Does 'talent' help or hinder?

Blog posts

5 Jun 2015

Wendy HirshWendy Hirsh

‘Talent management’ has been on the HR agenda for long enough to have become mainstream, but its definition is still muddled, its terminology incredibly annoying and its processes often misconceived. And yet, I believe it gives us the opportunity to put some really important aspects of people management back on the agenda. So I’ll vent my spleen for moment or two on what I hate about the whole ‘talent’ thing and then highlight some of the opportunities it can bring.

What I hate most is when the perfectly sensible word ‘talent’ is switched from being a specific, usually ‘innate ability or aptitude’ (as the dictionary says), into a person being ‘talent’ or not. So rather than saying ‘Fred has a talent for selling or football or 3D design’, HR has some ill-explained process that says ‘Fred is talent’. That means Jill is not talent and her manager may have to explain this. But it also means Fred has no idea what his talent actually is, what he is supposed to do with this talent, what may happen to him or what he needs to do for himself. Some of this is down to the 9-box talent grid – at best, complicated to explain and at worst, just about shoving people into boxes that no-one really understands. My second biggest hate is when ‘talent’ is identified but then nothing happens at all. I see a lot of that about. A third hate is the lack of evaluation and tracking of ‘talent’ outcomes. Three is plenty of hates.

I do chuckle though when the silly language of ‘talent’ causes the BBC to talk in terms of ‘managing its talent better’ when Jeremy Clarkson takes a swipe at someone.

In terms of being more sensible about all this, I tend to sidestep the ‘t’ word whenever possible and talk in terms of potential or succession for some specific purposes or kinds of work. This link to something much less abstract gives managers and employees a better chance of sensible conversation. An individual may be perceived as having potential for top-level jobs, or to move up a grade, or to become an outstanding professional or technical expert. All of these may be valid but we must explain what we mean. Companies often need to focus on several different types of ‘potential’ and explain them carefully.

In deciding where to focus on ‘talent’, I find three questions especially helpful:

  • For what kinds of jobs or work do we need to identify people with potential ahead of time?
  • When in their career do we need to identify that kind of potential to have the time to develop them? You never want to identify potential earlier than you have to – partly because it is such a very difficult thing to try and do for other people, let alone yourself!
  • What development in terms of skills and career experiences will we have to give access to so that those we identify can become credible candidates for that job/career/kind of work?

So ‘talent’ puts some really important stuff back on the agenda:

What should I be doing with my best people: those who have more to give? This reminds managers that poor performers are not the only people to attend to.

Where are business needs changing? Where will jobs be hard to fill? What skills will be needed? How many people might we want to be growing? All these are workforce planning questions – a second good opportunity.

What are the aspirations of the people we see as having potential for certain kinds of work, what career paths might make sense, how do we grow both in-depth expertise and broader leadership capability? All these are career development questions – a third key area welcome back after too long an absence.

How do we give people access to experience outside their own function; can we use interim vacancies to give our people a chance to ‘act-up’; can we use job rotation or project opportunities to develop our successors for posts at the next level up? All these are deployment, internal labour market and job filling questions. Deployment – our fourth big opportunity – has been ignored for far too long in the misguided belief that if we advertise job vacancies on the intranet when they come up, suitable candidates will always be there, ready and waiting and know which vacancy to apply for. We know this system doesn’t work well for less obvious career moves, which is why we had succession planning a long time ago and one reason why we really do need some kind of ‘talent management’ today.

So I will carry on hating HR’s abuse of the word ‘talent’ but paying that price gladly if it pulls the good employee, workforce planning, career development and the huge challenge of deployment back onto the agenda and sometimes even into the boardroom.

HR Essentials: Effective talent and succession managementRead Wendy's latest paper: Effective talent and succession management.

The first in a new series of concise papers for busy HR professionals and line managers, it offers two practical elements:

  • a framework of five key aspects of talent and succession management, which can be used to discuss and agree a strategy, and
  • ten practical tips covering aspects of design and implementation.