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Talent management strategies

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Talent management may still be high on the board agenda of most large companies these days, but the reason for this focus has changed over recent years. Why is this?

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In the past, talent management was all about “managing risk” according to Lesley Uren, a senior client partner at management consultancy Korn Ferry Hay Group (KFHG). This meant the emphasis was on ensuring that effective succession planning processes were in place for high-level and critical roles.

But over the last three to five years, there has been a shift in the “mood music”, she says. On the one hand, the term ‘talent management’ has broadened out to mean not just people in senior positions or those with high potential but the workforce in its widest sense.

On the other, pressure has been mounting at board level as senior leaders become increasingly concerned about potential industry disruption and what it is likely to mean both for the organisation and the sector in which it operates.

“Talent has grown from a debate about whether we have the right risk processes in place to a sense of almost ‘if we don’t get our capability right, given the massive disruption that’s going on, we could face questions about sustainability’,” Uren says. “So the question for HR is whether you can reassure the board that you have the right set of capabilities in place for the organisation to survive and thrive.”

Carol Williams, director of leadership development at the Full Potential Group, also believes there has been “a huge shift towards strategic talent management and development” over the last few years.

But she points out that it is no longer enough for HR directors or heads of talent to simply ensure that the right people are in the right roles today. Instead it is also becoming increasingly important to find ways to “future-proof” talent in a world in which “it’s hard to define what future roles, skills and capabilities will be required”, Williams adds.

As a result of this situation, “in the best companies, talent is seen as being a business agenda item rather than just an HR one”, she says.

Focus and prioritise

Sectors particularly good at taking this approach are those that have already suffered heavy disruption themselves such as financial services, telecoms and the cosmetics industry. But while large businesses across the board are getting better at linking their talent and business strategies, too many are still taking a scattergun approach and attempting to be good at everything.

KFHG’s Uren explains: “There are 17 different aspects of talent management such as recruitment and learning and development, but you can’t be good at all of them. So it’s vital to align what you’re doing with the challenges the business is facing.”

For example, if an organisation is struggling to grow in its core markets and is keen to solve the problem by going for international expansion through merger and acquisition, it would likely make sense to focus on the recruitment of new talent to help it get there – while also developing existing capabilities internally in order to deal with any staff turnover issues, she points out.

All too often though, HR directors feel they need to take a certain route simply because their peers are, or “benchmark themselves as being at a gold standard for everything” because that is what has been done historically.

But Uren warns: “This approach won’t serve you well in the future, so you have to learn to be more discriminating in what you’re driving for and what you invest in. It’s also important to get better at understanding what people value, which research has shown HR traditionally isn’t very good at.”

Jo Taylor, global talent director at HR consultancy Let’s Talk Talent, agrees. She points out that it is impossible to make sound investment decisions if the organisation’s talent plan is not aligned with its business strategy.

“When I was a talent director, we reviewed the talent and business strategy every year and our investment and priorities came out of that”, Taylor says. “It meant that our executives focused on our people rather than just money, and it also gave us metrics to deliver against.”

While most large companies these days tend to create centres of expertise to focus on talent rather than expect HR directors to do everything, in Taylor’s experience, these functions tend to work more effectively at the regional rather than ‘group’ level.

“Rather than ‘group’ setting the agenda for the regions to activate, innovation tends to happen at a more local, regional or brand level – the reason is that they have to be more aligned to the business strategy as chief executives here are generally renumerated against it,” she explains.

Becoming more sophisticated

But such an approach can prove inefficient. “The talent function should take a more holistic approach and work more horizontally,” Taylor says. “Ideally the group talent director should set the agenda at the top and then coordinate with regional talent directors to make it happen.”

The benefits of this approach are twofold. Firstly, group talent directors are in a better position to have a global overview of the business, thus making it easier to spot, for example, if a high potential worker would benefit from being placed elsewhere in the world – and making it happen without becoming bogged down in local politics.

Secondly, taking this tack makes it possible to standardise processes such as performance management and leadership training, which “even from a procurement point of view would save hundreds of thousands of dollars”, Taylor adds.

In other words, HR and talent directors need to become more sophisticated in the way they respond to changes in the market – and this has certainly been the case at Japanese high tech company, Fujitsu.

According to Sarah Brampton, head of leadership capability at Fujitsu Europe, Middle East and Africa, the company started shifting its talent management focus about 12 months ago in order to reflect huge changes that had been taking place in the industry.

Over the last couple of years, the firm’s business model had moved from undertaking large, long-term outsourcing deals to fix IT problems to fulfilling shorter-term contracts that involve sorting out business problems using technology.

“The way we interact with customers has completely changed and, as a result, the skills we require are different too. So our talent strategy has had to shift at all levels as the context has shifted,” Brampton says.

While in the past, the organisation focused on offering specific talent programmes to key groups such as graduates and senior leaders, it is now “looking at talent with a small ‘t’” and is aiming to foster “leadership capabilities” across the entire workforce.

The difference between survival and failure

“I took over my current role in April due to a realisation that, while the work we were doing in talent management was valued, it only touched a small percentage of the population,” Brampton says. “But as we all have our part to play, everyone needs to have the right skills both now and into the future as you can’t just rely on a small percentage of people to keep you afloat.”

As a result, the current goal is to ensure that “everyone understands what great leadership looks like in a digital age – even if they aren’t a leader themselves at this point, they should be holding their leaders to account. Great leadership is about taking responsibility and it’s the difference between survival and failure”, she explains.

KFHG’s Uren agrees. She advocates undertaking capability rather than replacement-based succession planning, which means ensuring that the right skills are in place to support the organisation’s current and future business strategy. In other words, it is about building up talent pools in certain key areas such as customer experience and developing the necessary leadership capabilities within them.

Meanwhile, Uren also recommends taking a more person-centric rather than process-based approach to talent management. This involves ensuring that managers understand the goals and ambitions of their employees and how they fit in with business strategy. The idea here is that by helping staff realise their aims within the organisational context, they will be more productive, motivated and engaged. Another key concept here is employee wellbeing.

“In the past, we thought about talent management as a process based on steps that delivered an outcome as we generally managed people as if they were a risk or an asset,” Uren says. “But we’re now saying it’s vital to put individuals at the centre and take lessons from design thinking on what experience we want them to have so that we can engineer it for them.”

Taking this kind of tack can lead to the prioritisation of very different things to the past such as career support over more general business planning, but it can also deliver remarkable results, she adds.

Nonetheless, Uren also warns that, in her experience, the biggest barriers to change frequently come not so much from the business but from the HR department itself.

“The desire for change generally comes from the board, but the first line of resistance is often HR. So we need to look at ourselves, see why that resistance is there and reframe our thinking to enable us to let go of some things that are no longer working and keep hold of others that are,” she concludes.


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