the talent and then they just relax because all that important people stuff is being sorted. I don’t think that that’s effective and the problem is, the managers are then getting on with their day’s job. They forget about people management.

Those who are not labelled as talent, well, they console themselves with the fact that they only work to live, anyway. They can’t see the point in trying to go the extra mile. No one’s valuing what they’re doing. So, they think oh just work my hours and I’ll go home, and not a minute more.

But then let’s think, oh, I’m one of the chosen few because we’ve got this top 5 per cent or top 10 per cent of the talented ones, well, are they going to make up for the apathy of the other 90 per cent with their superior performance?

Well, you’d like to think so, wouldn’t you? But I would say, it’s more likely that they pat themselves on the back, and become complacent with their total brilliance because they’ve been labelled as such. No, actually, I’ve already been recognised as talent. Why should I even bother working hard? Maybe, I’m being too cynical. But they’re just challenging out there.

In fact, how about I’ve been labelled as talent. I’ve been through this amazing programme. I’ve outgrown the business. My managers are not great. Do you know what? I’m so good I think I’m going to put my CV out there, and see who else wants me.

So, I’m being slightly tongue in cheek. But actually, could you argue we’re creating a bigger problem by using this label of talent for a small number of people? We might even be encouraging them to leave let alone stay. It does depend on how well you’re managing people. How well this is all integrated into an overall programme. Actually, whether the way you’re doing this is building in loyalty? It could be. But it also might not be. It’s got to hang together effectively.

Okay. So, now I’ve had a bit of a rant about talent not being the ideal term, although I’m very honest, I haven’t got a better one that people will understand. It’s one of our well-known HR jargons that goes across everything, from talent pools to talent management to talent onboarding and talent attrition.

So, if you have got this position, where your board is saying we need a talent management strategy or an onboarding strategy, then I suppose what I thought would be useful, even though you have this position, is, how can you do that?

So, I would say, this is rather like, an organisational development strategy, really. It’s about showing how your business strategy and key organisational goals are going to be aligned with the people that you’re bringing in, and the development that you’re doing for them. So, it’s about joining it all up again.

Dropping the term ‘talent’ and making it strategic

So, it’s obviously valuable for us to do this because it is about joining up strategic business outcomes and the people with talent initiatives. This can give people the chance to be taken seriously, and make sure that we’re bringing in value. It’s joining up the reason that you are spending money, let’s say, on people-oriented initiatives. So, if you’re doing talent pools, or talent development programmes, or any other kind development programme. We’ll drop the term talent, shall we? Then the key, is, making it strategic.

So, the way, in which, I was suggesting you do this, is, first of all, you need to understand from the Board or the Senior Management Team, what the future goals and drivers are for your business. You need to think out the next 3 to 5 years. So, what is the competitive landscape out there? What challenges are there in the marketplace or environment?

So, what’s the competition doing? Or how are other organisations getting ahead? So, I’m thinking it was quite topical at the moment. A classic example of being non-strategic would be, the fact that we’ve got more GPs leaving general practice than we have coming in. We’ve not got enough midwives in terms of the NHS. Of course, we’ve got Brexit, which by the time this podcast goes out may or may not have happened. All of those are actually making the people available to recruit the talent, if you want to call that within that environment you are. You can see, that that’s going to drop off the cliff in certain areas.

If I take another example, engineering, we’ve got baby boomers, lots and lots baby boomers in technical roles in businesses, who are all going to retire within the next 5 to 10 years. That is a crisis potentially if those key skills are still needed. It’s often the case, where you’ve got things like legacy technologies.

So, you need to be able to realise that in 3, 5, 10 years, if we carry on doing what we’re doing, what problems might we have related to people or skills? It could also be where you’ve got competitors who are poaching key skills. How can you be competitive in that environment?

Now, by having this conversation at a higher level, then you’re making that connection between asking for budget, for training and developments, and getting sponsorship from the Board. Ideally, it means that when you’re running whatever kind of development you’re running, it will be seen as relevant. You’re going to get the funding and also, you’ll get people attending it, which is the other pain. We put on these fabulous programmes, or interventions, or collate fabulous content, no one uses it. They don’t come on them. So, this is how we need to do it. We have to line it all up with future goals and drivers. A bit like change, which is creating that compelling reason to do it.

Then we need to identify how that overall strategic goal is going to be impacted by those skills. We can think about, what the problems are? Are we going to have to recruit them? So, if we are going to run at these skills, then is it about us recruiting people with new skills? Really difficult in things like NHS, midwifery and medics. Because medics, it takes 10 years to recruit. So, even if there are 20 per cent more doctors places at University, they’re not going to be the Consultants for another 10 years. In some more technical environments, then you could actually put in place things like apprenticeships.

So, you could look at all the different interventions that might help, and consider which ones would be the right ones to address your particular need. So, if we went from the point of view of legacy knowledge or technologies, you might look at a number of interventions that might be effective there.

