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How can talent management help you retain and promote the best in your business?

Naysan Firoozmand, Managing Consultant, ASK Europe plc
In September 2010, People Management magazine published an interview with Orlagh Hunt, group HR director at the RSA InsuranceGroup, in which she said: “We know that people show up in a new company wanting to engage. Very few people think, ‘I’m going to do as little as humanly possible and be as destructive as I can’. They start off thinking this is a shining new opportunity, and then the job they do, the leader they get, the environment they’re in either translates that optimism into having a great time and doing a great job, or not quite so much.”Naysan-HR

It’s striking how rarely we hear an organisation recognise that the newly recruited are, at least initially, as optimistic about their working future as the organisation, and only slightly less rare that we see an organisation talking about how that future may turn out for them in terms of its own responsibilities. Yet optimism, opportunity and how often people experience them are central to talent retention and development. It’s not only in romantic novels that blissful engagements lead to sudden jilting and cancellations, and organisations are easier to leave than suitors.

Recruitment is not always that starting point, of course. Zircon Management Consulting’s recent report, The Future of Talent Management, pointed out that a majority of business, HR and talent leaders all report that their organisation is more likely to develop existing talent than recruit new talent. Yet a significant 35% report the opposite, suggesting that they could do more to develop and retain key talents than at present. Indeed, research undertaken in 2011 by Orlagh Hunt’s parent group found that 55% of executives say the industry does not give adequate consideration to retaining top talent. Where recruitment is the chosen option, there are other pitfalls.

Two that deserve to be highlighted are firstly, a tendency to focus on searching for high level competency rather than looking for potential and secondly, an employee value proposition that is not only informed by a clear understanding of the factors that motivate the engagement and loyalty of current staff, but which is clear about the organisation’s culture and future strategy and the opportunities that new recruits may be able to pursue.

In selecting a new position, employees are choosing a significant element of their future: clarity about its nature can only bebeneficial to both parties.

And assessing potential is no more the end of a process than recruitment. Those who are identified as ‘talent’ or ‘high potential’ may initially be pleased or flattered, but – unless the organisation wishes to issue tacit promises that it may not keep – their anticipation will be that development and progression will follow. Talent and potential are keys to opportunities, and those that do not then receive them will be aware from their organisation’s assessment of them that they will be of value to other bidders. An organisation’s assessments of potential should not be allowed to act as preliminary selection processes for their competitors.

Strategic talent management (TM) is not a series of isolated activities – recruitment, assessment, development, progression, succession planning – but a total process that must also be closely aligned with the organisation’s business strategy. An organisation that identifies talent and potential must also think through the outcomes of doing so: if the identification process is not followed through with activities that develop the identified potential, the business is unlikely to achieve either its TM aims or its broader business goals. It will not see the benefits that it might seek – and the individual will not see them either. There is a critical point here: while the overall business strategy provides a guiding framework for the TM strategy, the development process is often focused on the individual rather than on seeing ‘talent’ as a homogenous group of people. (The power of mentoring and coaching as individually-focussed developmental inputs is also often overlooked.) To both develop and retain talent, organisations must triangulate their business objectives, their TM practices and the ambitions of the individuals they identify for development and progression. Ambitions, after all, can be fulfilled elsewhere: where theyfall out of line with organisational opportunities, that “not quite so much” can easily become a nagging question with more than one potential answer.

This individual focus may help organisations to avoid repeating common failings of TM strategies: identifying potential but forgetting to follow through by developing it; remembering to develop potential but forgetting or failing to provide opportunities within the business to expand individual experience, broaden scope and understanding, and to provide opportunities to demonstrate that development inputs have borne fruit. Remembering that talent and potential reside first and foremost in individuals can also help organisations to avoid making misguided – and over-optimistic – assumptions about how engaged their ‘high potentials’ may be feeling.

A Harvard Business Review article in May 2010 showed that 25% intend to leave within a year, 20% believe their personal aspirations are different from their organisation’s plans for them, 33% admit to not putting all their effort into their job, and 40% have little confidence in their co-workers and even less confidence in the senior team. To assume someone’s engagement can be to take them for granted, and the best antidotes to this are clear communication of talent strategies and activities, transparency around opportunities and expectations, and paying careful on-going attention to aspects that directly affect the individual – job design, working environment, available support and the on-going alignment of career ambitions and organisational strategy. Where a fork in the road lies ahead, the time to discuss and make decisions is before you reach it.

TM is multi-stranded, and requires ‘joined-up thinking’ to be truly effective. It is also not cost-free: the different aspects and activities we have outlined above cannot be delivered without investing both time and money. In common with learning and development, TM is likely to come under increasing budgetary pressure. The Zircon report showed that less than 40% of leaders believed they would have sufficient budget to promote, attract or retain talent over the next three years. Yet, while most regularly survey employee engagement, few organisations even attempt to measure ROI on their talent activities, and this lack of measurement weakens the business case that TM must make to secure its own future.