Talent Management : What does it really mean?

The term talent management has become an HR hot phrase. The idea of being able to both identify and then manage the performance and motivation of the most business critical is alluring – but it is also fraught with dangers. It suggests that talent only resides with some individuals – which has implications for the motivation of the majority who are not identified talent. The common practice of identifying talent on a regular basis, allows for talent one year becoming untalented the next. It has the feel of reality show winners, whose short period in the spotlight is followed by a rapid disappearance into anonymity. Conversely, talent in whatever area: music, sport, film or business resists being managed. Knowing the value of one’s talent also means seeing it as something which they own and control. It is why Andy Murray discards tennis coaches with regularity, and musicians often engage in acrimonious battles with record companies who look to take control of their talent for business profit. Talent cannot be owned by an organisation, but organisations have an investment in ensuring that the talent it has access to has the conditions it requires to deliver the business performance it wants.

The UK CIPD has defined performance as ability + motivation + opportunity. This definition highlights the importance of organisations recognising ability, providing opportunities for its application. Equally, it highlights the value in understanding and working with individual motivations. Jane Yarnall in her book ‘Strategic Career Management: Developing Your Talent’ (Butterworth Heinemann) has identified that the in the management of talent, there has been a pendulum swing in the last 20 years. It has swung from organisational control as exemplified in planned fast track development programmes; to individual control as embodied in the Me plc manage your own career model. The need she argues is to allow the pendulum to settle at a point where there is a partnership approach.

A partnership approach means that the identification of high potential, high performing individuals is not enough. The 9 box model which has become the common starting point of talent identification, too often becomes its end point. The organisation now knows who it views as having most potential (though the individuals may be unaware of their status), but what happens next has often been given scant attention. This is the point at which individuals need to be actively involved in discussing what this means both for them and for the organisation. Releasing talent for business benefit requires organisations to understand individuals in their totality (or as much of that as they want to bring to work), as much as it requires identifying potential successors for business critical roles.

If the term ‘talent management’ is not to be quickly consigned to Room 101 of management fads, it requires a parallel focus on the ‘how’ of managing ability, alongside the ‘what’ of designing a process to identify future leaders.

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