· 2 min read · Features

Uncommon sense: Understanding people is a talent

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Business acumen and leadership can be learned; an ability to empathise with people can't.

I sometimes think career choices are like betting on horse races. If youback the wrong one you will find yourself destined to come somewhere along way down the field.

In human resources management, career choice can be crucial. Those whoopted to pursue the nascent field of talent management that emergedshortly after McKinsey & Co issued its landmark study, The War forTalent, in 1997, are reaping dividends today.

The reason is that more and more companies are seeking experiencedtalent managers as the demographic squeeze begins to be felt.Headhunters Russell Reynolds Associates recently reported that it hadtaken on an 'unprecedented number' of searches for high-level talentmanagers in the past three years. Executive director Jeff Rosenthalreports that clients are generally seeking the same attributes. Theywant people who can manage and develop employees but specifically thosewho can manage a 'talent pipeline'.

This is less straightforward because managing a pipeline requires anunderstanding of where a company is heading and who can be sure aboutthat any more with private equity predators lurking around everycorner?

Companies are also seeking people who can make an impact at all levels -and that includes the boardroom. They must be seen as leaders by otherpeople in management. This has been a problem for HR professionals inthe past.

I recall a piece of research published at the annual CIPD conference afew years ago where HR professionals came in for some serious flak fromline managers complaining that they received insufficient support fromHR. At that time HR was perceived as a timid pursuit that had everythingto do with administration, looking after job applications, payroll,benefits and a hundred and one other duties involved in maintaining aworkforce.

Today, many of these duties have been hived off to specialist suppliers,leaving a streamlined HR function dealing with organisational design,performance management, recruitment and development and even successionplanning - a lot of which might slot neatly into a box called talentmanagement.

Part of the talent management job can involve looking after the welfareof, say, the top 300 managers. This covers not only the supervision ofpromotions but also the management of aspirations in order to avoid theloss of disenchanted people.

The best talent managers, says Rosenthal, are excellent communicatorsand diplomats - people who know how to retain the ear of the boss. Theyare business people too, as comfortable with a balance sheet as they arein a strategy-planning meeting. Increasingly, he says, more of them willhave MBAs. So should aspiring talent managers be trotting off tobusiness school? It might not be a bad idea.

Most high-level corporate recruitment these days is undertaken byheadhunters so Russell Reynolds is only reflecting the feedback it getsin its assignments.

Rosenthal argues that talent managers must be 'capitalists at heart'.Many HR professionals, however, have been nurtured within an institutionthat has its roots in welfare capitalism. I suspect the kind ofcapitalism influencing most executive searches today has a harder-edgedantecedent, weaned on US-business models.

Not everything that plays in the US does so well here. The insidiouspractice of forced ranking that emerged at General Electric when JackWelch was CEO has had a mixed reception, even in the US. Talentmanagement - as the term suggests - is as much about management as it isabout talent. If people are treated insensitively they will leave.

That's why, above all, the best talent managers will understand people.The other stuff - the business acumen, the leadership style, the rightkind of patter - can all be learned; but if you can't empathise withyour colleagues, all those things are not worth a row of beans.

Richard Donkin is employment columnist at the Financial Times;richard.donkin@haymarket.com.