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Hedda Bird

3C Associates

Managing Director

Read more about Hedda Bird

Talking Point: Why put all your eggs in one talent management basket?


Talent management has traditionally focussed on the individual.

Employers identify potential shining stars who they can train, mentor and coach in order to excel and take over key positions in the business.
This is how it has always been, but is it necessarily how it should always remain? The question is, does this approach really give HR directors the pool of talent that their organisation requires? 
The answer in most cases is a resounding ‘no’. Instead a far more effective approach is introducing talent management for the many, and not just the few. ‘Stars’ may have brilliant ideas and great strategies, but without highly capable and motivated teams behind them, they simply cannot deliver the results.
At the very least, it would appear to be madness to put all of your eggs in one basket. Good results are not delivered by a tiny handful of employees, while the rest coast along. They are the outcome of a team effort, achieved by everyone in the business striving to move forwards in the same direction.
This ‘whole team’ approach is something that has been used to great effect in sport. Both the GB rowing and cycling teams dominated the medal league table during the summer Olympics.
But the cycling coaches didn’t focus all of their resources on the more obvious stars such as Victoria Pendleton. Instead they created strength in depth, building highly-competitive winning teams.
Indeed, the talent management strategy that they employed was to improve the performance of the entire team in small, incremental steps and at regular intervals. The benefit of such an approach is that it not only boosts the overall performance of the whole, but also ensures that there is always a next-in-line.
Whole team approach
The world’s best-known companies – both the new (Google and Amazon) as well as the more established (General Electric and Accenture) – have all implemented very demanding performance management processes. Everyone must deliver. It’s not just the high-fliers – the demands made are high for everyone.
But most organisations still spend the majority of their talent management efforts on trying to ‘spot’ potential future stars through various means of assessment. These potential high-fliers then have a hugely disproportionate amount invested in their development. 
But if these gifted few make strategic errors, leave the business, or simply turn out not be as brilliant as expected, the company becomes very exposed. 
So common sense would dictate that employers simply cannot afford to pin all of their hopes on such a small pool of people. What is required instead is an approach based on the power of the many in order to drive overall performance up. 
In order to adopt this whole team approach, however, it is necessary to:
  • Explain to senior managers that you would like to move the performance (bell) curve to the right rather than just push a few high-performers even higher
  • Reset the baseline – great talent management means that last year’s ‘good enough’ is this year’s ‘needs improvement’
  • Engage everyone, not just the careerists. The bulk of the work in most organisations is done by foot soldiers who aren’t necessarily seeking major promotion. If you can empower this group to continually improve on an incremental basis each year, your organisation will truly fly
  • Encourage staff to take ownership of and personal accountability for results. You can call it ‘innovation’, ‘courage’ or ‘leadership’ – it doesn’t actually matter. What does matter is that everyone is clear about how to change the status quo.
One of the things that it is important to guard against, however, is taking a sheep-dip approach. Talent management for all is NOT about creating an ‘identikit’ development programme in order to clone your ideal employee.
It’s about enabling each person to significantly improve how they perform. For some, this may mean learning a new skill while, for others, it could entail a re-design of their role or even being given an opportunity to contribute ideas. 
For organisations as a whole, it can be about developing broadly applicable new skills covering everything from collaborative working and agile product or service development to lean process management. 
Behavioural change
To this end, it is important to structure your talent management programme in such a way as to give local managers autonomy in how they can apply it. But it is also vital to keep control by setting demanding targets for improvement, for identifying candidates for promotion and for boosting the overall capability of their team.
It is just as critical to be clear what outcomes you want from your initiative, especially in terms of behavioural change, however. For example, if you are keen to increase innovation, but don’t explain what it means in practice, your goals are unlikely to be realised.
What the operations manager considers to be an innovative shift might well be thought of as an unacceptable risk by the finance director. The same is true of flexible workforces– while many a senior director might profess themselves keen to have one, most will be unable to define what it means in reality. 
As a result:
1. Ensure that your talent management programme has a clear business case – lay out the business problems, opportunities and challenges that you are attempting to address and how
2. Remember that behaviour-focused talent management concentrates on HOW people achieve results, not just WHAT they achieve, which means that you need to understand what behaviours are important to the success of your organisation. Lay out examples of what improvement would look like in each area using specific and relevant language (simply telling people that ‘innovation’ means ‘thinking outside the box’ or ‘pushing the boundaries’ will not cut it).
3. Aim to improve your skills-based talent management processes. The core skills of commercial awareness, understanding basic financials and knowing how to enhance business processes are poor in most work forces, but make a substantial difference to the performance of most organisations. For many years, for instance, GE put all of its employees through six sigma training so that everyone could make an effective contribution to major business process improvement projects, even though only a few went on to lead them.
4. Remember that taking a broad-based approach to talent management is a distinctly different strategy to creating ‘superstars’. It focuses on developing the skills and behaviours that enable people to perform well beyond their job-specific technical capabilities. The idea is that the majority of the workforce should possess these ‘enablers’, which are upgraded regularly along with their technical skills. Each time, such an upgrade occurs, the entire organisation’s performance should improve.
While the whole team approach has been a resounding success in the world of sport, it is equally applicable to business.
At the very least, it has to be less risky and more cost-effective than sending a handful of high-fliers on expensive executive development programmes run by business schools that do not consider the success of your business to be their top priority.

Hedda Bird is managing director of performance management and appraisal consultancy, 3C Associates.

2 Responses

  1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

    Organisations are notoriously weak at ‘picking winners’ from the lower ranks for long term development into CEOs.  This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of FTSE 100 CEO’s have not been ‘home grown’ but hired into a senior role from outside the company, or even hired in directly as the CEO.

    This article focuses on the importance of improving the performance of most employees steadily over time, and not lavishing a susbtantial proportion of the development resource on a small handful (who are most likely to be poached by other organisations).  An organisation that can improve performance of most people by 3-5% a year, every year, will quickly outstrip its competitors.

    We could of course have an entirely separate discussion about the personality (alpha?) of successful CEOs.  Perhaps the subject of another article at some point,

  2. Incubating turkeys

     Ahh, but how does the egalitarian model discern the future leader who’ll sell their soul for the Company? Sorry, but behavioral science gave us the realisation that alphas are required to control (be controlled by?) the machine.

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Hedda Bird

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