Talent Management: the Emperors (not so) new clothes?

Now that the economy threatens to change the employment landscape for what looks like a long time to come, and Talent Management has shifted from the top of every CEO’s priority list to number 7, strategically placed behind paperclips, isn’t it time we challenged the whole notion of selecting and managing talent? I personally believe that there is no shortage of talent out there.  Indeed, there never was, we just did a lousy job of locating and nurturing it.

It would be easy to kick our friends at McKinsey for starting the talent shortage scare but whilst they were a little guilty of fanning the ‘good people are scarce’ misnomer with their original War for Talent paper, they also made a number of other significant comments and observations which unfortunately were largely ignored.  More importantly perhaps than a shortage, they proposed that in order to get hold of, and keep, ‘good’ people (notice the reference to ‘existing’ people there!) – or talent – organisations were going to have to try harder. It would no longer be enough just to say what a great company you were, or knock up a glossy employer brand to hide behind.

Instead, they wagered, you would have to really get your offer right, which included creating great opportunities for employees (thats ‘current’ employees again there folks, not more of those pesky new recruits!), committing to their longer term development and also creating compelling reward strategies. This was actually quite an astute observation given its time, 1998.

Up until 2001, the notion of a company’s greatness was rarely challenged overtly by employees or potential employees. It was also the early days of the internet and the power of ‘connectedness’ driven by web 2.0 and social media tools had yet also to give employees the voice they have today to challenge organisations and their ‘employment proposition’. Indeed it wasn’t acceptable to do so.

But then along came the meltdown of some of the corporate giants including WorldCom, Arthur Andersen and of course Enron. Such a blatant abuse of power and position, the shocking tales of corporate greed/fraud and the astonishingly poor people practices (mass redundancy announcements by text for example) left a very bitter taste in the mouths of employees and crucially, those that make up generation Y. The balance had shifted.

For me this whole sorry tale really challenged what the definition of ‘talent’ was, where we looked for it and how we developed it. Here we had organisations that had streamlined and finely tuned their talent pools along the industry standard accepted norms. And yet it was the very same talent pool that went on to bring them to their knees.

Attending a conference on Talent Management we heard BT (an organisation of 140,000+ people) outlining their strategy for managing their ‘talent pool’ which amounted to only 1500 people (or 1% of the workforce) across the ‘top layers’ of the business.

Many companies take this approach but is it not perhaps a little arrogant, at the very least short sighted, to narrow down your ‘talent pool’ to the very top slice of the organisation? As someone who spent their early HR career in a unionised shop floor environment, I saw firsthand how talent resided in many places, not just at the top or in the professional ranks.  Indeed, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss once opened a CIPD leadership discussion with this gem:

“I do a lot of cooking and in my experience, it’s the scum that rises to the top”!

Perhaps its time to challenge our notion of what constitues talen, where we look for it and how we subsequently nurture and develop it. Perhaps its time to be more flexible and open minded to find the winners of the future and stop following convention in selecting talent. Perhaps its time we stopped for a moment and considered how crazy it is to think that of our working population of some 28m only 1% of these individuals can be classified as people with high potential.


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