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Is it time for HR to kill off talent pools?

Talent cannot be owned exclusively by potential leaders

The dreaded talent pool. A holding bay for high-potential individuals. Once king of the development strategy, the pool has since – along with its nine-box grid friend – declined in popularity. In my opinion this change is down to one thing; we now understand the meaning of talent.

Back in the late 90s, when McKinsey coined the phrase ‘the war for talent’, businesses and arguably HR didn’t know how to define ‘talent’. Nor did they know how to manage it. And so we chose the easy way out. We defined talent as ‘leadership potential’, using our pre-determined leadership behaviours to pull select individuals from the workforce and into a pool so that we could create the leadership of the future.

But fast forward to now and this doesn’t sit well. Certainly not with me, and certainly not with the employees within our businesses. Why? Because talent isn’t defined as leadership. If you check the Oxford English Dictionary talent is ‘natural aptitude or skill’. Which means talent cannot be owned exclusively by potential leaders.

Talent can be the developer creating the most innovative code without a desire in the world to be a leader. Talent can be the kitchen porter who works tirelessly to support his team by naturally building strong relationships and delivering their needs. Talent can be the ambitious HR executive who spots opportunities that no-one around her does.

I believe it creates a far greater, more successful, more profitable business if, instead of narrowing our views of talent to simply ‘future leaders’, we recognise that by placing the right people in the right roles and giving them the right development then every single person in our business can be defined as talented.

Laura Wigley, director of talent and development at Dorchester Collection, has recently written for the Association of MBAs on the wider perception of talent in business. In this she successfully argued that if businesses create an environment whereby all people, regardless of level, were given the opportunity to shine, it would be a win-win for employer and employee. To do so she stated organisations must help employees truly identify their strengths, weaknesses and natural talents. That way talent doesn’t become “limited to those who are vocal about their leadership desires. Nor who meets pre-determined criteria to gain access to a pool”.

In addition, the mindset around talent development has to change. Are we really going to get the best from our people if they are put into a group and taught the same thing as everyone else?

Of course, the answer is no – our people are individuals. Therefore, as Laura rightly advised in her article, the only way we will help them reach their potential is by treating them as such. Which is exactly why her strategy for Dorchester Collection revolves around the person. For example, in our appraisals we’ve removed compulsory questioning for all team members, enabling them to select their personal preference. Our managers are also now encouraged to create a bespoke approach to development based on the individual’s strengths, talents and desires. This is all about achieving the potential in every single one of our people and has transformed the way we think about and approach talent development across our organisation.

As a profession it’s our responsibility to support employees. And, as custodians of ‘talent’ we cannot and must not make this an exclusive group available to the few. The sooner we recognise the variety of talents across our organisations, and design development opportunities around these, the sooner we’ll realise the collective potential.

Eugenio Pirri is chief people and culture officer at Dorchester Collection