· 2 min read · Features

All cream and no bottle: the talent management challenge

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We all have a tendency to simplify – and to believe that simplification is synonymous with clarification, when we’re sometimes leaving out the complex challenges, rather than explaining or facing them.

Talent development and talent management are not entirely synonyms: the former is an intervention applied to some or all of the people in an organisation, while the latter is a matter of strategy that should ideally be seen as 'husbandry' activity – maximising the human resources of the organisation by the judicious and informed application of its non-human resources. (Or 'time, money and energy', in plainer speech.)

Talent management is a far more complex discipline than simply skimming the cream from the milk – good use has to be made of the skimmed milk and care taken to prevent the cream from curdling. Simple pampering of the 'winners' is not the answer, although an element of it will be required – those with the ambition to rise tend also to expect more than a modicum of special treatment to keep them onside. A 2010 Harvard Business Review article showed that 25% of Hi-Pos expect to be working elsewhere within a year (no doubt a higher percentage were less candid with their current employer).

One of the conundrums for the talent manager is to strike the right balance between talent identification and fairness. Grounds for the identification of potential are not as straightforward as they might seem: current performance is no guarantee of future potential, especially when what will be performed may be substantially different from the individual's current repertoire. Selection needs to factor in more nuanced criteria: individual learning agility and the motivation to learn and improve are just two, and they are in turn influenced by reward and recognition practices. That does not mean that informed selection is impossible, but it does take more effort and insight than is often allowed.

But any contract between employer and employee is not just legal but psychological, and fairness is not only measured (often by different yardsticks at either end of the contractual relationship): it is felt. The milk skimming analogy can be a dangerous one: selection for development is also for progression, and those about to be elevated still need the efforts, talents and commitment of those they will be elevated above. Feeling we are being treated fairly is a human desire that is integrally linked with such important aspects of a productive, successful organisation as trust and respect. We join organisations in hope, not least that the opportunity we may be being offered will be forthcoming. In an era where lifelong careers, or even pay rewards, may not widely be on offer, opportunities are a powerful factor in employees' 'stay or go' decisions. Give a single opportunity and you should not expect to receive too many in return. To select is to judge, and by judging others we invite judgement in return.

It should go without saying that any organisation's talent development initiatives should be focused on its future survival: without a survival strategy, you don't have any talent requirements. And while any business will strive to retain its future stars' services – even if it needs to be mindful of their trajectories – cream needs milk to rise above. If all your retention efforts focus on the cream, another dairy-related metaphor bears consideration: churn. The Chartered Institute of Management Account's COLT (Cost of Losing Talent) and CORT (Cost of Replacing Talent) models deserve a moment of any talent manager's time. While an operational employee needs 18 weeks to reach full effectiveness and a senior manager 29.5, losing two of the former is more costly than losing one of the latter. And while outstanding leaders can define strategies, carve out market share and win orders, someone needs to deliver the goods or services if the invoices are to be paid. If we are going to be judgemental, leaders and talent managers are both, strictly speaking, overheads.

Matt Evans (pictured) is senior consultant at change management consultancy, ASK Europe