So you’ve got the talent on board, but how do you win their
hearts and minds? Organisations are developing a range of approaches to
motivate and retain potential star performers including schemes to accelerate
the careers of high-flyers and sophisticated new forms of succession planning.
Sally O’Reilly reports
Winning the talent war isn’t just a matter of persuading the best people to
join you – it’s about keeping them too. Stopping them from walking out the door
as soon as they get a better offer is a specialist skill in itself – and to
succeed, firms need to understand exactly what it is that talented people want.
The message from them is that rather than a job for life, they want help with
their long-term career. So (with alarm bells ringing) a link is established
between training and developing talented performers and retaining them.
The good news – particularly in a recession – is that paying big bucks to
your best people is the least effective way of winning their loyalty. "Pay
doesn’t work as a means of retaining staff," says Claire Wilson, a
consultant specialising in talent management at Penna Consulting Group.
"If you pay staff to stay, and that’s all that’s keeping them, all another
company has to do is offer them more. Anyone can do that."
Instead, it is essential to bond your talented players to the organisation
by offering them meaningful and useful career development, and plenty of
opportunities to prove themselves. Rather than going for old-fashioned
succession planning, in which the loyalty of graduates and other high-flyers is
assured because they know they will ascend to a leadership role, companies need
to offer ‘career pathing’ to this group.
"Career pathing is about giving staff support and guidance, instead of
just saying everyone is responsible for their own career and leaving them to
get on with it, which was the trend in the 1990s," says Ken Rowe, joint
managing director at YSC Consulting.
"That means introducing a range of measures to support this – coaching,
mentoring, experience on community projects, and so on. It’s about helping them
use the organisation to acquire skills, and giving them sophisticated
This is borne out in research by Henley Management College. A recent survey,
Managing Talent, found high-flyers put self-fulfilment, sense of achievement
and enjoyment of work top of their wish-list.
But Tim Osborn-Jones of Henley’s HR and organisational behaviour faculty,
warns they are not easily bought with work placements masquerading as
meaningful career development. "There is a lot of justified cynicism
around in relation to the nature of the career development high talent staff
are given," he says. "If it’s narrowly focused around a project, and
not widely relevant, it doesn’t motivate staff in the same way."
Paul Rodgers, HR director at IBM UK, agrees. High performers need a range of
systems in place if they are to work happily, he believes – and real challenges
are vital. "There are several factors which are nothing to do with
salary," he says. "The nature of the job, the management style of the
organisation. the development available and the other benefits they
Large blue chips like IBM are fortunate in that they can offer a wide
variety of posts to staff – and Rodgers thinks they should exploit that.
"We do offer staff a lot of variety at IBM," he says. "In my own
case, I’ve worked in programming, project management, sales and HR in the past
14 years. There are also a number of European outlets based here, and staff can
apply for jobs in Europe via our centralised application system."
One of the problems facing organisations today, however, is that many staff
don’t stay for 14 years, as Rodgers has done. Most, in fact, will only be
around for three years at the most. So isn’t investing in the career
development of this group just throwing money down the drain?
Occupational psychologist Jill Flint-Taylor, a managing consultant at the
Robertson Cooper consultancy, says the most radical approach to this is to
forget about company boundaries altogether.
"Some US firms are developing the ‘career resilience’ of staff,"
she says. "This means developing employability for high talent staff. It
started with Sun Microsystems in California – it developed a career action
centre, which set about developing people for the IT industry as a whole, not
just for the company." This is an idea explored by Generation X guru Bruce
Tulgan in his book Winning the Talent Wars.
Nurturing talent for the community at large demands an enlightened attitude
bordering on altruism – but Taylor-Flint says it can pay off. "Even if
people don’t stay with your organisation, if they feel they have been treated
well, they may well come back at a later stage."
