As many as 75% of UK organisations don’t have a clearly defined talent management strategy in place, according to recent research from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, despite the wealth of theory and practice – not to mention consultancies – that already exist in this area.
For some firms, the problem is one of identification: not knowing what talent they are looking for, nor where to find it in the first place, sometimes even when it’s staring them in the face. For others, the term ‘talent management’ is little more than a corporate cliché.
“Whenever I hear the pairing of the words ‘harnessing’ and ‘talent,’ I feel like weeping,” says Julia Middleton, founder of leadership consultancy Common Purpose, which works with a wide range of organisations and individuals across the business, voluntary, education and political sectors.
“At a time of recession, it’s very tempting for all of us to become risk-averse both in terms of people and ideas, but as every previous downturn has shown us, what we will desperately need when this curve begins to turn up again are clever leaders who can think more broadly than most and come up with fantastic ideas,” Middleton says.
“The very last thing we need in a recession is a culture of harnessing something as precious as talent,” she adds.
Many HR teams also have an issue promoting a clear talent policy because they have an inherent desire for fair play, according to Charles Bethell-Fox, deputy managing director of leadership development consultancy Personnel Decisions International.
“HR professionals like to be able to offer development to everyone in the organisation, and they want that development to be equal and even-handed,” he says. “But it’s not always possible to spread your talent policy that widely.
“We believe that it’s essential for most firms to concentrate their efforts and investment on the pivotal roles – the roles that will have a direct impact on the business metrics that each individual client cares about most,” Bethell-Fox says. “Whether it’s a new distribution method or better customer service, those individual metrics will vary from organisation to organisation,” he adds.
Middleton, however, doesn’t agree. “All of us should have our development needs assessed on an individual basis, and it’s not always helpful when organisations pick out only a small pool of people for detailed attention,” she says.
“Although I must stress that development should never become a sausage machine, the aim should always be to get as many people involved as possible.”
Fleur Deeson, project manager for the volunteering organisation VSO, has recently had personal experience of the talent management industry via the Navigator programme for emerging leaders, launched by Common Purpose.
Deeson, whose contract with VSO ends next March, will, along with 49 other emerging leaders in sectors as diverse as banking and the health service, attend her final session later this month. By this time, she will have clocked up more than 50 hours’ coaching on a range of topics such as ‘Leading beyond your authority’, and ‘Producing change beyond your direct circle of control’.
“I wanted to do the programme to build up my networks and gain more confidence,” she says. “I need to persuade older and more experienced VSO colleagues to do lots of different things for our anniversary – which isn’t always easy – and Navigator has really enabled me to do that. But I have also learned that there is a big world out there, and it’s important for VSO not to restrict itself solely to input – via its external speakers programme, for example – from the voluntary sector.”
She adds: “Having been in this sector for my entire career, I may now even have the confidence to enter a whole different world once my contract comes to an end.”
If Deeson does decide to take up a career in a new field, will VSO have wasted the money (the full cost is about £3,000 per person, but Deeson’s place was heavily subsidised) it paid to Common Purpose?
No, says Middleton. She believes that any organisation that wishes to retain employees by refusing to develop them for fear of them being poached, is barking up the wrong tree.
“When it comes to bringing out the best in your younger workers, for example, it is vital to understand that many of them have to be encouraged to look outwards as well as upwards for their career development,” she says. “If they do decide to leave you, it’s not to say that they won’t come back at a later stage, bringing exactly the right experience and talent that you crave.”
SHL UK, a leading psychometric testing firm, claims that as many as 70% of large organisations use psychometric testing to measure the performance and potential of staff. Does James Bywater, head psychologist at SHL, accept Middleton’s proposition that UK firms rely too heavily on such assessments? Definitely not.
“If anything, I think organisations should carry out more assessments, not fewer, and should have better access to the kinds of accurate data that they provide,” he says.
“I accept that performance is easier to measure than leadership potential, but you do have to find a way of doing so. If you are a large organisation looking to measure the potential of 10, 100 or even 1,000 individuals at different sites around the world, you have to use a process that enables you to compare like with like, and that’s where psychometrics comes in.
“It isn’t perfect and it can fall down in regard to qualities such as integrity and honesty, but for now, it’s the best system we have,” Bywater adds.
But, once again, Common Purpose takes a different view. “Think back to your school days when teachers claimed to be able to spot potential brilliance, and consider what those very people are doing now,” says Middleton. “The problem is that the ability to identify the one in 10 people who will become a fantastic leader of other human beings is very rare indeed, and is too often left to the measuring of competencies like the ability to add up or be good with technology. But the ability to persuade other people is an art, not a science, and simply cannot be measured as if we are little more than machines.
“By restricting your potential leadership search to those few people who have the ability to pass tests, in the long run, you might overlook the very leaders your organisation needs.”