Talent management - what do you want to be remembered for?

Written by
Changeboard Team

05 Jan 2011

05 Jan 2011 • by Changeboard Team

Your people are imperative

We hear a lot about the challenges that HR directors are facing in the current economic climate, but organisations need to solve a critical strategic issue that can only be tackled by the combined efforts of the CEO, leadership group and HR team working together.

Understandably, the most senior decision-makers in the business have had other concerns keeping them awake at night recently, such as cutting costs and delivering positive results. But for the majority of organisations the only asset that will enable them to deliver on future ambitious and challenging business plans is “people”.

There is a clear case for making sure that as many people in the organisation as possible are engaged and motivated. But as we stand on the edge of economic recovery, it’s the people who have the potential to really make a significant impact within the organisation that should be considered first.

When senior executives walk

For organisations operating in the public sector, which potentially face a very challenging year of cost-cutting and efficiency driving, engaging the best people will be a priority to deliver those challenges.

While the HR director will certainly drive the value of the people in the organisation, the CEO and leadership team, pressured by the shareholders’ demands to focus on ROI and profit, often haven’t the space or the time to prioritise this. All too often the value that great employees bring to the balance sheet is overlooked while other priorities take precedence. In fact, great performers should be viewed as a strategic asset on the balance sheet.

But what if they leave for a competitor? Overnight, the development invested in them, the business knowledge and perhaps even valuable insights into customers are lost. Now imagine that the person leaving is the number two role, just below the CEO, the impact of that departure goes beyond the obvious cost of replacement.

How committed are top performers?

It's often only when key people leave and the perception of the organisation suffers, that the critical importance of an effective talent management strategy really hits home. For most of the past year, the jobs market has been fairly stagnant and static, but we saw an improvement in 2010 and expect this trend to continue.

The key question to ask is whether the best performers in the organisations have simply been hanging around, grateful to have a job, or if they are really committed to the organisation? Could they, in fact, be about to abandon ship?

CEOs and leadership teams should be looking at their future business plans and asking whether they have the resources to deliver them. They should look beyond the traditional aspects of planning, and challenge themselves: “Do we have the talent needed to deliver our future success?”. This again is about behaviour – everyone has to be prepared to have the difficult conversations if they’re going to make this work – not just the HRD.

Identifying top performers

But where to start? The top talent is defined by two key groups; high performers and high potentials. Nothing can be done without knowing exactly which employees fall into these categories. But that is not enough; what do you know about them? What really motivates them and what are their development needs and desires? What actually gets them out of bed each day? What do they want to achieve in the organisation?

High performers and high potentials are traditionally identified through performance appraisal systems. Any good HR process will have a clear matrix of competencies and performance indicators that will identify strong performance – exactly what’s needed now more than ever. These processes often cover basic hygiene factors, such as how long staff have with the organisation or in the role, how competent they are at their job and gut feel on potential. But to really add value, this process has to go far beyond box ticking.

Engaging the best talent

To really keep great people, you need more than a mechanical process to monitor performance. It has to go much further. Adding a robust, scientific process to validate your findings is a pre-requisite. Only then can you establish: what are the ambitions of the best performers? Where do they want to be? So often feedback from exit interviews shows that money and financial reward were not the main instigator for leaving, rather that no one listened to them or made them feel valued. The relationship with their line manager and more senior colleagues can make or break this engagement.

Real engagement is derived from genuine dialogue. Gathering knowledge and information about the top talent within the organisation is the first step, but is only halfway there. There’s no point in having all that information if it is not acted on. And this is where the proactive work of the leadership team and CEO can make a difference.

Make talent a top priority

The best organisations have talent as a regular Board agenda item. If this is not the case, keeping the top talent engaged is much harder. This regular session enables the identification of suitable opportunities to keep senior talent stretched and learning - as so often they are looking for challenges. Having established who the key people to the business are, they need to be given business critical roles to make the best of them and keep them engaged.

Those employees with the most potential should be the ones in high impact roles. Is there a clear identification of these roles in the organisation? If not, there needs to be to gain the maximum return on investment in the best people.

It’s also the best opportunity to get the best people’s names in front of the senior decision makers. The CEO, and the senior leadership team all have roles to play in engaging high performing and high potential staff; from face-to-face meetings when they are in their offices or locations, to lunches and assignments. Imagine the power of the CEO making time in their diary to meet with someone two levels below identified as a high performer.

The impact this recognition will have is significant, and it’s an opportunity for some of the best performing people to get their voice heard. Creating mentor or coaching roles for senior colleagues and the executive team will help drive up performance of the best even further, and build the relationship between them and the top team. HR directors have the power and remit to push this process down the line, but it is up to the CEO and leadership team to drive this work. The top talent will give a great deal in terms of productivity and results, but they will expect just as much back.

An opportunity for HR to add real value

The difficult and turbulent last eighteen months have seen the HR team earn their stripes while successfully dealing with redundancies and re-structures. Now the function is perfectly placed to build on these foundations by adding real value to the organisation though great talent management.

Organisations are often afraid of opening up this process and making it fully transparent, fearing a backlash from staff that are not selected for special treatment. But this must be one of the foundations of the process. Line managers and senior staff should not be afraid of holding difficult conversations, particularly after the turbulence of 2009. By implementing a fully open and transparent system for selection, people will understand why others have been chosen and not themselves.

Undertaking the process behind closed doors will encourage people to regard it with suspicion and mistrust, believing it to be some kind of executive old boys’ network. In fact, being honest about selection criteria will help people understand what they should all be working towards and how objective the process is.

How will you know all this is working? It’s difficult to know exactly how far engaged the whole workforce is. Traditional company-wide employee surveys are good at giving a broad-brush picture of how the whole  organisation is feeling, but lack critical detail when it comes down to individuals, which is why the relationship with management is so important. Ultimately, if the best people are being properly engaged, they won’t be leaving.

A collaborative approach to talent

Organisations that have ignored their top people in the face of more pressing threats must kick-start this process of identification and dialogue before the best people they have walk out of the door for good. We may not quite be back to the old days of the War for Talent, but we’re certainly fighting to keep our greatest assets.

A team approach with the HR director, leadership team and CEO working together consistently will leave a legacy for future leadership capability. Those organisations where great people are engaged and valued will be the success stories of the future.