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Jamie Lawrence


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The key role of line managers in talent management and succession planning


This editorial was written by Murray Furlong, head of UK learning solutions at learning and development firm Hemsley Fraser.

Are you managing talent effectively in your organisation? You may have processes in place to identify and nurture talented people; you may have created clusters of high potential people and you may even run a dedicated talent development programme. But do you have a strategy for dealing with the one group of people who can make or break your talent pipeline – line managers?

The HR function is typically the custodian of the talent management and succession planning process. It creates and owns the talent framework, often using the familiar nine-box grid which assesses individuals on the two dimensions of their performance and potential. HR also plays a significant role in identifying and recruiting high-potential individuals, earmarking them for fast track development into future leadership roles or specialist career pathways.

But after working hard to identify those who are seen to have potential, many HR teams are then content to sit back and trust in the process. They take the view that the cream will rise to the top, of its own accord. But will it?

Whether or not someone achieves their actual potential will depend to a large extent on their relationship with their line manager and other senior colleagues across the organisation. How visible they are to others, the assignments they are asked to undertake and the responsibilities they are given will all impact on whether or not they realise their potential.

So what are the steps you can take?

Line managers clearly have an important part to play in the development of high potential people. Here are five things you can do to set them up for success:

1. Set the cultural context. Development of others, in all its forms, should be seen as a fundamental part of every line manager’s role. In the best organisations, senior leaders set the example that ‘developing others’ is part of their day job. If you can convince senior leaders of the importance of this and set it as an organisational value and leadership imperative, then line managers will follow suit. HR’s role is to help create an environment in which leaders lead the learning of others.

2. Be more transparent. HR and L&D teams have a decision to make about how transparent or explicit they make their talent management process. Are you going to come clean to everyone internally about who has been identified as ‘talent’ or as a ‘high potential’? If you don’t do this, it becomes confusing for people to understand how to progress in the organisation. If someone is passionate and is doing a good job, it can be a mystery to them how other people keep getting promoted. If you are open and transparent about what it takes to join a high potential pool – and the reality and implications of what exactly is involved and what’s expected of high potentials – then people can make a choice if they want to continue on that pathway.

3. Help line managers to ‘flex their style’, so they can nurture and develop their teams in different ways. Individuals with high potential may need a particular style of development, for example they may need to be connected into different networks in the organisation. Others in the team may need on-the-job training or technical development. Line managers need to be able to cope with these different needs and know how to prevent the issue of talent becoming divisive. It can become difficult if an ‘us and them’ environment is created within the team. At the same time, line managers have to be authentic in dealing with their teams – and they have to know what options are available when it comes to developing different people. Many will need your help to meet this challenge, so they can undertake this aspect of their role more effectively.

4. Be consistent in how you define talent and potential. We’re all biased in different ways. You might think an individual has the potential to succeed but what does that mean? Does that person’s line manager agree? Check that you and business leaders and line managers (and even external customers) buy into the same definitions of talent and potential in the context of your organisation.

5. Be prepared to broker any conflict. In some cases, line managers may feel threatened by those in their team who have been nominated as having potential. It’s not uncommon for a line manager to end up as the direct report of someone who has risen up through their team. For some line managers, this creates a dilemma. They may deliberately hold back the high potential individual, preferring not to connect them with key stakeholders and networks in different functions or offer them the necessary stretch assignments, because they are concerned about the welfare of their own career. The implication here is that HR teams need to monitor not only how high potential people are managed but also the attitude that line managers have to the high potential people in their teams. Brokering these relationships successfully is an important challenge.

The bottom line here is that HR teams cannot afford to be complacent. Creating a talent pool or fast track programme is only part of the process. Talent management must be more than an exercise in categorising employees in a database. There’s a constant need not only to manage the expectations of those individuals but also to manage the relationships they have with people who will ultimately determine whether or not they achieve their potential. Without this, your talent management and succession planning processes will always be incomplete.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence

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