Attracting talented individuals to apply for jobs is easy, but getting them
on board and keeping them there is the real skill. Our latest roundtable
discussion looked at ways of identifying and managing talent more efficiently.
By Nic Paton
Psychometric testing, acceleration pools, behavioural assessment
centres, psychologist-based interviews, career action centres – if nothing
else, the war for talent is keeping HR professionals on their toes. In the
continuing tough economic climate, there is a growing recognition that
successfully managing talent gives organisations a vital edge.
For HR professionals, this sets a challenge. On one hand, effective talent
management is an important feather in the cap of any HR manager who wants to be
taken seriously at board level. On the other, identifying, grooming and
retaining talent is a notoriously nebulous business.
A study, carried out at the start of this year for Personnel Today by talent
research company Kenexa, paints a worrying picture of HR’s ability to be on top
of its game when it comes to talent management.
Ninety per cent of the 222 HR professionals polled strongly agree that
recruiting talented people is a key issue, and 93 per cent feel the same way
about retention. Yet 57 per cent of companies have no specific talent
management strategy, and just 37 per cent employ someone whose specific remit
is to manage talent.
With this in mind, Personnel Today invited a select gathering of HR
professionals to take part in a roundtable discussion, drawing on their
experiences to look at where talent management has come so far, and where it
has still to go. What follows is a summary of the themes that emerged.
What is talent?
The sheer difficulty of talent management, and the problem of how to define
and identify talent in a measurable way, became apparent early on in the
debate. Kate Newman, head of the resourcing and development team at Virgin
Atlantic, outlined that what the airline had always looked for in people was
something called "Virgin Flair". But pinning down exactly what this
was much more difficult.
"It’s what we feel is a certain indefinable quality that makes somebody
exactly what we are looking for, particularly in the customer-facing roles. You
know it when you see it, but if you try to pin it down into a competency or
behaviour thing, you risk losing an awful lot of it," she says.
A more formal, approach was taken by T-Mobile. It undertook a major project
to identify what a T-Mobile person was when it rebranded from One2One last
spring, explained recruitment manager David Murphy. The company looked closely
at the sort of competencies needed in a talented employee – change, innovation,
proactivity and communication in particular – in effect, drawing up a checklist
of the sort of attributes T-Mobile employees needed in any role across the
country. But Murphy feared, in light of Virgin’s approach, that such a template
could be too rigid and risked missing real original talent coming up through
"I have a feeling that maybe we have structured it down too much into
its [component] levels. What we are looking for is enthusiasm, but also as
proactivity and communication," he says.
Enthusiasm was the key elusive factor organisations needed to look for,
agreed Tim Cawdron, HR director at Amey Construction. "People who have
done really well in pushing up the organisation are [those who are] very
enthusiastic. They almost live and breathe what they do. There’s a few other
characteristics that may come out later, but you keep coming back to enthusiasm
as the key talent builder," he says.
Yet sometimes enthusiasm by itself is not enough, argued John Salt, sales
director at CW Jobs, the IT recruitment website.
"In the IT industry, you have people who are very passionate about what
they do, but are very poor at bringing other people along with their
passion," he says. "If they have that passion and enthusiasm, but
lack the proactivity to reach out to others and explain it, it is not going to
work in terms of developing talent throughout the IT department."
Another factor, at least in the construction industry, suggests Cawdron, is
mobility. In the early parts of their career, candidates are expected to move
around a lot – from job to job and site to site – providing them with valuable
breadth of responsibility and experience – all useful in helping to identify
Yet, particularly when you have a strong brand, such as Virgin, catching
enthusiastic young recruits could be considered the easy part. It is once they
are on board and the initial glamour has worn off that the problems can start,
cautions Ray Ryan, HR director for the Montpelier Group. "Do you find
there is an attitude change a year in?" he asks.
Often candidates will only hear what they want to hear – the good bits –
about a job, admits Newman. "They will hear all the good things. What we
did experience is quite a high drop-out in the first six to 12 months, because
it is hard work," she explains.
For instance, landing in a foreign country and being holed up in a strange
hotel can actually be quite lonely rather than glamourous. "Our latest
advertising campaign is trying to build on that – striking a balance between
the fun and excitement, but saying that actually you have got to be really
special. It is the balance we are trying to get," she adds.
One of the problems T-Mobile has experienced in moving from One2One has been
turning One2One managers into T-Mobile managers, admits Murphy.
"We are at the stage now of telling very senior and [previously] very
successful managers that they effectively don’t have what we need for a
T-Mobile person and that is causing problems," he explains.
"In most cases, the gap tends to be insurmountable. Some of our best
performers in the past, who hit targets every year and receive awards [for
their performance], are simply unable to make the change from a company that
was, in some ways, down and dirty, cheap and easy, to one that is more
professional and finessed in its attitude.
"I have been in front of a number of them who have simply devalued the
HR process to the point of which, in a competency interview, you get no
evidence of solutions whatsoever. You ask them simple questions such as: ‘Could
you talk me through the last time you dealt with a conflict situation’, and
they respond: ‘I don’t get any conflict situations, I tell my team what to
One solution has been to implement a company-wide project on internal
candidates and interviewing. Interviews have been made more formal, explaining
the reasons behind them and using competency evidence for not only the role,
but training and development too.
