Talent management is essentially the process of getting the right people, in the right role, who can develop their optimal capabilities. Here, SUMS Consultant Emma Odgen explores why HR leaders should rethink their current approach to Talent Management.

Why we need to rethink talent management

There is so much out there about the fundamentals of adapting the workforce for the future state; we all know about the ‘Great Resignation’, skills shifts, digital transformation, innovation. These elements suggest that we need to be thinking much more about talent and acquisition to meet that need.

However, we can quickly go into a dark hole when it comes to approaches around talent. Issues I have with the growing rhetoric in this space include:

  1. The concept of ‘talent acquisition’. I am not sure I agree that people want to be ‘acquired’, I certainly don’t. To me, it resonates a sense of ownership and control. It also suggests that your existing workforce is obsolete to meet future needs and that your only solution is an external one. If internally you are focusing on this narrative, how is this impacting your retention, culture, and motivation?
  2. Organisations keep trying to make existing approaches to talent management ‘fit’ the current state. Not only that, but these solutions are also often costly. Investment in costly technical solutions (which, if not implemented against an effective digital and programme architecture will ultimately render the solution being unfit for purpose long-term), elaborate approaches to measuring talent, investment in additional training solutions are all examples of ‘off the shelf’ quick wins. By focusing here, we are not really injecting energy or meaning into solving the problem, we are throwing money at it.
  3. By focusing more on the external market and future proofing, we have neglected to consider the importance of getting the absolute fundamentals right when it comes to effective talent management and ignoring the fact that demands and expectations of staff are changing, and we are not aligning those basic hygiene factors with those needs. As a result, there’s a risk of losing that talent you are trying so hard to acquire.

Talent principles

Talent management is essentially the process of getting the right people, in the right role, who can develop their optimal capabilities (while being aligned to organisational objectives). Right person + right alignment = high potential.

Right person + right alignment = high potential.

Achieving this involves the following critical steps:

  1. understanding your talent gaps;
  2. identifying the potential to fill those gaps;
  3. maximizing performance and retention of that talent (to meet current and future goals); and
  4. measuring effectiveness and impact of initiatives, to ensure it has been worthwhile.

A shifting focus

We need to move away from a focus on the architecture of talent management. Yes, having an effective process which is robust, well understood and not too convoluted will absolutely ensure management of talent is more effectively managed. However, it is not by any means the only way in which you ensure talent is being considered. In fact, those who are focusing more on deploying shiny new systems are not really addressing the cultural factors which will encourage your staff to engage.

Instead, I would propose that the first focus needs to be on understanding the gaps, having meaningful conversations, and aligning existing strengths within the workplace. This should be informed by:

Understanding how talent aligns with organisational drivers and aims.

There is no point fostering talent around a perception of high potential or a specific skill which is not aligned with business drivers. Firstly, you need to identify the key skills and capabilities which your organisation needs to ensure ultimate achievement of enhanced performance, but against your own drivers.

Consider your workforce planning process; when done well this enables you to assess your current state and identify where the gaps lie. From there, you can plan about what you need to do to meet those gaps (e.g., recruit, retain, motivate).

Secondly, do you have a talent management strategy? If not, do you need something which is explicit in terms of what you want to achieve and why? It may include how you plan to identify, measure and retain talent, and integrate it with existing procedures (recruitment, reward, appraisal). Sometimes, having this documented is critical to getting people on board with your aims (although not of caution, do not let this be a redundant piece of paper, it needs to actually articulate how you are going to do execute this, which needs to be followed by actions and an action plan).

Getting the fundamentals right

As I mentioned, effective talent management is not about reinventing the wheel. It is also not about trying to make new approaches fit; especially if there is a culture which goes against what you want to achieve.

Instead, focus initially on getting your existing approaches right. Ensuring regular management and development conversations, regular appraisals, measured and managed objectives, means by which staff can access development (e.g., stretch projects), and alignment of performance outcomes with action (e.g., reward or recognition). If staff see those step-change improvements, they will begin to believe that there is a shifting priority and many of the areas which they may perceive to be flawed change.

