How HR can manage talented employees?

of Managing Talented People: getting on with – and getting the best from – your
top talent, Alan Robertson and Graham Abbey, assess the best ways for HR
professionals to identify and manage talent.  Buy
this book at Amazon

HR opportunity

spite of the short-term distractions of an economic lull, identifying,
developing and retaining talented people remains a critical objective for
business success.  HR has the opportunity
to play a central role, and bring the much sought-after organisational power
and influence along with it.  Achieving
this critical business objective not only relies upon developing talent and the
managers of it, but also upon HR.

war for talent

first glance the ‘war for talent’ appears to be at a cease-fire. The battle
began in 1996 following a McKinsey report, and was fuelled by the report’s
frightening sequel in 2000, which highlighted matters were getting worse, not
better. There have been books, articles, new jobs (or at least new titles) and
organisational processes – yet calm has fallen on the battlefront.  

be deceived. The ability of a single talented individual to have a
disproportionate impact on organisational performance is the result of a
fundamental structural shift in business. 
Driven by the combination of changes in technology, the economy and
society itself, the demand for talent is here to stay.

the people who can make a difference is particularly vital in these difficult
economic times, when most organisations are concentrating on the key business
issue of where to focus their most limited resources – time and attention – to
create the largest impact. The same is true for HR, both in supporting the
business in its quest, and in managing its own workload. Identifying and
developing talent is a way to break the vicious circle of too much work and
under-achieved objectives.

article aims to offer practical advice to HR professionals.  Our view, developed in Managing Talented
People (momentum, 2003), is that winning the talent war requires action on the
front line, with managers, HR staff and the talent itself. The focus,
therefore, is on what to do and how.

to identify talent

before HR or anyone else can play a role in leveraging talent, they have to
know who the talented people are . Identification is not straightforward, as
the definition of talent within organisations is generally poorly thought
through – often relying solely on a manager’s own judgement and needs. HR can
help address this by providing a clear perspective on talent to ensure the
focus is given to the right people from the outset.

is a fuzzy concept. There is some incentive to leave it that way, allowing
managers flexibility in an often politically-charged arena. However, impacting
on organisational performance means developing the concept to make it useful
for that purpose, moving away from the inclusive but loose perspective that
‘everyone has talents’. Our definition was derived from talking to managers and
their talented people, and is summarised below.

is a talented person?

people are those expected by their managers to produce superior performances –
both now and in the future.

achieves superior performance:

Through urgent application of creativity

While demanding personal growth

With or without the support of the broader organisation

talented people is the continual management of the tensions that result from
these diverse expectations.

more precise definition of talent provides stronger clues about how to rise to
the challenges of managing it. Talent is urgent, which magnifies many of the
‘normal’ people issues as they come at you at speed.  Talent is creative, and this is psychologically linked to
independent-mindedness. Talent will know and want its own way, whether that
fits in with the organisation or not. The consequence is that talented people
are often ‘difficult people’, but ones for whom the effort is worthwhile.

drives a talented employee?

signs are helpful in spotting talent, but what are the underlying drivers? Much
work has gone into identifying the ingredients – the ‘right stuff’ – that
constitutes talent. Your organisation may take this approach or a less formal,
more personally driven ‘Robin has what it takes’ route.  Either way, research converges on three key
attributes that distinguish high performers, regardless of their field.

They are reflective thinkers – giving time to considering their choices

They know themselves – particularly the unique strengths that differentiate
them from others

They learn – especially from their mistakes

needs to insist that these markers are part of any successful identification of

ways HR can help

Once  a tightly defined group of talented people
has been established, HR can help in three main ways: through emergency
brokerage, management development and leadership. These all offer opportunities
to become actively involved in the management of talent, in a more effective
way than simply being the custodian of the definition of talent or of the
high-flyers list.  This active
involvement is the secret to HR establishing an influential set of
relationships with both talent and managers.


role is often re-active – after something has gone wrong.  When it comes to talent, events can unfold
quickly, and emergency brokerage is often required. Although managers
acknowledge that retention and acquisition of talent is a key issue, in practice
most of them will only focus their attention on this when a crisis arises.  HR can rescue the situation by understanding
how talent ticks, and by knowing the individuals involved.

will involve working with both manager and talent to broker a solution. It is
an opportunity for HR to earn credibility and work with the manager in future
to prevent further emergencies.


the individual nature of talent, managing it has to be done case by case by the
manager concerned. This takes skill, patience and leadership.  Talent is not an all or nothing thing, it
needs to be developed – and again, the manager is in the right position to do

reasons for developing talent are compelling, and summarised below.  One of the strongest contributions HR can
make is in building the manager’s capability to do this. With talented people
being prized resources in the organisation, it is politically important for
managers to manage them well. This self-interest will help give HR a lead into
supporting the manager in developing an effective approach to their talent.

this development challenge returns us to the distinguishing characteristics of
the talented – thinking, self-awareness and learning.  Managers need to promote these qualities in their talent, and
this is best achieved by HR developing the same traits in the managers.

must HR develop talented people?

Talented people influence both current and future organisational performance
more than anyone else

As superior performers, an increase in the talented person’s performance will
have the greatest impact on organisational performance

Talented people are often given the most critical projects – development is an
insurance policy against failure

Talented people have learning ability – they will take most from development

Talented people want development – they will leave the organisation to get it

Talent is a series of expectations, not a condition – it needs to be nurtured

leadership role for HR

HR can go beyond its traditional facilitative role and offer leadership
directly to the talented person. After all, this is a key corporate resource
and one where nothing should be left to chance. We believe talented people
require a particular form of leadership, which needs to do three things for

– getting ideas into action needs a strong understanding of the organisational
context, with all its complexity and political activity.  The leadership task is to help the talented
person spot the clues, to be alert to what’s really going on.

– talent has the potential to learn and the challenge is to shape their
experience and guide them through, ensuring quality feedback is received along
the way.

– talented people take on risky jobs and projects, where there will be tough
times and mistakes made. It is vital that these provide a source for
incremental learning and do not de-rail the talented from their course. Leaders
need to be a source of inspiration to achieve this.

it comes to managing talented people, the action is at the level of the
individual manager and their individual talents.  This is where the talent wars will be won or lost, in the quality
of these individual interactions. 
Managing talented people takes place in the moment, as manager and
talent succeed or fail to meet each other’s expectations.

organisations will only get better at developing and retaining their talent if
their individual managers are up to the challenge.  HR has a vital intervening role in achieving this. The
opportunity is not only to add value to the organisation, but also to be
central to the utilisation of a key corporate resource  – a powerful position, which too often
missing for HR.  Delivering this relies
heavily on the talent of the HR professional intervening appropriately and
successfully with manager and talented person. 
Talent is the secret ingredient for the organisation and for HR.

Talented People: getting on with – and getting the best from – your top
By Alan Robertson and Graham Abbey
Published by momentum
Priced £16.99
Buy this book at Amazon



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