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War’s over, the battle begins!

Like most things that seemed relatively straightforward during the halcyon few years of the last great boom period, succession planning and talent management is perhaps not so simple after all. Ian Iceton, Head of HR, Infrastructure Projects at Network Rail, explains.

One of the most often used phrases and popular HR pre-occupations of the past was “the war for talent”. It was clear to all that being good at succession planning was a core competence. But today, is that still the case?

In the twentieth century, succession planning, and the corresponding talent management, were seen as an absolute mark of successful HR teams in mature organisations. CEOs expected to spend time on it and non-execs held the CEO and the Board to account on delivering it. In a century made famous for the most recognisable HR quote “the war for talent” it was clear to all that being good at this was a core competence. The aim was to spot the great talent at recruitment stage, develop that talent throughout their early career, and be ready to move these exceptional people across and up the organisation in a structured way, delivering exceptional people to the most crucial positions when a key role became vacant.

The absence of a mature succession plan was commonly held to mean that an organisation would lurch from crisis to crisis, with each key appointment resulting in a period of uncertainty whilst hopeful internal candidates were inelegantly benchmarked against others from outside shortlisted by expensive head hunters. And inevitably, if external appointments were made, the great fear was that without a grasp of the culture, or a real appreciation of the strengths of an organisation, the new appointment would waste time and money making expensive mistakes. Hence the real need to avoid this dilemma by growing talent from within. So is this all still true today? Perhaps not. Like most things that seemed relatively straightforward during the halcyon few years of the last great boom period, succession planning and talent management is perhaps not so simple after all.

First of all we have some economic practicalities. Pressure for fast, tangible results, has made many organisations even more short-term focussed than ever before. This cuts across effective talent development. It also makes career development moves that might involve some risk, or at least take some time to realise benefits, harder to sell. Individuals themselves are also more wary of career moves that might not appear so obvious on their CV if it doesn’t work out and they need to change organisations. More fundamentally, the key basis of succession planning – that leaders of the organisation today know what good looks like in their business, and that these skills will also serve the organisation well for the future, has been seriously challenged. Many organisations, not just those in the financial services sector, are asking themselves; “do we really know who are good role models for our future talent, and are we really clear what these people will look like in the early stages of their careers? And if an organisation is trying to change its culture, or approach, how does it know who to invest in at the earlier stages of career development?

If we are looking for different skills sets for the future, who is best placed to define this, and help spot this talent? Clearly, many consulting organisations are offering services in this area. But how do HR directors know what good looks like in this place? Is it Emotional Intelligence that matters (EQ), or Learning Agility, or Authenticity. Only time will tell, but we need to be really clear with our boards and Line Managers what we define as success for Succession Planning, and how we will measure it. And Line Managers themselves need help. Many businesses struggle with even the basics, like ensuring all employees have proper performance reviews, and receive relevant feedback. So if this first step in the process is not in place, then how possibly can a manager then delve into the much more challenging area of discussing career development and potential with their people? And how are Managers themselves likely to approach this area, do they see it as there responsibility to develop their talent, even if it means encouraging them to move to another department, or are they much more concerned about meeting their own day to day objectives, and likely to hide their key people within the project to ensure they can deliver. A great organisation finds ways to ensure this is a task Line Managers are measured and rewarded for being successful at.

There are other challenges too. Some come from generational issues. At one end of the spectrum we have a growing trend of employees who want or have to work longer; with no mandatory retirement age. Are we really clear about the expectations of our older employees, how do we talk to them about their aspirations, and accommodate their new reality, and does this reduce the opportunities for effective development moves? Will we start to see a growing cadre of younger employees effectively “blocked” from progression in some organisations as fewer opportunities arise? Conversely, a growing proportion of employees see career management as their responsibility, and will make choices about their own development – and job moves, across organisations, not just within the organisation. So if any business really feels it has identified its future talent, don’t stop there, make sure those people are being really effectively managed, not just by their line manager but by someone senior enough and skilled enough to ensure they see all the advantages and opportunities of staying in the same company. And of course to retain these people may require a variety of motivation tactics, certainly one size does not fit all in this century, if it ever really did. If not, our talent management process is only helping someone else.

Furthermore, we face contrasting challenges and opportunities arising from the changing nature of the world we live in. Do you know if your identified top talent has a yearning to work abroad, and can you accommodate that desire? Do you know if your critical successor has family issues that will stop them moving to head office when the key role arises, be it schooling issues, or ageing parents to look after? Just how flexible are you prepared to be with mobility issues to retain your best people? And if one of your top talent wants to work flexibly for a period, or take a maternity break, how will you ensure that this does not derail your plans for them. In addition, have you a development plan for those absolute critical people that your talent process has identified as consistent top performers, but who are not perceived to have growth potential. What conversation do you do you plan to have with these people? How will you motivate and reward them? These are often the bedrock on which today’s great performance is achieved, and without them we do not have the time for the future stars to grow and develop, and yet they are often not invited to the same development programmes, do we think they are really happy about this?

Then there is the double-edged sword of diversity. As organisations broaden their recruitment search patterns and develop a wider pool of applicants, future talent maps must be enriched. But we must handle this topic carefully, as it is laden with HR pitfalls. How do we ensure that those spotting and developing talent are judging people on the qualities required for tomorrow, not what got them to where they are today? How do we persuade internal and external candidates that having a really mature succession plan is not introducing unintended bias to any future appointment decisions? How do we avoid the trap of alienating top talent who fear that tokenism or positive discrimination have somehow become more important than always appointing the best person for the job. This must all be communicated effectively.

So where does this leave us. Well, I think as HR directors we have to ask ourselves these questions: Is having the most talented people available to us in our key roles still important? Do we think it is still worth spending time thinking about that are the most critical roles in our business; what requirement are there for doing those roles effectively; and deciding how we develop people to be ready to fill these jobs? Is it important our fellow directors, line managers, and or people all understand that this matters to us, and we will spend time with each group to help them fulfil their part in this? And do we think HR can add value to an organisation as it navigates the issues I have described above? If yes, then clearly HR directors and our teams must now, more than ever, ensure we are focussed on this and demonstrate out competence in this area. Certainly, within Network Rail, despite all of the difficulties I describe above, we believe with a passion that succession planning and talent management is absolutely critical for our organisation, and we are working hard to get better at it all the time. By doing so we honestly believe we will create a better Railway for a better Britain.

Ian Iceton
Head of HR
Network Rail

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