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We can’t afford to think of Talent as being about management and leadership any more, says Claire Molin

Claire Molin 150x150The publication almost twenty years ago of ‘The War for Talent’, popularised the concept of talent management. The hypothesis; organisations are operating in increasingly complex and competitive environments where the differentiator between success and failure is the quality of the people working in it; created an all pervasive mind set which saw talent management become a high priority item on the employee value proposition checklist for most large and medium size organisations.

From the CEO perspective the thinking was logical – ‘I need to attract, engage and retain the best employees to be successful, therefore I need to focus on talent management and deliver a talent programme in my organisation’ and ‘By being known to do talent management I increase shareholder confidence, potentially intimidate competitors and clearly demonstrate that we are confident of continued success through actively attracting, engaging and retaining the best’

badge-talentThe underlying assumption driving talent management in many organisations has been that talent was some (varying) proportion of the middle to senior management; and the organisational aspiration – to develop this talent to become future executives. As a result, the emphasis has firmly been placed on the areas of management and leadership.

This created significant dilemmas for those involved in the talent management process. Just some of the questions that organisations were forced to answer included:

  • How do you define and differentiate Talent from everyone else?
  • At what point do employees become eligible to be Talent and how do you engage and retain distant but future rising stars who don’t fit the current talent demographic?
  • If you are open about talent management as an organisational activity how do you manage and motivate those who the organisation has decided are not talented?
  • In a pyramid shaped organisation how do you manage the career expectations of those who have been identified as Talent but don’t make it to the top?

To add a sense of fairness and objectivity to the talent management process talent managers have created, co-opted and occasionally corrupted HR tools and processes  including fairly complex competency and capability models, nine (or more) box models and a vast number of mechanisms to try and measure potential. Some of us have even had to channel our inner George Orwell and declare that

‘All employees are talented but some are more talented than others!’

Inevitably along the way many of the very people who we were aiming to attract, retain and engage have become disillusioned with processes they have perceived as  over engineered, that over promise and under deliver.

Is there an alternative? I think yes, but it is big and it is scary, and it is still not perfect. It means throwing out the old assumptions that talent equates to leadership potential. Instead it starts with seeking the future critical capabilities required for your business specifically. This means that those responsible for talent need to work very closely with their strategy team, together challenging and stretching each other’s thinking. It involves going a bit crazy, looking at macro and micro trends that may have an impact on your organisation, and identifying multiple possible directions in which your organisation might travel over a ten to fifteen year plus event horizon.

Once you’ve established some potential organisational directions it is then about establishing the capabilities that are a common thread through the scenarios and then being ruthless and prioritising those that would be the differentiating factor in enabling your organisation to be a success, if one of those organisational directions became the operating reality.

This takes a lot of time and work, and at the end you may have identified just two or three and hopefully no more than five differentiating capability sets (talent segments). However many segments you identify they are what drive your talent management, identification, attraction, development, retention activities going forward.

From an organisational perspective being clear about your talent segments has a number of immediate benefits. Your segments provide an independent test and check for:

  • Outlier salaries – when requests for salaries outside of benchmarks are made (either for attraction or retention purposes)
  • Critical role analysis – only a very small proportion of critical roles should fall outside of a Talent Segment (that or your segments are wrong!)
  • Potential regrettable leavers – Over time the number of regrettable leavers in roles outside of the talent segments is likely to diminish
  • Succession planning – Talent segments enable succession groups and pipelines to be established, without fixating on specific roles that may change were the current incumbent to move on

Of course, there is a downside to operating in an organisation that manages a segmented talent programme. For the talent manager it can feel like spinning plates, the complexity of the programme increasing with each additional segment added.

However the upsides outweigh the down. Talent segments democratise the process of talent management. The conversation in the business shifts from ‘being talented’ or the implications of not being talented to ‘having potential for something the business recognises will be key to future success’. This might sound like spin, but the difference can be palpable when talking to strong performers whose skill set doesn’t naturally lead them to a talent segment.

By operating a talent management process based on talent segments you focus on your organisation’s prioritised capabilities. You gain a breadth of experience within your talent programme, and you demonstrate to the wider organisation that the career pathway does not necessarily require people management experience –depending on your segments those who are considered professional specialists may have the just the potential required by your organisation.

By focusing on talent segments your talent programme can be far reaching. The talent segments are based on capabilities required for (far out) future success. Given that often at least one of these segments will be based on a set of capabilities that are hard to ‘buy’, casting the net wide, including those relatively new to the workplace who can demonstrate appropriate potential, adds an extra dimension to the programme experience for all who are part of it.

Talent segmentation – it is not perfect, there is no magic wand to identify those who match a segment and have potential to succeed within it. Segmentation means additional complexity, it is no longer about seeking out individuals from one or two organisational levels who have some fairly consistent capabilities – that’s probably scary; and for some talent segmentation is a big mind set shift but it is one I’d say start to consider.


Claire will be speaking at the Symposium Talent Management and Leadership Development Summit 2015 on October 22 in Canary Wharf, London.

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