Not all firms will be convinced by this argument, but it’s clear they do
have to offer staff a career path that enables them to develop transferable
skills. Steve Newhall, head of business development for the UK at DDI, a
consultancy specialising in selection and leadership, says one of the most
effective ways of offering this to staff is through ‘acceleration pools’ – a
re-invention of succession management.
These differ from traditional succession management techniques as they are
open-ended, as well as giving those involved a large degree of choice. Firms
develop a pool of high-potential people for executive jobs, and they are given
‘stretch’ jobs and special assignments.
They are also assigned a mentor and given special training. The staff being
developed take a lot of responsibility for the scheme – for instance, they fill
out all the paperwork – but they also have ongoing support.
This is exactly the sort of system oil firm Chevron Texaco has introduced.
The company now has a personal development committee working across the
15,000-strong organisation, which looks at succession planning across every
business unit, and develops leadership competencies throughout the group. After
the recent merger, the firm selected a group of 12 high-potential staff from
the legacy company Texaco, who were chosen for their leadership skills – such
as emotional intelligence, and strategic ability. "The aim was to plant
seeds to develop leaders for the future," says organisational
effectiveness consultant Linda Bullen.
Over the past year, the group has been through a systematic acceleration
process, running workshops on issues such as leading change and coaching
skills, and action learning sessions, in which participants discussed real
issues encountered at work.
"These were triggers for creativity, which developed people’s thinking
about the work they were bringing to the group," says Bullen. "The
aim was to get them to actively seek more challenging projects for
themselves." Reactions have been positive – a quarter of the group has
been promoted since the project began and all have stayed with the
Assessing the potential of internal staff only works if firms have a
systematic approach, and keep up to date with the development of staff. But
many don’t even know who they employ, according to Brenda Wilson, senior
consultant, performance and reward, at William M Mercer.
Wilson believes the best companies are those with the best information.
"One global automobile company has a database of talent, and has a
systematic process for identifying talent," she says.
Not having such information is a particular drawback during recession,
Wilson warns. Research by Mercer Manage- ment has shown firms pay a high price
if they don’t target staff whose talents are no longer needed by the firm when
running a redundancy programme.
"Only one in three companies which offered voluntary redundancies in
the last recession were profitable five years after the recession had
ended," she points out. "If you don’t know where your talent lies,
you could cut 10 per cent of your staff and lose 100 per cent of your
However, firms should beware of fostering high potential in such a
single-minded way that the rest of the company feels like overworked
Cinderellas, warns Newhall. "You can demotivate others if the high-flyer
programme is communicated badly," he says.
"Two things are likely to demotivate the rest of the staff – not
understanding what you have to do to be one of those people, and not
communicating the fact that being accepted into this group doesn’t mean you
will accede to a particular role. A high-flyer programme needs to work in
tandem with staff development throughout the organisation."
Organisations which get this right are more likely to hang on to talented
performers at all levels. US-based conglomerate GE (formerly General Electric)
is well known for its emphasis on people, and keeps track of its high-flyers,
managing them centrally and even laying on round-table discussion groups with
the CEO to keep them on their toes.
But Mike Hanley, senior HR manager, GE Europe, says all staff benefit from
this culture. "It is important to include the whole workforce," he
"GE has its Valued 70, who are the bedrock of the company – good people
at the core of the business. Our management style is informal, with an
open-door policy, where people can talk to their manager at any time."
Wilson says this is all part of ‘talent segmentation’. "This is when an
organisation decides what it means by talented people in terms of its own
strategy and business needs," she says. "It means looking at the
different groups the organisation needs, which could include high-potential
talent – critical staff they can’t live without – and scarce resources, such as
people who are hard to replace because they can’t get them on the jobs
So, there you have it. Know your staff, get under the skin of your talented
performers, and try to be flexible enough to give them what they want. But, at
the most basic level, it’s vital to use those talents from day one.
"The classic mistake organisations make is to take on high-flying
graduates then not give them any work for 12 months," says Ellen O’Mahony
of specialist consultancy Kenexa. "High talent people are only satisfied
if they have achieved."