As an HR Director, I held firm beliefs about the best ways of ‘doing’ talent management – many of which I now believe were completely mistaken! I was proud of the fact that I had implemented the full set of talent myths; I had a detailed leadership competency matrix with tons of behavioural indicators and an accompanying assessment tool to help leaders understand what they lacked. I had succession plans for all the senior roles with ‘ready now’ and ‘ready in a few years’ all documented. I had a nice expensive High Potential programme with a respected business school. All my leaders had their own personal development plan. Talent Management perfection!
I continued to deploy them with the unquestioning faith of an HR zealot, despite the lack of any real evidence that they were working. My ‘hi-po’s’ still failed to get promoted or left. My neat succession plans often failed to materialise. My leaders continued to get confused about how to complete my 9 Box Grids. Employees still complained that their talents weren’t being recognised. No one could remember what the leadership competencies were and the people who got promoted often didn’t demonstrate them anyway!
As the business world continues to speed up and become more complex, our beliefs in traditional talent management approaches are coming into question. The majority of HR professionals I meet are quite honest about the fact that their faith is finally being shaken and are curious about how they can do it all differently. I believe that before we leap into the ‘how’ we need to reflect on the ‘why’ and bust the myths that have been our mainstay for so long.
So, what are these myths?
Most companies have their leadership competency framework. These frameworks present a set of skills and behaviours which, if we are brilliant enough and get the whole set, will prove we are perfect leaders. The concept of the perfect leader is of course, totally flawed. We’ve all got our strengths and things we’re not great at. But the Competency Framework keeps the myth of the perfect leader alive. It acts like a kind of leadership ‘bingo card’ where we try and tick all the boxes. This results in leaders focusing on the bits that are missing and attending training to develop skills in areas at which they’ll only be mediocre at best. It also perpetuates the idea that leaders need to be the ones with the greatest array of personal strengths – the biggest and best – whereas the leaders who will thrive in this disrupted world are those who can get the best from their teams rather than through individual endeavour and achievements.
We can’t hope to prescribe all of the leadership behaviours that we may need in our organisations. Leadership is contextual and we may need different styles, behaviours and strengths at different times and circumstances. Moreover, by trying to articulate what leadership competence looks like, we end up focusing on how leaders will demonstrate their abilities in ways that allow little room for interpretation. Every leader is unique and will do things in their own way. We can’t say one style is necessarily superior to another. For example, “good communicator” could be delivered in a multitude of ways depending on the situation and it’s the individuals’ experience of being communicated with that matters rather than the way it’s done. This focus on the definitions of what a good leader looks like, rather than the conditions, the culture and the outputs they need to build, has underpinned our lack of diversity. We end up with the leaders who are more extrovert, who seem to be very confident and charismatic rather than those who can build genuine trust, who build capability and capacity in their teams and who collaborate effectively.
Potential is not a fixed and absolute thing. Whilst there are a few characteristics that consistently predict whether someone will become a leader (eg: sociable, ambitious, curious, intelligent, etc), they don’t necessarily predict effectiveness. Our potential to succeed depends much on the environment we are in, who we work with and for, our personal circumstances, etc, rather than some easily identifiable set of traits.
Moreover, our system for identifying someone’s potential tends to be through the 9 Box Grid where we ask line managers to judge the potential of their people. Any system that is driven by line managers’ subjective views is fundamentally flawed. This is not because they’re rubbish managers (well, some of them are) but because we are all susceptible to rater bias. We are at risk of backing the wrong horses if that’s our only determinant of talent.
I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the High Potential programmes I’ve launched and run. Turns out these instincts were right. Recent research by CEB suggests that 73% of high potential programmes show neither business outcomes nor ROI. We probably shouldn’t be surprised by this statistic as there are some fairly glaring errors with how we execute them.
Hi-po places are given for a whole range of reasons – perceived flight risk, an alternative to a pay rise, don’t know how to say no, etc. It’s a tough ask for leaders not to use these programmes as sweeteners when promotions may be thin on the ground, but it can seriously dilute the exclusivity.
