The distraction of talent management

We love to over engineer a management practice, don’t we? And never more so than the area of “talent management”. We take something with a relatively simple principle at it’s core and turn it into an elaborate, process driven, complex, laborious practice. Then wonder why it doesn’t work.

Let’s start by understanding the core principles behind talent management:

To ensure we have the organisational capability that we need now and in the future in order to be successful.

That’s it, nothing more complex than that. But “management science” would have us believe that in order to deliver this we need a range of complex interventions, grids, assessments that require hours of time to complete with little, if any, visible benefit. And then we repeat it on a regular basis.

One of the challenges is our inability to have good quality, meaningful conversations about the ability and capability of people within our organisations and to convey those conversations to them in an honest way. It is also our reluctance to think openly about the future, especially into areas of uncertainty.

Organisations thrived and succeeded before the 9 box grid was created, I’m not sure any of the great industrialists ever attended a calibration session and I’m certain the sun would still come up in the morning if we skipped the annual “talent review”. We’d be much better prepared for success were we to put the processes away for a while and sit and focus on the why not the how.

Simplifying our view on the capability we have, need and will need and how to build and develop is the real trick, not creating more forms that need to be filled in.

 

It’s open season for talent

It used to be that things were simpler when you wanted to recruit senior “talent” in to your organisation. Companies and sectors worked in a pretty siloed fashion and with a commercial hierarchy in place. Making it more straightforward for recruiters and managers alike.

When you needed to recruit an senior hire in to your business, you’d first identify your place in the industry hierarchy. You then had two choices, you could look up the hierarchy and identity people who were in more junior roles to your vacancy, but in a bigger organisation. Or you’d look down the hierarchy and find people in similar or larger roles, but in smaller organisations.

Of course, there were always organisations and companies of the moment. The ones that CEOs and leaders would say, “how about getting someone from ABC Corp?” but generally it was a straightforward thing.

Then things got a whole world more complicated.

As our businesses have changed and developed through the use of technology, as new “super companies” have come on to the scene and as the fetishistic adulation of the start-up has grown to gargantuan proportions, the world of talent acquisition has become much less linear.

On one hand you have the large traditional corporates, with their constant refrain of, “get me someone from Google/Facebook/Apple” and on the other, increasing evidence that these target companies are looking to established FMCG players

So what’s going on? Well nothing really, it is just the silos falling away and the increasing movement of talent both within and between industry. But the implications for those working in HR and talent management become increasingly more interesting:

  • Brand names don’t guarantee skill sets and whilst they never have, recruiting within industry always ensured a certain level of transferable knowledge that would pass as valuable. With cross industry moves it is harder to be sure.
  • Established organisations and fast growing organisations have completely different cultures and ways of working. Even if you get the skill set right, the ability to land well and navigate the organisation is an imperative for hiring.
  • The more sources there are for recruiting from, the more competitors there are for the same people. As career paths become less linear, your compelling argument needs to be greater than your status in the industry. You need to understand what you really have to offer someone from outside.
  • Compensation, benefits and career structures might need to go right out of the window. When things are no longer moving in a linear fashion, you can’t have linear structures. That offers a whole heap of pain, but it is a natural repercussion of inter industry moves.

But, at the end of the day, the biggest challenge is letting go of the things we’ve had, to gain the things we want. Bringing people in from outside of the industry, whichever way they move, means that they won’t have industry experience, it means they won’t necessarily look, behave and talk the same. And it means it will probably take them longer to get up to speed – regardless of the name or prestige of their previous company.

HR can’t manage talent

A non-scientific study of CEOs that I’ve recently spoken to indicates one consistent concern; Talent Management. Fortunately, at the same time, the good people at the Harvard Business Review have provided the slightly more scientific back up indicating the same.

Which is good news for HR, right?

Because we’re all over talent. Aren’t we?

It was 1997 when McKinsey first uttered the phrase “war for talent” and whether you agree with it, or not, that’s almost 20 years to get our act together. Yet here we are, still unable to assuage the concerns of our CEOs.

So why is that?

Well it certainly isn’t due to a lack of “human resource”. During the period between 1997 and today, the UK population has increased about 6% and if you extend this to the global population, the increase is greater. So, theoretically, more talent available. Plus, if you look at increased global mobility and broader labour pools on top of this, then that should also help.

And yet not.

HR has singularly failed to address talent management and we’ve done so because of an inability to address the culture of the organisations that we work in.

Instead of tackling the underlying challenges we’ve developed process. And charts. And portfolios. Because talent management calls out for a portfolio more than anything else, that’s well known…..

When the reality is that only line management can truly manage talent and all we can do as a profession is encourage the organisational culture that allows this to happen. Which requires us to focus on the barriers that exist:

  • under resourcing of teams
  • focus on short-term goals
  • unwillingness to take risks
  • narrow perceptions of talent

The fact is that most CEOs could start to deal with their “number one concern” tomorrow, if they really wanted to and understood what the issues were. And that’s where we come in. We need to take the conversation away from the process, away from the god awful 9 box model and start talking about the culture of our organisations and empowering and incentivising managers to grow and develop talent.

Talent management and development happened long before 1997. Maybe we just need to take a look back and work out how we broke the system, rather than measure how broken it is.

That’s not talent, that’s process

Sometimes there is an unassailable truth that needs to be told. A guilty secret that needs to be revealed. A lie that needs to be challenged.

Because, in your organisation, you’re not managing talent, you’re managing process.

Well, if you work in 99% of organisation you aren’t. And if you work in the other 1%, you’re lying.

The thing is, the language that we use around “talent management”, the behaviours that we all display, the way in which we approach it has as much to do with managing talent as chocolate has to do with teapot formation.

Most of us don’t know how to measure talent. And where we do measure, we’re not really measuring talent at all.

HiPo? Is the definition of talent someone who is capable of being more senior?

Because Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Sylvia Plath. They were all destined for management?

And if they weren’t then they clearly weren’t talent.

Our organisations are based on a myth of hierarchy that assumes that power and value is added as one progresses, rather than understanding the true mechanisms that drive organisational performance and rewarding the people who truly add value.

As a result we reward a politically charged, single focussed, rise to the top. A game that is suited, not to the most talented, but the most politically adroit. We promote the people who impress by playing the game, and we neutralise the people who don’t fit the mould.

You’ll argue that you don’t do this, that you’re different. But you’re not.

And that’s because our organisations, our businesses, the western world is geared up to systemically ignore true talent. Your reward systems, your recruitment processes, your learning and development programmes. Not a single one of them really recognises talent.

And the funny thing is, the hours we spend on “talent management” the grids we fill in, the conversations we have, the investment we place in systems that effectively wipe the lipstick off the pig are a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time.

You would still make the same promotion and development decisions without doing it.

Until we are willing to re-engineer the way in which our organisations operate, to refocus our energy on the right argument, rather than the incessant and dogmatic pursuit of a rather badly dressed up false promise.

Until then, we will always be managing process.

And that has nothing to do with talent.