Talent management at scale: invest in the best, then mechanise the rest

Talent management at scale: invest in the best; mechanise the rest

Talent management is in a battle for value, and there are four basics organisations need to master and scale in order to maximise the value delivered through the practice of talent management, writes Marc Effron

Talent management has a very clear mandate – provide sustained, maximum performance by attracting, retaining, developing and maximising the performance of talent. From the Gladiators to the present day, the pathway to achieving this mandate flows through the fundamentals of four practices:

1. Performance management: Increase/upgrade individuals’ contribution to the business through goal setting, coaching/feedback, and reviewing;

2. Assessment and feedback: Generate objective data about an individual that allows the organisation to better differentiate their investment;

3. Succession and talent planning: Ensure the organisation has a deep bench of talent for their most critical roles; and

4. Development and coaching: Improve/upgrade individuals’ capabilities and behaviours that increase performance.

Much of the public dialogue in HR and talent management is on the next ground-breaking innovation – the promise of the future of work, analytics, AI, etc. And yet, very little of the public dialogue is spent on how organisations are missing the fundamentals – and don’t have a plan to close the gap. In order for us to seize the future of work, realise the promise of analytics, and revolutionise the workforce through AI, we first need to execute on the fundamentals.

Mechanising talent management at scale
Talent management today commands high levels of executive sponsorship but lacks support and sponsorship at lower levels of the organisation. According to our research, 57 per cent of typical managers are perceived to be actively hindering, or at best, simply not having an effect, on the success of talent management.

“Clarify the business outcomes of the talent management processes and design with this relentless focus on business impact in mind”

The result of this waning support of talent management is that the organisation’s ability to credibly attract, develop, retain, and maximise the performance of talent is hampered. At scale, the talent management function cannot reliably manage the performance of talent, assess talent, develop talent, or plan for the talent (succession/talent planning).

To crack the code, organisations must successfully mechanise the four talent management fundamental practices at scale – driving for adoption and quality across each one. By following the basics, organisations can more successfully foster support across all levels of the organisation and mechanise talent management at scale.

Accountability: Establish accountability across all levels of the organisation. Create accountability for the employee and manager to own and produce a desired talent management outcome, accountability in the HR business partner to drive adoption and quality in the business they support, and accountability in the talent management function to produce business-first, simple, actionable big four practices.

Accountability means there’s a clear owner and outcome, and that a positive or negative outcome translates to positive or negative reinforcement. As outlined in a recent Talent Strategy Group article, the Accountability Ladder, “the challenge is that few companies actually hold their leaders accountable to flawlessly execute the talent management fundamentals.” Without accountability at scale, there can be no guarantee of impact at scale.

Business-first focus: Clarify the business outcomes of each of these four practices. The pathway to driving impact through talent management is through a command of the business, its challenges, and how talent management may support a more successful business outcome. There is not an entitlement for talent management (or any of its respective processes/ practices/tools/concepts) to exist in any organisation. Talent management exists to solve business problems. Clarify the business outcomes of the talent management processes and design with this relentless focus on business impact in mind. Consider asking questions like:

  • What is the goal for this process?
  • How would employees experience the organisation differently if the process is successful?
  • How will we know the process is driving the intended business impact? How will we know if it is not?

“Business leaders are far more likely to engage in a simple talent process than a complicated one, and talent practices are only valuable if they are utilised”

If there is no evidence for a practice driving business impact, and it is not critical for mandatory purposes (such as regulations), consider cutting the practice/process.

3. Customised for context: Increase the impact of talent management through science and context. Start with the science – the aspects of talent management and human performance that are consistently proven in replicable environments (for example, goal setting as a driver of individual performance). Allow these science-based aspects to guide design. Where science/research-based information is not available, design for the organisation’s context.

Often, organisations seek benchmarks or, recently, look towards the FAANG companies (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google/Alphabet) to guide decision making and design. While this pursuit is helpful in identifying potential approaches to explore, mirroring an approach of another organisation without the appreciation for their unique context is a recipe for disaster. Every organisation is a living ecosystem that operates differently than every other organisation. What works at company X does not necessarily transfer to another organisation’s context. If an approach does transfer universally, then the approach would be considered science and/or backed by repeatable research.

In the absence of science/conclusive research, be guided not by the benchmark or the approach of a favourite high-performing stock, but by what will drive the most impact given the organisation’s current state and desired future state.

Let’s not forget that talent management is in a battle for value. This means that talent management is not only in an internal battle to drive impact within the organisation, but an external battle to drive impact that exceeds the organisation’s competition. Emulation of others is the surest path to mediocrity and average results.

4. Simplicity: Increase the impact of talent management by simplifying HR and talent management processes. The call for simplifying HR originally came from the book One Page Talent Management. The conviction to simplify HR came from the thesis that “business leaders are far more likely to engage in a simple talent process than a complicated one, and talent practices are only valuable if they are utilised.”

However, simplicity is not the end goal. After all, the simplest approach to talent management is no approach at all! There must be a continual compromise between effort/complexity and value. When a process drives greater value than it does complexity, a process should be implemented.

“Be guided not by the benchmark or the approach of a favourite high-performing stock, but by what will drive the most impact given the organisation’s current state and desired future state”

Thus, driving greater simplification in talent management will increase the balance of value relative to effort/complexity, and increase the viability of talent management’s pursuits.

Organisations that adopt the basics find the balance of simplicity and value to be a challenging balance to strike. Consider charting every aspect of talent management against the value/complexity curve and asking the following questions:

  • Does each element (of the process, step, box on a form, etc.) add more value than complexity?
  • Do all of the elements together add more value than complexity?
  • Is the element driving maximum value? Are we leveraging the facts/science (where possible) to guide the elements?
  • If the answer at any stage is no, consider simplifying the element.

Focus on the best. With the foundation of the four fundamental talent management practices mechanised at scale, talent management will have impactful talent management practices in place that maximise the performance of all talent, provides a credible assessment of the performance and potential of talent, outlines the organisation’s talent and succession pipeline, and develops talent in pursuit of performance and increased readiness for roles.

These inputs allow talent management to more accurately identify the highest performing and potential talent in the organisation and disproportionately invest (with their focus and resources) on this critical population of talent. That’s not to say that organisations shouldn’t actively attract, develop, retain, and maximise the performance of all talent, but instead that a differential focus on the high performers and high potential talent in the organisation will have a differential impact on business results. It’s with the high potential and performing talent that talent management has its highest return on investment.

For more information see The Talent Management Revolution by Marc Effron and Zac Upchurch.