What’s your talent philosophy?

Few companies have an explicit talent management philosophy, but it’s a straightforward process to develop and implement one, writes Marc Effron

Could you say that your company has clear guidelines for how long it’s OK to be an average (50th percentile) performer? Or could you say there is consensus among executives about how much should be invested in high-performing employees, compared to average performers? Is there a consistent approach for how transparent you are with leaders about their potential to advance in your company?

If you answered no to those questions you’re not alone. Only 30 per cent of the 121 companies we surveyed had firm-wide guidelines for how talent should be managed. Even in the few firms with guidelines, many had more platitude than operational parameters for managing talent.

Why you need a talent philosophy
A company’s explicit or implicit answers to questions like those above comprise its talent management philosophy – its rules of the road for managing talent. Given that few companies have an explicit talent management philosophy, managers’ individual preferences often guide how a company invests in and manages their employees.

Depending on the manager, a high-potential employee might be aggressively developed and rewarded or receive just a token recognition of their ability. A high-performing employee with less-than-perfect behaviours might be quickly promoted by one manager or held back by another. If your organisation is trying to build specific capabilities or deliver a consistent employee experience, the lack of a talent philosophy undermines those efforts.

Without an explicit talent philosophy, employees will infer their company’s “rules of the road” by observing how talent-related decisions are made. It’s not likely their assessment will give your company the benefit of the doubt. Companies without a clear talent philosophy face potentially serious consequences including:

Increased high potential turnover
Your company’s highest potential leaders will be especially sensitive to lack of transparency about their future. They won’t whine about not knowing; they’ll just leave.

Decreased engagement
The elements of a talent management philosophy heavily influence the factors that create employee engagement. Engagement will take a hit if managers aren’t accountable for developing their teams or bad behaviours are left unchecked.

Expanding capability gaps
Without a talent management philosophy, managers will rely on their personal preferences to guide how they manage and grow their teams. This “random walk” approach will never build the quality or depth of talent your company requires.

Developing a talent management philosophy
It’s a straightforward process to develop and implement a talent management philosophy. First, get senior team input and consensus. Survey your executives to understand their view on five areas:

  • Performance: How long is it OK to be an average (50th percentile) performer in your organisation today? How long should it be in the future?
  • Behaviours: To what extent do a manager’s behaviours impact their career progress and compensation today? How much should they in the future?
  • Differentiation: How much larger of an investment do you make in your highest potential leaders compared to an average potential leader? What should this difference be in the future?
  • Transparency: How transparent are we today with employees about their career potential in our organisation? How transparent should we be?
  • Accountability: How accountable are managers today for increasing their team’s engagement? How accountable should they be in the future?

Present the data to the team and facilitate them to agreement on each talent philosophy area. It’s not critical to have perfect alignment, as long as each executive agrees to manage his or her group consistent with the team’s decisions.

Second, conduct a reality check. It’s easy to give socially desirable responses when asked talent philosophy questions, so it’s important to confront executives with the philosophy’s real-world implications. That “Steady Eddie” finance director with the great attitude and two kids in college? He’s been here 15 years, never received more than the middle performance rating and has little  possibility of promotion. Your proposed rules say that he’s out in a year unless his performance or potential improves. Is everyone OK with that?

Third, build HR processes and communicate to employees. Once you’ve agreed on the rules, modify your HR processes to enable them. Talent review, succession, development and compensation processes all likely require adjustments to consistently support your new philosophy.

Finally, and most importantly, transparently communicate the new guidelines. Managers need to understand your company’s expectations for how they should manage talent and the consequences of doing that well or poorly. Employees need to know what the rules are for succeeding in your organisation.