How can HR reinvigorate talent management & leadership?

It is time to unpack a lot of HR systems and processes and rebuild them with a focus on talent management, people and leaders at the centre

It is time to unpack a lot of existing HR systems and processes and rebuild them with people and leaders at the centre, writes Mark Busine

Over the last 12 months, performance management has been put in the spotlight. While there remains a level of support, many more have questioned the relevance and value of traditional processes and practices in the context of today’s workplace. Those in favour of change have drawn on many sources to build their case, including neuroscience, shifting workplace demographics and objectivity of existing systems, for example, forced ranking.

While the debate on performance management is important, the discussion highlights a much broader and deeper concern with current talent management practices – that is, a serious and debilitating lack of energy and engagement. In our attempts to bring structure, order and discipline to talent management, we have effectively drained the energy out of many HR and talent management systems. As a result, the users of our systems have passively or actively rejected them.

What do leaders vs managers focus on?
The impact of this was highlighted in DDI and The Conference Board’s Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015, which found that managers spent 43 per cent of their time engaged in planning and administrative tasks. Given a preference, leaders would double the time spent on interacting and reduce time spent on managing by about 30 per cent. There is a high cost to organisations that neglect striving for a better balance in how leaders spend their time. A heavier focus on managing leads to less job satisfaction, higher turnover and lower engagement among leaders.

It’s too easy to blame leaders and other stakeholders: “Why don’t managers follow the process?”, “Why don’t executives invest the time?”. It’s time to question ourselves and look for ways to reinvigorate HR, talent management and leadership practices. This is what the debate on performance management is all about. It’s not that the elements of performance management are bad (clarity, accountability, development), it’s just that we need to find new ways to deliver the outcome.

I for one am guilty of supporting this focus on process. For some time, I have been a strong advocate of the view that HR and talent management processes must be instituted with the same rigour and discipline as other business processes. In principle this makes sense, but in practice, particularly in today’s environment, it often drives away the people we rely on to make things happen.

An economic shift in value
A bit of context is important here. One of the most fundamental shifts over the last 20 years has been the transition from an economy based on tangible assets (i.e. bricks and mortar) to one based on intangible assets (i.e. knowledge, innovation, brand). The key driver of intangible assets is people – people create the ideas and generate quality service. A company’s brand and reputation in the market is defined by the actions of its people. Against this backdrop of change, our approach to many talent management processes remains locked in the past.

In DDI’s upcoming publication, Leaders Ready Now: Accelerating Growth in a Faster World, my colleagues consider the role of energy in succession management. Despite significant investment in leadership and succession management over the last 10 years, 75 per cent of leaders say their succession management systems aren’t functioning as intended; 85 per cent say they lack the leadership bench strength to address emerging business challenges. They conclude that instead of creating energy necessary for accelerated leadership growth, many existing approaches and processes drain it (see box).

How to generate energy
Energy in an organisation is a tricky thing. It’s often hard to define, but we know when it exists and, more importantly, when it doesn’t. So how do we start to generate energy?

There has been some movement. In recent times a number of organisations have started to develop the concept of the “employee experience”. This is more than just a title change. In the same way sales and marketing organisations focus on enhancing the customer experience, these organisations are looking to challenge traditional approaches and mindsets with respect to how we mobilise and leverage people across the organisation. It embraces concepts from many disciplines such as design thinking, sales, marketing and service and draws on skills such as empathy, analytics and curiosity.

In the end, will we dismantle all systems and process? No; but it is time to unpack a lot of existing HR systems and processes and rebuild them with people and leaders at the centre. This is no longer a nice to have. With 80 per cent of an organisation’s value tied up in intangible assets, more engaging people and leadership practices are a commercial imperative.

What energy feels like in succession management 

Good energy Great energy
When you have management support and involvement When management competes to make acceleration of talent happen
When you have a competency model in use organisation-wide When your leadership model is an indispensable business resource
When management participates in an annual talent review process When executives become shrewd and incisive in identifying potential
When you use assessment for key roles and high-risk scenarios When management is addicted to objective talent data
When you have a wide array of learning options available for learners When you ignite application and practice of the leadership approaches your business needs
When you hold leaders accountable to fulfil the assigned roles When you aggressively manufacture positive growth tension


Adapted from Leaders Ready Now: Accelerating Growth in a Faster World (2016) by Paese, Smith and Byham. Image source: iStock