The Five Critical Phases of Executive Talent Management

It’s often said that the most important part of any HR initiative is support from senior leaders. The same is true of executive talent management. While HR has to bring programs and tools to the table, the CEO and his or her senior team have to fully embrace the process for it to work. And senior leaders are more likely to have meaningful conversations if the company has built a balanced and integrated executive talent management strategy.

All companies are looking for the same leadership outcomes – a compelling vision and strategy, a motivated and inspired workforce, and the ability to identify and develop the next generation of leaders. So if everyone understands that great leaders make a difference, why is it that so many companies fail to identify and develop an adequate leadership bench? Why is there a shortage of experienced, battle-tested business executives? Simply put, most companies don’t put forth the effort to make it happen.

It’s not for lack of knowledge – HR systems and processes for developing executive talent management plans are well documented and readily available. No, this is an issue of execution. Many companies waste time on the wrong processes; some over-emphasize one aspect of the process at the expense of other important components. Most, however, just lack the dedication and perseverance to truly make good talent management a priority. Given what’s at stake, this is a serious error in judgment and planning.

The good news is that there are only five critical phases to executive talent management:

  1. Talent Planning & Assessment
  2. Recruiting & Onboarding
  3. Development
  4. Movement
  5. Feedback

The challenge, of course, is to integrate the phases, and to execute each of them well.

It all starts with talent planning and assessment. The organization needs a planful and organized approach to evaluating and discussing its executive talent. Where do we need leaders, now and in the future? Who’s got the potential for the next level? Who’s ready for a move? What do we do if we’re faced with unexpected attrition at the executive level? These are all questions the CEO and senior team must answer about their pipeline of leadership talent. This conversation has to be rigorous and mission critical - in other words, it has to be grounded in data and given the same priority as other important discussions like strategy or financial planning.

The talent assessment will produce a simple question: “buy vs. build?” If the organization needs executive talent that it doesn’t have, or can’t be expected to groom, it must recruit new leadership talent. This phase of the process is crucial; finding quality executives who can mesh with your culture and add immediate value is not an easy task (as evidenced by the proliferation and continued success of executive search firms). Perhaps the most overlooked component of a good talent management strategy is a strong executive onboarding process. Most companies don’t do anything at all to help the new executive get off to a fast start; they just assume they’ll be productive leaders. A well-executed onboarding program can be the key to ensuring the new executive’s success.

If the decision is to build your own pipeline of leaders, the final three phases of talent management come into play. First, the company needs to determine its formal development plan for leaders and emerging executives. How are they going to ensure that leaders get aligned around the vision and mission of the company? What exposure do they want to provide to outside best practices? How can they help executives across the company network and collaborate with one another? Again, most companies leave development to chance, or focus learning on lower level employees. This is a mistake – leaders need instruction on how to lead effectively, and can learn much from external resources or peers in the classroom.

Second, and this is the most critical phase of the entire process, the company needs to have an active, well-planned movement philosophy. Adapting to new roles is easily the best way to develop executives. The process of experiencing different business challenges, making and learning from mistakes, facing new cultures or environments, etc., is the best way to develop skills and expertise at the executive level. This isn’t new knowledge – yet most companies fail to plan for and execute moves in any systematic, organized way.

Finally, there’s feedback, which is critical to the developing executive. The type of self-reflection achieved through coaching and mentoring relationships is important as the executive absorbs the lessons of experience. Likewise, a strong performance management process can produce feedback from those who work closely with the executive to help them assess and adjust their leadership style.

Creating an integrated executive talent management system isn’t easy – it takes careful planning and strong execution. But it can be done. The companies that make executive talent management a priority are the ones that have the depth and breadth of leadership talent to face any business challenge.


Steve Arneson is a Senior Adviser at WJM Associates. Dr. Arneson will be facilitating a conversation regarding how top companies are creating integrated talent management strategies on December 5th in Vienna, VA (see below).

WJM Faculty Cabinet

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