How to best manage talent remains a critical challenge for organisations in today’s increasingly global and fast-moving world. But many HR and talent practitioners are finding the approaches that have been successful in the past are no longer fit for purpose in today’s business context. 

Advances in technology continue to create new ways of doing business, meaning that yesterday’s skills are not necessarily those required for today, let alone tomorrow.  The relationships between individuals and organisations are also changing beyond recognition. Baby-boomers, for example, are reaching retirement age but often choosing to carry on being economically active. Meanwhile, digitally-savvy and ambitious Generation Y are entering the workforce in significant numbers and shaking up notions of how work and careers should be managed.
It is clear that organisations need to rethink the way to identify and develop leaders of the future if they are to remain competitive. 
The following five questions posed by Ashridge consultant Sophy Pern will help organisations think about what shifts in thinking and practice they need to make if they are to work with talent more effectively.
Is there a disconnect between our talent strategy and our business strategy?
In most organisations today, the business strategy is constantly being discussed, formulated and reformulated, often in response to events unfolding beyond the organisation, such as the emergence of a new market or product sector or the opportunity to make an acquisition. A key element in any strategic decision should be whether the organisation actually has the skills and capabilities available to implement whatever has been decided. The reality, however, is that HR and talent managers are rarely involved in these discussions and don’t have the opportunity to identify the pinch points where talent could make or break a strategic initiative. Organisations need to start having conversations where talent is considered up front and as a key ingredient of business strategy, rather than being brought into the equation too late and as an after-thought.
Is there a mismatch between our talent on paper and in practice?
Organisations often assume their high potential people are interchangeable – they have been identified as having potential and so will be able to fit into any given role. In practice, however, outstanding performance as an operations director in China may not be a good predictor of success for a role in a corporate centre or in a different market. In a high proportion of cases, talented individuals turn out not to be as successful in practice as they are appear on paper.   When this happens, organisations tend to try and ‘trade in’ the failed talent for a new shinier version. A more helpful approach would be to identify exactly what type of role and conditions are likely to create a successful team, rather than trying to shoe-horn people into roles that are not suited to their strengths and capabilities.
Are we assessing people for the right things?
Talent strategies often assume that the organisation will be doing approximately the same thing in the same way next year as it is this year.   The problem with this approach is that things move so quickly that the specialist skills, competencies and qualities required now will almost certainly not be those that are needed this time next year. Organisations need to test for qualities that are genuine predictors of success such as learning agility and resilience as well as specialist knowledge or skills. It is also important to make sure talent assessment is in line with the organisation’s key strategic needs. For example, in an organisation where innovation is a strategic imperative, any assessment process will need to test for potential to stimulate and lead innovation.
Are we focusing on the elite at the expense of the rest?
There is a widely held view that talent primarily consists of a few key individuals who will benefit from significant investment by the organisation and will be crucial to its future success. This assumption has consequences for how the remainder of the organisation, who are not identified as “talent”, are either viewed or view themselves. It can lead to the creation of a culture of hero leadership or the resentment and possible departure of those who feel their potential has not been recognised. There is also a danger that this approach may lead to organisations neglecting key categories of workers who are critical to delivery right now – such as those who have specialist knowledge or key relationships with clients.
Are we responding to the different perspective of Generation Y?
Research has shown that Generation Y have fundamental differences in the way they approach work. They expect rapid career progression, place a high value on work/life balance and do not plan to spend more than a few years with any given employer. Many organisations, however, have not adapted their employee value proposition accordingly. They are still trying to screen graduates to identify those who behave least like Gen Y, assuming their new hires will stay for five to ten years instead of a more realistic one to two. They focus excessively on formal processes and competencies, without recognising that Gen Y employees respond best to a more informal approach and just-in-time, digitally enabled learning.
These are challenging questions which HR and talent practitioners need to raise in their conversations with business leaders. Ashridge is keen to stimulate debate in this important area and will be running a series of events later this year designed to help organisations think more strategically and effectively about how they work with talent to deliver business success.
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