They are inherently divisive and can create a group of perceived “favourites” who now have an additional burden of expectation on their shoulders – or worse, as Douglas Riddle points out in his article for HBR “Your High-Potential Program could ruin your business”, they become “entitled prima donnas” and are often frustrated by the lack of immediate promotional rewards. Anointing someone as “high potential” often has a number of less than healthy consequences.
Thirdly, they lack transparency as leaders worry about the neglected 95% finding out that they are not in the elite group. What kind of madness is it where we have a programme where the delegates don’t even know why they are on it?! Only a third of businesses actually tell the high potentials that they are seen as high potential, according to CEB , although in my experience it always leaks out anyway, thereby fuelling a lack of trust in HR processes.
So, we are right to question the way we run our Hi-Po programmes with their low return on investment and some unsavoury cultural consequences. And yet, our questioning tends to be directed towards trying harder to get them right – to get better at identifying the criteria for potential, to be more rigorous with our calibration sessions, to change the way we develop the high potentials or to be more disciplined about managing the talent pool for better results. Shouldn’t we be asking a bigger question instead? Shouldn’t we be asking whether high potential programmes are still relevant in this disrupted world? I’d like to suggest that Hi-Po programmes are not broken simply because we don’t do them properly, but that they are fundamentally flawed as a concept and that these flaws are becoming more evident as the pace and nature of work is increasingly at odds with this old fashioned approach?
Really fab people will always do well. The insecure overachievers who got straight A*s and 1sts and who excel at grad scheme assessment centres will find ways to achieve and be recognised without necessarily being singled out. I’m not saying you should ignore them – their hunger and ambition needs constant feeding – but they usually find a way of being heard. But what about the majority that languish in the middle of your 9 Box Grid? They may need more attention and effort to do great stuff.
So, what does talent management look like when it’s relevant for the world we live in today?
We are seeing 3 key trends in talent management.
Instead of the futile exercise of trying to define what perfect leadership looks like, we’re seeing HR teams focus more on what they want to leaders to achieve – and then supporting leaders to achieve those outcomes in a style that works for them. One of my favourite examples of these comes from a major systems engineering firm who do it with beautiful simplicity. Instead of the usual numerous leadership attributes in a competency model, they state that leaders must do 3 things:
They recognise that by focusing on these outcomes, they ensure that leaders are doing the things that matter whilst not prescribing the best way to achieve them – allowing leaders to use a style that works for them. Whilst the HR team provide support, coaching and learning resources – they resist the urge to them how exactly it should be done and instead make sure they are measuring whether employees feel they being helped to perform better, are appreciated for what they do and given the right level of autonomy to do their best work.
We’re seeing a declining obsession with the top elite with HR finding new ways of ensuring that the majority of people are helped to reach their potential. For example, a major pharmaceutical company has a mantra that ‘growth isn’t optional’ – by which they mean that regardless of whether you are ambitious and want promotion, are interested in moving sideways or whether you are a subject matter expert, everyone has a conversation about how they are growing. It’s the latter that we have always struggled with in terms of the career conversation but saying it’s ok to stay as a deep expert as long as you continue to learn and adapt really helps managers who have these type of people in their team. Nestle have started to reframe their talent discussions away from ‘who is ready for a promotion’ to ‘everyone is ready to do something different – how can we help?’. This helps managers to avoid the usual unconscious bias that can mean they be too narrow in their focus on talent movement and instead think more broadly about their teams.
Most leaders like talking about their people. They just hate the prep work and the documenting of their assessments and decisions. We’re seeing HR teams enabling regular but process-lite discussions among leaders about their talent. For example, Western Union’s ‘Talking Talent’ sessions where clusters of around 10-12 managers get together for just one hour a month to talk about the people in their team and the opportunities they have coming up. This makes so much more sense than a once a year talent review.
Talent management, like so many aspects of HR is getting a welcome overhaul. The traditional focus of HR teams on the big cumbersome processes and painful assessments is being replaced with more agile, conversational and outcome focused approaches. It’s much more relevant to today’s world and much more impactful as a result.
As unpopular as it might be with leaders who often crave certainty, great HR is just ‘messy’. The HR leaders who are having the most impact, who are creating the conditions where people and organisations can thrive in our disrupted world are those who have the courage to avoid the neat solutions and instead offer messy solutions to the challenges we face. In this blog we explore what 'messy' HR looks like in practice.