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How do you solve a problem like career?
Print – Issue 168 | Article of the Week

Clare Barnett


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Talent pools, fast track graduate schemes and high-performance development programmes, businesses will try anything to convince talented employees that their aspirations are part of “the big picture”. But what motivates people and understanding career aspiration has never been more complex. The pressing question is, are traditional platforms and strategies woefully outdated when it comes to attracting, recruiting and motivating new generations, which value experiences above climbing a corporate ladder?

Article by – Clare Barnett, Managing Director – Synergia

Talent management and the operation of talent management programmes can open a Pandora’s Box of both practical and ethical dilemmas. First, there is the process debate – how do you detect talent? There is a plethora of sophisticated high-level psychological assessment tools at your disposal to help you identify an individual’s level of potential talent, from DISC to personality inventory OPQ (Occupational Personality Questionnaire). These provide clear structures on how to develop leadership potential which are crucial in relation to talent management – for a significant fee per test. In larger organisations, the practice of using assessment centres to identify and measure talent in a thorough and objective manner has been commonplace for years. Then there’s good old gut feeling and common sense, with all the human bias this brings to the process, and potentially limited views. This can relate not only to the individual being considered in terms of what they can contribute, but also the attributes a future leadership team will need to successfully meet customer expectations.

“If you put someone in a talent pool where they are encouraged they are more likely to achieve because they are receiving positive feedback. The important question is, how do you manage those people outside of the talent pool”

There has been a lot of research around how much potential someone can achieve over a period within the workplace. Sir John Whitmore, father of the executive coaching industry, pitched maximum potential at 40 percent, while modern management theorist Charles Handy discusses the ‘horns and halo effect’. The use of Talent Management systems creates this horns and halo effect on both groups, either included or excluded within the system. You also have situations within a company where ‘your face fits’ and those chosen are offered the opportunities to progress, while others who are equally talented don’t see the light of day. This happens a lot in both private companies and public services. In one public service, this was certainly the case, as one candidate applied to be accepted onto their high potential development scheme and was rejected, then changed organisation and applied again and succeeded, even though this was with the same entry criteria. In large organisations another challenge is where organisational memory restricts an individual’s progression due to a mistake they made years before. That stays with them throughout their career and they never have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean, move on and succeed until they go somewhere else.

It is possible to assess potential talent through data and I accept the use of assessment centres remains largely best practice, but should we be doing it at all? Or should everyone be given access to opportunities if they want them? This is particularly relevant when trying to attract and retain millennials within your organisation. Their definitions of company loyalty, time and success are very different and employment is not necessarily a career path, it is a means of developing themselves and an income which allows them to enjoy life to the full outside of work. This leads to an ethical discussion presented by talent management – is it about adding value to an industry as a whole, our business or an individual from an educational perspective? What are our brand values? And does our leadership team fulfil those values? Understanding what our customers expect from us, which our brand communicates, defines the behaviours we should exhibit at all times. If our values do not support such behaviours, then our staff behave differently with our customers, which undermines our brand. Hence it is crucial that in developing leadership potential across our organisation, we ensure the foundations of those values and beliefs are rock solid and only people sharing those values are “on our bus”.

If our aim is to develop leaders who deliver what customers want, then it is vital employees believe those needs matter and want to meet them. Leadership and development then needs to happen at every level and with the assistance of coaching and mentoring you create a coaching culture to meet those expectations. As an example, in a criminal justice organisation, an officer came through who wanted to remain at a middle ranking position. His self-limiting belief was that he thought that was the best rank he was capable of. Through coaching and mentoring he developed his own abilities and ended up as the deputy leader within the organisation. He was a highly able individual but didn’t consider himself to be a high flyer, but through hard work and commitment he achieved significant rank. We must make sure we’re developing our leaders but also our people as well. Coaching is about enabling people to achieve their ultimate potential, which can seem at odds with creating a talent ‘pool’ because then we’re telling a group of people their potential is important. The reverse psychology of that is then those people not selected for the talent programme or pool are being told their potential isn’t recognised.

If you put someone in a talent pool where they are encouraged they are more likely to achieve because they are receiving positive feedback. The important question is, how do you manage those people outside of the talent pool? The same can happen with graduate talent schemes where organisations fast track 100 graduates through their leadership and management programme. Graduates spend time in each area of the company, before being allocated senior roles above people who have worked for the company for years. Those staff know the business well and add value in their own right but can end up alienated. Sometimes graduates understand this and take the opportunity to learn from these people, but others don’t and that’s when things often turn sour. These kinds of talent schemes are quite common within the private sector, and strangely, while it’s often accepted that these bright young things will leave and move on in two to three years, companies often don’t invest in their other staff precisely because they may leave.

In his book Good To Great, Jim Collins makes it clear that you must have a capable individual at level one before you have a high performer at level five. A lot of the time narrowing down opportunities for training and development of talent comes down to cost, but as a business if you create a coaching culture then you recognise the added value training brings to the performance of an individual. If your line managers demonstrate a coaching and mentoring leadership style, then those values are being reviewed daily and they work with someone in a way that gets the best out of them. When the ethos of your business is to encourage and develop talent at all levels because it brings value to your organisation, then should people choose to leave because they can’t progress it’s not a concern because they then act as ambassadors. Sir Richard Branson summarises this well: “Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” Take care of your employees first and the rest will follow.

The discussion then becomes more about what’s your legacy? My personal view is we are developing an individual and that’s our legacy, and where they work isn’t important – which is considered quite controversial. My challenge is to management is to consider talent management from this broader holistic view. Rather than a box ticking exercise, an appraisal becomes an opportunity to openly discuss how someone can develop themselves and what resources we can make available to them whether they are on a talent management programme or not. The difficulty is in times of limited finance companies often cut their training budgets, but if we develop a coaching culture it’s also about how we encourage individuals to have those coaching conversations and to take responsibility for their own personal development as well. There are people who don’t aspire to be managers but create stability within a company, so it’s important not to limit opportunities for them because you don’t think they have potential currently. For example, a mother of young children may be on a term time contract, they aren’t lacking in talent but are at a stage of life where that working arrangement is right for them. However, when their children are older they may have more time to give and their aspirations change, but often their organisation doesn’t identify that. If you value the individual for the person they are then you awaken their desire to achieve more than they thought they could. Through the development of a coaching culture we encourage everyone to challenge their self-limiting beliefs of what they can aspire to be, what they want and what they think they can achieve. So, the question is – could that be your legacy?

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