"Certainly our intention is to hang on to these managers for as long as
possible because they have the business knowledge we require. But during that
process, I have to admit that a lot of them will become so disgruntled that we
will lose them," says Murphy.
At Virgin – this year celebrating its 18th birthday, and recovering from a
torrid 12 months in the wake of September 11 – it has been a question of taking
a step back and looking at how people have been slotted into roles and whether
the progression processes really work, suggests Newman.
In the past, when Virgin Atlantic was growing swiftly, people were often
promoted rapidly into roles and moved about the company at will. Now, though,
there needed to be a reassessment and a recognition that, as well as moving
people about, you need to give them the skills and the tools to do the job they
are currently doing well even better, says Newman.
"The events of last year may even have helped us," she admits.
"It was painful to go through the redundancies that we made because we
have a family feel about Virgin. But we structured the redundancy package with
a very attractive voluntary package. Those that maybe were not entirely
committed have left."
Six years ago, Salt says he visited a major high-street retailer and found
that 35 per cent of trainees left within a year of finishing their graduate
training. But they all came back within four years.
"They kept that door open," he says. "They said the biggest
reason people didn’t return was that they were embarrassed to even think about
how to approach coming back."
Employers need to be aware of this embarrassment factor, and recognise that
often there is a shock when people realise that, on leaving, the grass wasn’t
so green after all. They will then come back with a different, possibly more
committed, outlook. Similarly, if you, as the employer, deliver on your
promises, you will automatically go a long way towards retaining a talented
employee, suggests Cawdron.
"If you say you are going to give them a six-month review and then you
don’t, they may not say anything straight away, but, ultimately, they will vote
with their feet," he says. "We have a young people review – everyone
under 30 gets looked at – and we try to give them something at six months. You
can spend an awful lot of time and money attracting talent only to find it’s
leaking out the other end."
In an industry with a traditionally high staff turnover rate, T-Mobile is
working on exit interviews, says Murphy.
"It was most prevalent when people were leaving for the dotcoms. We
thought ‘hang on, we need to have an open door to allow these people to come
back’. So the flipside is to consider letting them go," he explains.
T-Mobile makes sure any grievances are resolved before the employee leaves.
"Historically, exit interviews have always been undertaken by HR
operations instead of HR recruitment," Murphy says. "We have made HR
recruitment more involved because we are the ones with the interview skills and
training. Equally, if they do decide to come back, we are the point of
From an HR viewpoint, one of the hardest things is reminding managers of the
importance of the six-month review, and its role in retaining employees.
"It is very easy and very visible to throw lots of money at attracting
talent, it is a little bit more difficult and involved to actually retain it
once it is in," Murphy adds.
"What we are doing is marrying the HR functions that have traditionally
been quite separate and getting them to work together and even cross over in
the responsibilities and the skills, bringing the recruitment people in at the
exit interviews. But I think the emphasis is still on attracting rather then
retaining," he says.
Grooming future talent
The attitude of schools can play an important part in grooming talent. Some
industries, such as construction, find it hard to recover from the negative
image portrayed in the classroom, says Ryan.
"People think it is going on site and getting wet and cold, but it’s
not like that. The level of autonomy and responsibility they have, just isn’t
appreciated," he says. In addition, there is an image problem in that
construction is often thought of as an old-fashioned, male-dominated sector,
which deters talented female candidates, adds Cawdron.
One way round this had been to focus on the messages being sent back into
colleges, he suggests. "We take our graduates back to their old colleges.
They do the majority of the presentation. It helps with their presentation
skills and the graduates can relate to them. It’s like sowing seeds – it
doesn’t all sprout at once but it starts to come through."
While analytical and communication skills and boosted confidence will often
give graduates an edge, HR across the board is rapidly moving away from the
perception that a degree is a mandatory springboard to greater things, Murphy
reckons. "There are people who do not go to university for some very good
reasons. It is our job to provide tools to allow them to do the job," he
What really works?
Simply showing interest in an employee, conducting regular reviews, asking
how they are getting on, picking up on those issues and delivering on promises
plays a big part in helping to manage talent in any organisation, says Cawdron.
There is a recognition, too, that this will often involve building bridges with
other parts of the business so that talent can be exposed to a wider range of
experiences and challenges, contends Newman.
At T-Mobile, the appraisal system has developed into the drawing up of a
formal contract between employee and employer, says Murphy.
"We physically sit down and sign a contract. So we are in a situation
where we have committed to training and providing them with what they have
requested and we are signing something in front of them. We then revisit it at
three, six, nine and 12-month intervals.
"That is working as a retention tool because these people fully believe
they have comeback on us, and they do."
Joining the Personnel Today team were:
David Murphy, recruitment manager, T-Mobile
Ray Ryan, HR director, Montpelier Group
Kate Newman, head of resourcing and development team, Virgin Atlantic
Tim Cawdron, HR director, Amey Construction