How to put Talent Management in its place

As an interim, I have worked within or alongside talent teams in a variety of organisations. Each company has its own definition of talent, from people with high potential and scarce knowledge/skills to pretty much anyone. So, not surprisingly, their talent management teams also vary in scope.

However, once talent management starts to creep across sourcing, attraction, selection, training, succession planning, development, retention, promotion and internal movement of employees, where does this leave the rest of HR, let alone the managers and employees? In my experience, the enthusiasm to create a joined-up, measurable approach to identifying and promoting talent can result in confusion and detachment.

I raised this topic with a group of seasoned HR independents, working in many organisations to see if they had any concerns. Their replies identified three distinct sets of challenges:

Challenge No. 1 – Be careful about who is defined as talent

Selection of candidates is often subjective and open to scrutiny. Some companies target high potential, but often it’s mistaken for high performance. When asked to identify High Potential employees (HiPo), managers can be tempted to recommend team members on the basis of rewarding good performance or commitment, especially if retention and motivation are concerns. Consequently, employees who are either not yet ready, or will never be are given the opportunity to participate in the HiPo programme; and then the company misses its goal to find future leaders.

Perhaps the issue is not to single-out “talent” at all. Maybe we are all talent! “My concern about talent management is that it tends to focus on the elite high performers. What about everyone else in the organisation not included in this group? What does it say about them – are they talentless?” commented Debbie Sanders, interim ER and Engagement specialist. “My preference is that the organisation focuses on developing all their people and not just those considered to be high performers.”

Challenge No. 2 – Line managers do not own talent management

In our enthusiasm, has HR taken too much responsibility for a key aspect of management? Shouldn’t managers be more accountable for the talent within their teams, whether that includes identifying, resourcing, succession planning or developing? Perhaps managers do not have the time, the inclination or are just overwhelmed by the process. But the risk is that by taking on the responsibility, HR may disengage managers. As Alison Jenkins, Interim international HR and reward specialist puts it “HR should be the mentors to show managers what good people management looks like.”

Challenge No. 3 – Avoid Internal HR turf wars

If the component parts of talent management are moved from the HR Partners to a dedicated talent team, what does it leave HR do, how do they engage with line managers and how does HR appear to the business?

Alison Jenkins commented “It is a sad reality but if we can’t get it right, how can we expect the rest of the workforce?”. “Quite a few people in HR are frustrated by the lack of clarity on roles” added Debbie Sanders, Interim ER and engagement consultant. It can also lead to resentment as talent management can appear “specialised” or “elite” when it is transferred to a team of HR “experts”.

Lex McKee, who now works as a Consultant to Deutsche Bank and E-ON comments on what he observed in a previous role. He says, “In my experience of a large organisation rich in talent management, there was a lot of in-fighting and political manoeuvring between at least three functions. Like three siblings, they were all fighting for decision-makers’ attention to promote their own leadership agenda. The lack of clarity on ownership leads to a lot of territorial battles!”

Duplication of effort between different HR functions looks confusing to the rest of the business and re-enforces the notion that HR as a whole are over-resourced. In one company, Debbie noticed “there were overlaps with other areas of HR and endless turf wars which resulted in HR losing a lot of credibility in the business”.

Based on our collective learning, here are three principles on defining the role of talent management, avoiding the pitfalls:

1. Talent means all employees

Unless you include all your employees in talent plans, how do you really know who your future talent is? Demonstrate inclusivity, involve all employees and avoid missing future stars through imperfect selection.

2. Empower line managers, with HR acting as facilitator

Make line managers accountable for all areas of talent management. This will improve the link between talent and business strategy and as HR Consultant Liz Bowes commented “It will empower managers to play a more an essential role in creating the desired culture and developing the organisation capability”. With empowered managers, HR’s role is to facilitate the process/mechanism and actively “challenge, support and “join the dots” for the business” as Liz says.

3. Where Talent Management teams exist, keep it focused on a few activities

Keep it simple, so its activities are understood clearly by everyone, especially employees. Roger Minton, Director of Minton Consulting Ltd recommends that you should “limit talent management to no more than attracting, identifying and developing HiPos, succession planning and leadership development.” In his view, “at least this ensures focus.”

Dorian Webb

Written by , Interim Talent Acquisition / Recruitment Leader and Change Expert

Dorian Webb is an independent Interim Corporate Resourcing / Recruitment Leader. Dorian offers over 25 years of experience in recruitment, designing and implementing a range of talent acquisition and management initiatives which add commercial value to a wide range of clients, from global multinationals to SMEs to RPOs.

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