Talent management: L&D looks after the creme de la creme

Talent management programmes are a top HR challenge, one that learning and development plays a key part in achieving.

“It was not so long ago that many organisations saw talent management as the process of compiling a top secret list of ‘A players’ and keeping this under lock and key,” says Stuart Duff, partner at business psychology firm Pearn Kandola. “Recently, however, all this has changed, and for many organisations talent management is now a top priority.”

In fact, a recent survey of 4,741 executives in 83 countries, conducted by the Boston Consulting Group and World Federation of Personnel Management Associations, found that managing talent is the most important HR challenge for those executives. The reason for this: if people are the most important asset in an organisation, then the most talented people should be highly prized, closely guarded and properly managed.

“It may become harder to recruit and retain talented employees than to raise money in an IPO [share sale],” says Rainer Strack, a partner at Boston Consulting Group and one of the report’s authors. “In the West, workforces are going grey, while in developing markets, companies have an unquenchable thirst for skilled employees. Creating a people advantage will increasingly translate into competitive advantage.”

Characteristics of success

Yet, getting talent management right is far from straightforward. Penny de Valk, chief executive officer at the Institute of Leadership & Management, describes the six characteristics of a successful talent management programme:



  • It has top-level support. If board members don’t support it fully with their time and energy, it won’t work.
  • It includes a clear idea of what future talent the business strategy requires.
  • It involves a proper analysis of the knowledge, skills and abilities required of future high performers. It isn’t just recruiting to replicate existing staff.
  • It has invested in recruitment and selection and succession planning processes, which will deliver these kinds of people.
  • It involves competitive promotion. Being on a talent management programme shouldn’t mean someone is given promotion without having to compete with others. They must prove their ability.
  • It provides a planned and managed programme of development for talented individuals, using training, work placements, coaching, mentoring and similar techniques.

Learning and development departments clearly have a vital role to play in talent management. Even the most talented people need development, not only to build their skills and knowledge, but also to keep them motivated and committed to the organisation. Furthermore, it is always cheaper to develop existing talent than it is to buy it in.

War for talent

This issue will become more and more pronounced in the years ahead, as the pool of available talent continues to shrink. As Vic Speers, director of talent management at Hudson, says: “The second war for talent is brewing. Young and talented employees are increasingly rare in an ageing population where more people retire every year than join the workforce.

“The upshot is that organisations are finding it increasingly difficult and expensive to buy in talent. I advise organisations to spend 80% of their efforts and focus on developing internal talent and 20% on looking for new recruits. This will involve a shift from today’s situation where the split is usually more like 20/80.”

Put simply, it will not be enough to invest time and focus in talent management. If you want to win this second war for talent, you need to innovate in the way you provide learning and development. Karen Ward, principal consultant in strategic change at Bath Consultancy Group, says: “There’s nothing that will turn off high potentials more than a standardised approach. Any learning and development of talent has to be individually tailored.”

Speers adds this advice: “Don’t be afraid to go beyond traditional training. Our research has shown that high potential employees respond much better to mentoring and coaching than they do to more traditional forms of training. For example the Bio-Industry Association recently set up a mentoring programme between its member companies. In the world of talent management it’s a pretty revolutionary move, and the benefits to all involved have been enormous.”

In the future L&D departments will be the guardians of the talent management process. It is a challenging role, but one that is vital for the success of their organisations. Ultimately, if you don’t provide your talented people with opportunities then someone else will.

Case study: Royal & Sun Alliance

Royal & Sun Alliance (R&SA) provides insurance to 20 million customers in 130 countries, and it employs 24,000 people worldwide. In recent years, it experienced a significant downturn in performance and brought in a new top management team to turn the business around.

During this turnaround R&SA’s senior managers were heavily focused on delivery against targets. Once turnaround had been achieved the business realised it needed to invest in leadership development and build a talent pipeline.

So, it brought in a management consultancy, the Berkshire Consultancy, to work with R&SA’s board and its head of learning & development. Following an intensive assessment process, a group of 13 high potential managers was selected.

Sue Young, principal consultant at Berkshire Consultancy, says: “We identified two main areas for development – strategic thinking capability and leadership style. To address these needs we designed an innovative programme based on action learning principles. It comprised four modules over a nine-month period. Participants attended day-long workshops and were assigned to real-life strategic projects in areas outside their usual scope of responsibility.”

Forty-six per cent of participants were granted increased responsibilities within four months of completing the programme. “The programme was an example of exceptionally effective learning,” says Karen Hobbs, UK executive development manager at R&SA. “It has had immediate and noticeable benefits for the wider business.”

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