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Talent development specialists don’t care much about average ability; they’re far more interested in retaining, indulging and nurturing their high-flyers. But what’s the secret of keeping the elite on board? Annie Hayes asked HR Zone members to share their tips.
Can talent be easily identified by a pinstripe suit and a swivel chair? Is it purely the preserve of the graduates that have passed through the milk-round with flying colours or the executives that have climbed their way up the career ladder to a six-figure salary?
Whilst most HR professionals do agree that it goes far deeper than this, there is an almost universal consensus that talent belongs to the few rather than the masses.
At the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Talking talent debate held earlier this year Mike Atkin, programme director for NHS Talent Management, which was set up to address the leadership challenges that the NHS faced in delivering reform, said that for him it was about the executive population.
“Everybody is talented, but we believe some are more talented than others.”
And Vance Kearney, Vice-President Human Resources for Oracle Europe, Middle East and Africa, quoted in the CIPD’s magazine says that it is indeed an elitist game. “We want to hire the very best and devote most resources to them. We want to reap the rewards of their superior ability. We don’t care much about average ability.”
Vance Kearney, Vice-President Human Resources for Oracle Europe, Middle East and Africa.
But talent isn’t necessarily found lurking in the most obvious places. Keith Luxon, Director of Human Resources for Three Valley Waters says their organisation has identified individuals at junior management level and above that have the ability within the next four to five years to progress to at least one level above where they are now. The process in essence is about finding key players that can be developed two to three steps further.
Helena Peacock, HR Director for publisher The Penguin Group agrees and with the aid of a fairly scientific approach seeks to identify talent at all levels: “We have a formal annual talent review programme whereby key individuals are identified via a “scoring system” against specific criteria. Talent identification extends across the whole organisation and across all disciplines. However, we have many talented people outside those who are identified as “key talent” and we try to look after them all!”
So once the talent has been spotted how can it be retained and what should organisations be doing to keep the poachers at bay?
There are plenty of surveys in the HR domain which would suggest that employees don’t always put cash rewards ahead of personal fulfilment and career goals but what about its role in keeping the talent happy and retained?
Paul Bissell, Senior Reward Manager at Nationwide and the CIPD,s Vice President of Reward, says in his experience financial carrots play second-fiddle to job content:
“Most survey findings would tend to indicate that remuneration is not as significant as challenging job content when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent. When it comes to remuneration then clearly it needs to be of the right order and as important, it needs to be equitable. By which I mean that it needs to be able to clearly distinguish/recognise the performance differential that should be present with those identified as having particular importance to the organisation.
“I still believe that Jeffrey Pfeiffer was broadly right when he said in his article The Six Great Myths of Pay (Harvard Business Review) that, “those who join you for the money are most likely to leave you for the money!”
And Byron Kalies, a trainer and training consultant, says that same rings true in the public sector.
“Rarely does money play a part in the public sector. The training opportunities, the conferences, the ‘making a difference’ seems to be a huge motivator for many people. The majority of high flyers I’ve come across in the public sector could be earning fives times as much outside.”
Byron Kalies, a trainer and training consultant.
Peacock points to the lure of the whole package and says that benefits in their entirety taken together with working culture and the calibre of work colleagues all contribute to forming the kind of environment that staff want to stay in, even, as she says if they might be able to earn more elsewhere.
“Sometimes we’re able to bring forward a pay rise or an increase in grade and that’s usually helpful in persuading a key person that they might be better off staying with us. But we can’t afford to throw money around and if someone really feels their future lies elsewhere then we wouldn’t twist their arm to make them stay.”
If cash doesn’t hold the key is it all down to career development and motivational tactics?
In recent times Luxon has moved away from the money model preferring to focus efforts into career development, interesting projects and what he terms as CV enhancers: “My experience is that if the individual is motivated mainly by money then there will always be someone out there willing and able to pay more. Really high potential people are looking to build long term careers/skills sets and we try and work with them on exciting development plans.”
Development and training opportunities is something that has traditionally attracted high-flyers to the public sector in the first place. Kalies says: “I’ve rarely seen anything but lip service paid to career development. This can be a frustration in the early years of a ‘high flyer’s’ career. Invariably a significant percentage start in the Civil Service, receive an excellent grounding in some specialised skills and then have a choice.
“They can stay, as described above, and progress in a frustrating, haphazard way. Or, they can move outside and use the experience on their C.V.”
So the key it would seems is not only to offer the incentive of new skills at the beginning of the employment relationship but to continue to tempt key talent throughout their careers with challenges and job opportunities that continuously stretch their abilities. Peacock is a big advocate of job swaps and secondments for this very reason:
“Learning and development is certainly important and we’re very keen to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to grow and advance if they want. Because we’re part of a bigger group, there are opportunities for job swaps and secondments in addition to training courses etc. It’s important to keep our key talent stretched and interested.”
Helena Peacock, HR Director, Penguin.
Luxon says that development is a crucial part of any successful retention strategy but says that losing good people is sometimes inevitable despite best efforts:
“People will make individual decisions for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes you just can’t keep a very highly talented person – for instance we recently lost an engineer as they sought to broaden their career by getting experience in another sector. We couldn’t compete!”
And, says Luxon, it is very hard to woo back a key member of staff when they have made up their minds to go:
“Sometimes when an individual has made that mental decision to move it is almost impossible to reverse this. We have tried to encourage a culture of openness that allows people to approach us and discuss when they are unhappy or not content with where their career is going. This allows us to put in place strategies to prevent them making the mental leap outside.”
There’s no doubt that nurturing key talent is a crucial part of any successful organisation’s strategy.
Speaking to delegates on board the Aurora in June this year as quoted in the CIPD’s magazine, futurist Larry Hochman said: “What is going to be the most valuable for every business is what is most scarce. It is not about gold, diamonds and petrol and more; it is about talent. If you in HR are not enhancing the ability of your people to do their best work, then who is?”
Ensuring plans are in place to keep the talent once attracted should be a key part of any HR strategy and finding the right blend is the challenge – clearly it is not all about attractive cash bonuses and large salaries, otherwise the labour market would be brought to a stand-still but equally attempts to pacify key workers with flimsy career development plans won’t keep them for too long either.
It seems that holding onto the best is about creating the right environment, providing development opportunities to learn new skills and be exposed to fresh experiences throughout the lifetime of their career not just at the start. While money clearly plays its part it’s not the whole story and talent management specialists looking to develop the next Branson, Sugar or Roddick could do worse than weave this into their retention strategies.