So, you might recruit apprentices, and make sure that they’ve got that specific technology. You might also do an internal development programme, where people are taking on those different skills. You might do some sort of metrics, where you can see who has which skills and do a gap analysis in terms of development. You might put in a buddying programme or a mentoring programme, where skills and knowledge are being shared. You might get some of these people who have those skills, who come up with key learnings. So, whether it’s online quick reference guides, or other technology built learning, or e-learning.

So, there are loads and loads of ways you can get to sit back, keeping that knowledge in the business, and allowing others to do it. But what you’re using, is, the number of strategies to keep that skill and knowledge in there.

So, once, you’ve got your recommendations, you might want to then get people to buy-in to it and I always think, actually, if you’re trying to develop a strategy, whether it’s an O.D. strategy or a talent management strategy, the great way of doing it, is actually, trying to get it on one page so that then you can go to the Board or the Managers, and you can say, look, this is what our problem is, and it’s a visual. This is what my solution is. They can see, because it’s all on one page, how all of these things link together.

Then of course, you’ve got to plan the implementation. So, we define our big picture. We’ve got the buy-in. Now, we’ve got to put into action. So, you work out your different projects. You’re going to manage it like, a change programme. And you need to make they’re all kept aligned with the overall strategy. One way of doing that, if it’s a change piece of work as well, it’s about forming a steering group. They might be managing different aspects of it. It depends really on how many measures you’ve got, that you need to put in place.

Now, if I want to develop skills, I might use interventions like, 360 feedback at the start and at the end of the programme, in order to measure progress. Or, if I was recruiting in, I might be using specific psychometrics, or criteria that we’ve robustly identified within the organisation, to check these people have this skills and attributes we’re looking for. We might have done some evaluation of job roles to understand what exactly is required in job roles currently and in the future, which means because we did that pre-thinking, we can then measure whether or not it’s working. That’s office stage.

Then it’s about communicating strategy is about implementing that strategy, and maybe, many aspects of it. It’s about monitoring whether or not that strategy is delivering what we want. And it’s about tweaking. So, things aren’t going to be perfect. It will be about getting some comments, getting some feedback, tweaking it and adjusting it. That will get better buy-in and commitment. Try to make it as measurable as it’s possible. But make sure you also keep it fresh. Don’t be afraid to update it over successive years or completely refresh it.

So, for me, that is basically how you would manage to link these things together. You’d, first of all, be openminded about what talent looks like. Let me be clear. Do you actually know what we’re looking for in terms of talent? Are we being overly elitist? Is that going to be benefitting us? Are we concreting a climate, where everybody is able to be talent, they’re able to play to their talents?

If we are putting something in place, where we’re running an overall programme, then let’s make sure it really is clearly aligned with the business strategy. And it goes far enough out into the future in terms of the challenges. Then when we put it in place, let’s monitor, whether it’s doing what we want it to, and not be afraid to tweak it, adjust, and improve it as time goes by.

So, to my mind, a talent management strategy, is really, about joining up the dots, but taking everyone else with you. As with so many of these things, I think it’s common sense. However, I am aware that common sense isn’t all that common. I would say, let’s try and avoid whatever you are doing, try not to introduce pockets of people-related initiatives that don’t join up together.

If we do that, it looks disjointed, and no one understands why you’re doing it. What happens therefore, is, you lose the backing. You lose the sponsorship. People stop coming. And things might be actually start to work against each other. Of course, then the credibility is lost.

It’s so important to get a strategy agree with senior sponsorship. And ideally, get ownership from above, and that leads into general change management. Keep changing it. You know, remind people of the bigger picture of why we’re doing it. It’s not just about badging people’s talent. It’s about making the most out of the resources that we have in our business, helping everybody be the best they can be. And it’s about everyone performing and taking the organisation forward.

So, that’s my take on talent management. I hope that was thought-provoking. I welcome your comments, feedback, criticisms as ever. I’m not saying that I am the complete expert on any of these things. These are just things that I feel from my research and from my experience. And I hope that they may be useful or at the very least, thought-provoking. Because at the end of the day, if you think I’m talking rubbish, at least it’s got you thinking. And hopefully, you’ve got a better suggestion.

If you do have a better suggestion or a better way of doing things, that’s brilliant. Because actually, that’s what The HR Uprising is all about. It’s about us all collaborating together. I have some answers, they may be relevant or helpful to some people. But between us, we may have all of the answers. And together, if we look up, we can all rise up together.

Thanks so much for listening to this week’s podcast. My name is Lucinda Carney. Do connect with me on social media. I’d love to hear from you. If you want any of the links or references, there are a couple of white papers that we’ve got on our Actus Resources Page. As ever, you can see the notes and links to The HR Uprising, our website within the notes. You can go there, and we will signpost to you to relevant resources, if you want to go further. Thanks a lot, and have a great week.