As you start thinking about the future state; you might want to think about metrics or measures of talent. Approaches such as 9-box grid is popular and can be used as a framework for talent management, but this should be aligned with ensuring it is being done meaningfully. Also, introducing a new measure might need consultation with Unions. If you can have talent and succession information through metrics, use that.

Considering the ‘what’s in it for me’ argument

An employee needs to see a line of sight between the efforts they are being expected to put in, how that gets supported, and what they will get in return. For new colleagues, this should start with their onboarding. A sense of the culture is one of the first impressions a member of staff will have. If you get this wrong, you are already losing loyalty and engagement. For existing staff, it is about getting those fundamentals right. There can be a rhetoric vs. reality approach to culture. If you do not have the culture that you want; build it. If needs to become second nature that everyone in the organisation is committed to discovering and nurturing talent.

Secondly, you need to think about the most effective way to deploy opportunities for development. While external learning can be effective, it does not always lead to a change in performance, because it is away from the practicalities of work. Experience-based development, enabling employees to think beyond the parameters of their day-to-day role and having a focus on the outcomes which need to be achieved ensures that employees are clear on what you need them to do and why.

Finally, you need to align approaches to a concerted effort on retaining staff. Identify your existing practices (e.g., promotions, reward, recruitment). Do they complement your principles of rewarding talent or are there excessive parameters in place which actually disincentivise? Going back to your talent strategy, this might enable you to consider what you need to do to keep building that architecture around ensuring talent management works. Ultimately, you are more likely to get an employee to engage with these approaches if you are showing them how it will benefit them.

Building leadership

All too often approaches to talent are ‘centre-led’ and feel like the new initiative being driven by HR. If managers and leaders struggle to understand their role in this, or are not even engaged with it, they are less likely to support it in reality.

While this might sound obvious, there needs to be visible support from senior management to encourage staff to actively engage with their development. However, ‘visible support’ needs to be greater than lip service. Executives need to:

  1. lead talent conversations with their own team;
  2. have succession plans in place; and
  3. understanding their high potential pipelines with plans for them.

As the work environment and generational expectations of employees change, leadership and management must adapt. The shift away from workplace boundaries and a focus on standardised work routines has given way to more visible personal lives, higher rates of stress and anxiety and changes to working patterns and norms. Redefining leadership to ensure a more human-centred relationship is key. Within this, leaders need to demonstrate authenticity around talent conversations, and support the fostering and enablement of opportunities. They should aim to coach, collaborate, engage, and motivate their staff and ensure people feel safe and heard to talk about their development requirements.

SUMS recommendations

Considering and preparing for these possible priorities is important to ensure that people remain high on Executive Team agendas and that any associated people strategy is relevant and adaptive, To ensure a connection between the expectations of employees and the HR service being offered, HR leaders should consider:

  1. Ensuring their People Strategies are current, relevant, and reflective of internal and external influences, context, staffing profile and priorities.
  2. Ensuring ‘people orientation’ has whole institutional approach, not just a HR-led priority, which focuses on achieving people sustainability.
  3. Communicate new initiatives and approaches, encouraging employee voice and empowering them to own and advocate what their needs are.
  4. Understand any risks; especially in relation to how you currently operate or cultural mindsets.
  5. Look at your employee data; what does it tell you in relation to their satisfaction, how they are working, what their needs are? How does this influence workforce planning? Rather than assessing just exit interviews, conduct ‘stay interviews’ to understand what has motivated employees to stay. This will enable you to focus on what to stop, start and continue.
  6. Think about reward and benefits; what is in scope for manoeuvrability? Is there a more flexible or strategic approach that could be considered?

With expertise covering almost all areas involved in Human Resources, policy and employment law, the team at SUMS Consulting would be happy to help in supporting conversations further.

If you wish to discuss further, please contact us at sums@reading.ac.uk or visit our website for more information about our Human Resources support.

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