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Talent management in a new world: a balancing act

News outlets are full of discussion of the economic crisis coming ever nearer, like the monster in a horror film.

This crisis will not go away because it is just one aspect of the longer-term adjustment to heightened global competition and to shortening development times that is resulting from new technologies. I refer to this as a New World: not a geographical one but one of competitiveness, where companies need to be more agile and more innovative. In this New World, we must balance the need to downsize with the need to grow the business, the need to shed labour while bringing in new recruits with particular talents, the need to react to current pressures and workloads with the need to innovate, look ahead, and prepare for future challenges.

Achieving this balance will require shifts in thinking and practice. To start with, the exclusive approach to talent management, which focuses on people of particular worth must go. You cannot run a New World business, where roles are increasingly inter-connected by investing in a few people at the expense of the many. The aim must be to bring out the talents of everyone and to create a close alignment between business and individual development. Secondly, most businesses I come across add complication with too many disparate initiatives that lack coherence. Talent management, organisation development, employee engagement, change management - these are useful terms for explaining different concepts but they need to merge into one consistent and coherent strategy pulling in one direction not in many. This must focus on the future to develop the capabilities that will be required and on effective relationships that build high performance, and encourage innovation and development.

Extended talent management starts with a focus on the future. Where is the business going? How will it get there? What capabilities are needed? Engage your people in conversations about how to take advantage of business opportunities. This gives them a sense of control, and gives them more time to prepare. It dampens some of the fear of change, pulls people out of the day to day, and encourages them to adapt more readily. Use these conversations to identify the behavioural and technical capabilities that will be needed in the future. These must include the capabilities required to find new and creative ways to solve problems, to handle increasingly complex relationships, to continually learn and to unlearn in order to adapt rapidly to change. These are the capabilities of the New World. Use these capabilities as the cornerstone of your recruitment, learning, career, succession and performance development programmes.

Although development and succession planning must be a process guided by HR, and facilitated by line managers, it must also be a self-managed process where people actively develop their capabilities in line with their own aspirations, but also in line with the capabilities the organisation will need. Implement development tools that make people more self-aware particularly of their behavioural capabilities, and those they need to develop, and link these to your succession plan. This is how people rise through the organisation, or become ready to meet new challenges. It is how to deliver superior performance, whilst also developing the future. It is the key you use to identify and develop high potentials and future leaders, while providing opportunity for everyone. It is also how you help people exit the organisation, and find opportunity elsewhere.

Work to instil a mindset that recognises the importance of learning through challenging and developmental work opportunities, rather than expensive training courses. Most of our effective learning comes from reflecting on our experience and so facilitating and guiding those experiences for our people is an immensely powerful approach. This leads us on to the point that people practices must be line manager focused. They must be designed to help line managers build relationships with their people, and recognise their role in supporting development. If your practices don't achieve this, scrap them. In some ways, extended talent management is more about cutting out, rationalising and streamlining than it is about introducing new initiatives.

As well as focusing your practices on supporting line managers, introduce assessment and development programmes that help selection and stimulate development, but also generate information about people, their skills and aspirations. Capture this information and match it to your future capability forecasts so that you can rapidly identify who can fill new roles, what new skills you need to bring in, which skills you no longer need, which you must train for, or encourage people to develop.

There is no single silver bullet to superior performance but this definition of a talent management style describes an inexpensive, self-sustaining, coherent approach that has no downside, immediate benefits and a significant medium and long-term payoff.


Janice Caplan, founding partner of the Scala Group