News & Insight
June 2007

Key Drivers of Successful Talent Management

We know of no business or organization that believes it has an adequate or sufficient cadre of leaders. Building a sophisticated and high impact approach to strategic talent development is, in fact, a very challenging matter, one that few organizations plan and execute effectively. It involves getting several dimensions or aspects right at the onset, and is far more complex an issue than selecting assessment tools, for example, or defining lists of competencies or building a common vocabulary: At the end of the day it is actually a fundamental element and driver for defining an organization’s core business culture.

In the last issue of the WJManagement Advisor, we discussed the need to build the actual competence of a company’s high potential executives, rather than wringing our hands over building better competency models or “truly integrated HR systems”. We advocated using feedback, executive coaching and proactive assignment management to develop skills and drive behaviors that have been found to be most relevant to achieving the organization’s bottom line goals.

There is a compelling business case for effectively managing the development and career experiences of senior talent: Organizations that focus intensively on developing leaders, in fact, build higher levels of employee engagement, commitment and trust. More importantly, they achieve higher levels of business performance as measured by customer satisfaction metrics, market share, and traditional financial performance indicators, including, ultimately more distinctive financial valuation outcomes relative to their competitors.

The largest practice discrepancies between high performing and average or poorly performing organizations appear to be in the area of how experiential development assignments are managed. Most acknowledged winners with high talent development profiles and “brand reputations” use assignments aggressively— and at twice the rate of other companies or firms.

Unfortunately what is known about effective assignment management tends to be more art than science! Nonetheless, the point is that best practice companies work hard to build an understanding and consensus about the key challenges associated with particular positions – and make explicit what they believe to be the key development experiences therein. Perhaps more importantly, they think through and develop a strategy for talent assignments that is systematic vs. reactive, and one that is aligned with an overall game plan for building those leadership requirements and core competencies considered essential to the organization’s longer-term growth plans.

It is quite clear that one important differentiator between organizations that build talent development reputations and "also rans" can be summed up in one phase: they do something with the data and the process! (i.e., the talent review processes actually drive important decisions about people – vs. bureaucratic forms and color codes or static succession plans).

Other examples from “best practice” companies include identifying key positions in which past experience has demonstrated that they afford incumbents important learning opportunities or training grounds -- and then ensuring that high potentials are appointed to those as a priority (e.g., “blockers” or “seasoned pros” are not allowed to “clog the arteries” within such companies).

Also, an overwhelming body of research clearly indicates the value and utility of accurate and heightened self-awareness. This means providing honest and objective feedback, in the context of a supportive and high-trust confidential relationship, such as with an external executive coach. From a recipient’s point of view, this type of useful feedback is a rare phenomenon in corporate life – and, it seems all the more so at higher levels.

Furthermore, we know from both a research, as well as an experience-based point of view – virtually every leader, emerging and experienced, has strengths and limitations that interact in interesting and complex ways with situational demands and requirements. It is important to differentiate talent on the basis of sustained performance, not just recent experience. Potential is best demonstrated in performance in different situations, in different assignments and with different managers. Again, reflective action learning, coupled with an honest assessment of strengths and development needs are critical steps to capitalizing on the individual’s unique strengths/limitations profile.

While it is always challenging to figure a way to ensure that all levels of an organization are positively engaged in healthy talent identification/development paradigm, one critical factor is to simplify the processes and practices. This is reflected, for example, in Bossidy’s recent writings on the need for very brief one page performance reviews, and Hollenbeck and McCall’s assault on overly complex competency profiles (vs. core competence). And the vast literature on leadership has been summarized productively and heuristically around a relatively short list of factors that have clearly and empirically demonstrated to truly matter when it comes to building high performing teams that sustain high performance.

It is understood that successful performance is usually a complex matter – competencies that are strengths in certain situations become liabilities or derailers in others. All strengths have a “dark side.” And it is folly for organizations to develop a “chosen few” syndrome, just as much as it is to take a passive approach to jump-shifting the learnings and personal growth of those who are earning the right to be considered “up-and-comers”.

Finally, our experience strongly supports the notion that the most important enabler to a strategic talent management program’s success is effective leadership and support at the top (i.e., CEO, Board of Directors). There is simply no substitute for the leader in the corner office to be actively involved in talent discussions, aggressively challenging “calls,” articulating higher standards, reinforcing well considered selection and placement decisions, and insisting the talent development is a strategic priority and that talent, per se, is truly a strategic resource that is not to be managed parochially (e.g., “around here we hide our best talent from corporate and only pass on our turkeys;” or, “I never hire someone better than myself;”).

It is also true that in best practice companies it is well understood that success is more than just a matter of identifying high performers (which in actuality turns out to be relatively easy!) Instead there is a discipline and focus on identifying leaders with demonstrated learning agility, as well as professionals whose values are aligned with the organization’s culture (again usually defined by the character and belief system of the CEO).

In summary, the key levers for ensuring the evolution of successful talent management systems are:

  1. Articulating compelling line-of-sight strategic business goals and objectives, and crafting a people development strategy that is aligned,
  2. Aggressive assignment management
  3. Developing much more rigorously “scrubbed” assessment data (and from multiple sources and observers, and from sustained performance in high visibility roles),
  4. Engaging (not bureaucratic) supporting processes
  5. More reflective action learning (a key deliverable of well executed coaching programs);
  6. Making sure all of these levers align with and demonstrate a direct linkage to compelling business goals;
  7. Keeping it simple; and
  8. Intrusive support from the top of the organization.

Ed Piccolino is a member of WJM Associates' executive coaching and organizational effectiveness faculty, and was formerly senior HR officer at Pepsi International, EMI Music and Kodak Polychrome Graphics; and Executive Vice President of The Empower Group, Manpowe Inc’s foray into human resources consulting.

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