As recently as 5 or 6 years ago the term “Talent Management” was relatively unknown. People would respond with a wry smile when I told them I was a Talent Manager, then ask “what does that mean?” or guests at parties would become extremely animated and excited before asking whether I worked with any well-known celebrities. Many offered to sing a song or show me their best dance moves, before I politely explained that Talent Management in the corporate world, whilst broadly similar in many ways to an X-factor – type contest, was more about identifying leadership potential and helping individuals and organisations to achieve strategic objectives through smart investment in, and development of, key individuals. While some were clearly disappointed with this less glamorous iteration of managing talent, many were both intrigued and excited by this targeted way of identifying potential and investing in a bright future.

It’s hard to argue against something that actually makes sense ….

1) You look at the strategic objectives of an organisation to really drill down to what the people requirements are today and (more importantly) will be in the future,

2) then you target the people who have the potential and drive to thrive and deliver in that context, and

3) you develop them in whatever way is needed to bridge the gap from where they are today to where they need to be tomorrow.

In really simplistic terms, that’s it! Of course, in reality there’s more to it than that …. Once you start identifying what potential really means within a specific organisational context and how performance differs fundamentally from potential … things tend to start gaining complexity, but for now let’s keep it simple!

So it’s a great idea and people start wanting to use talent management in their organisation. And who can blame them? Great organisations like GE and Microsoft have been using talent management to deliver excellent results for many years. McKinsey and Company coined the term “War for Talent” back in 1997 and steadily over the following 10 years, CEO’s started wising-up to the idea that Talent could be the competitive advantage they needed. Talent Management and Succession planning crept steadily up the corporate agenda and HR Directors worldwide started receiving greater interest and buy-in for talent management initiatives. Fast forward to 2013 and Talent Management is a well-recognised (and in many cases a well-worn) phrase. But what has really changed? And why have many organisations failed to reap the benefits they hoped from their talent programmes?

I could talk all day about what people mean by talent, the role of leaders in talent management, how to work with an individual once they are identified as “talent”, but I really believe that the single biggest reason talent programmes fail is quite simple … a lack of consequence!

Many organisations have introduced the tools and processes of talent management … 9 box grids (or 12, or 20 or however many boxes the organisation can agree on!), talent reviews, even in some cases, a talent development programme, but here’s the issue …. So What? What has actually changed or been delivered as a result?

In most cases there’s a form or a process. Managers rate the potential of their teams and take it to a talent review or peer review. These can be face-to-face, virtual or just a desktop review. In some organisations, this can be really powerful and some really great discussions take place … I often see leaders patting themselves on the back, praising the unprecedented quality of discussion. And rightly so; regardless of the process itself, the quality of discussion is paramount … by talking, leaders reach a shared understanding, a shared sense of purpose. But it’s what happens next that is make or break!

After this discussion, what do you do?:

1)      Document the discussion, share the notes, maybe agree some actions, then file it all away until next time. Or,

2)      Hold the leaders accountable for their actions, review regularly, update where needed to make the actions more realistic and on-going, and ultimately turn this into part of your day-to-day operation?

In my experience, most organisations do the former. But overlook the actions at your peril! A client I talked with recently called it “the HR circus” – it rolls into town once (or sometimes twice a year) with a big fanfare of forms and meetings. The managers greeted the first couple of rounds with interest or intrigue (and perhaps some healthy scepticism … this is the real world after all!), but by the 3rd time the circus rolled in, they were tired of the forms and meetings and no longer believed any value would come of it. The organisation had a mutiny on its hands and Talent Management became the latest management fad to peak and trough. Sadly, this organisation isn’t unique in its experience.

I hear lots of different definitions of what Talent Management really is. Some I like and some I don’t. But for me, here’s the essence of it …

Talent Management isn’t the preparation, it’s the follow-up!

The forms and the meeting are just the beginning. If leaders aren’t taking ownership of the actions and driving things forward, then an organisation isn’t managing its talent (the clue is in the name … not Talent Inventory or Talent Discussion but Talent Management). By this definition, would so many organisations still affirm that they have a talent management programme? To make Talent Management work, the consequences are fundamental.

My top 3 tips for managing talent with consequences

1) Be really clear on what you need so your actions are meaningful and beneficial to both the individual and organisation. If it doesn’t add value, don’t do it!

2) Get the right people in the room; for a talent review to work (with consequences) you need to have the decision-makers in the room. If you’re talking about putting someone on a project or changing their role, you need to get that commitment in the room – actions saved for another day rarely come to fruition.

3) Get talent management in the line; managing talent is the role of every leader, not the role of HR. Great HR professionals can advise, support and challenge, but for your talent programmes to really get traction, every leader needs to see Talent Management as their responsibility.