Is talent management too elitist?

Talent Management – it’s all about attracting, retaining and developing your top talent isn’t it? The High Flyers, Young Turks, Hip Young Gunslingers, Fast-Trackers, HiPos and Rock Stars. (Yes, I really have heard all these terms used in companies – often without a trace of irony.)

These are the people who make a real difference to the organisation. They are the people you need to find and keep. And the people who, if you are in HR, you get paid more for looking after.

Working among the Rock Stars is interesting, sexy and pays well. Being one pays even better.

Contrast this with the tedious job of managing the also-rans. As Philip Delves Broughton puts it:

Managers spend more time managing mediocrity than they do searching for excellence. Their day-to-day work is more like shoving a lumpy mattress up a narrow staircase than deciding whether or not to play Barcelona’s Lionel Messi down the right or up the middle.

The great 5 per cent are strongly self-motivated, ambitious and eager to work to whatever incentive they are set. Chances are they won’t just be good at one aspect of business but will also be keen to learn others. They are the turbo charge in every company.

And then there is the fat middle, the wilfully ignored love handles of the organisation. Here is where companies get what they pay for. If you want better, you can pay more or offer better opportunities. Otherwise, you deal with what you can afford, within the limitations of economic necessity, decency and the labour laws – and hope that before long, technology or lower-cost outsourcing options prevail.

Managing the middle is best done with what might be called the Serenity approach, after the prayer recited at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change/ Courage to change the things I can/ and wisdom to know the difference.”

Makes you feel tired just reading it, doesn’t it? No wonder so many HR people want to ‘get into Talent Management’ where they only have to deal with the Rock Stars.

But Greenwich University’s Colin Coulson-Thomas reckons organisations that focus too much on top talent might be missing a trick. After five years researching management practices, he concluded that the approaches used by many organisations are “costly and doomed to disappoint”:

Talent wars to attract ‘the best people’ can push up salary costs, be distracting and involve collateral damage. Talented people can also be difficult to manage and retain. A person who is exceptional in one area may be average in another. It may be cheaper to work with the people one has and put the right support environment in place to enable them to succeed.

Large amounts are spent on expensive people who are not engaged, effectively used, or appropriately supported. Views of what represents ‘top talent’ can also quickly become outdated. We need more flexible ways of making it easier for affordable people to understand complex issues, and helping them to do important, difficult and stressful jobs.

Paying for talented people may make little sense for organisations that cannot harness, or capture and share, what they do differently. We need to move on from single-issue initiatives such as preparing a few ‘high fliers’ for an unknown future to boosting the performance of today’s key workgroups and quickly delivering multiple benefits for both people and organisations.

We also need an affordable approach which can achieve improved results by taking people as they are, rather than as we would like them to be. Performance support offers a way of achieving a high performance organisation and multiple objectives with the people one has – average people who do not cost an arm and a leg to recruit and retain – and an existing corporate culture.

I haven’t seen the detailed research. (It’s £325 if you want to read it in full.) Much of what he says rings true though.

When I looked at the World Management Survey earlier this year, I was struck by how run-of-the-mill its findings were. The companies that performed well over a long period were those that set goals, monitored performance and reinforced both with incentives and development. The organisations that did these things just a little bit better performed a lot better. In other words, it was concentration on that tedious day-to-day stuff that made companies succeed.

Gurus and consultants might come up with all sorts of exciting ways to make your company better. Doubtless some will advocate hiring creative and charismatic leaders to transform your business. They may even be right, in some cases. What the WMS has, though, is masses of data, collected over many year across several countries, which shows that a lot of corporate performance is simply down to doing the ordinary stuff just that bit better. And who is most likely to know how to do that? Those much-derided people in the middle.

A few years ago, senior executives were reluctant to have coaches but nowadays, it seems, everybody who is anybody has to have one. David Goddin suggested recently that coaching has become a Veblen Good, as the C-suite compete with each other to get the wackiest, most cutting-edge and most prestigious coaches. And, of course, everyone has to have their own personal coach, despite the obvious advantages of having the same one for the whole exec team. One City HR manager told me recently of the gobsmacking increase in coaching costs in her firm over the last seven years. Alas, I can’t tell you the amount for fear of incriminating her but, trust me, it went from bugger-all to a-hell-of-a-lot.

If companies diverted that cash away from senior executives and invested it in developing their first line supervisors, might they get better value for money? If, as Professor Coulson-Thomas says, people frontline roles could be helped and supported to understand and tackle more complex issues, what difference might that make? If they were taught to be more effective people managers and could help their teams be just a bit better, what would that do for the organisation’s performance? The World Management Survey’s findings suggest it would be quite a lot.

Apparently, after a brief truce, the War-for-Talent is back on again. If we must use military metaphors, might we be better served spending a little more time helping the NCOs and a little less on the generals and majors?

Hat Tip: Stefan Stern for the link to the Greenwich research.

Update: Someone has just sent me a link to Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance by Boris Groysberg. Sounds like my kind of book. Has anyone else read it?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Is talent management too elitist?

  1. Doug Shaw says:

    Talent management is an expensive let down for a bunch of reasons. Admission is top down selection and subjective, your face has gotta fit which means that often you end up with a high TQ (toady quotient). Generally when you gain admission to the ‘talent community’ it is fir a period of years and programmes I have seen take insufficient notice of emerging trends. Talent management takes no account of the fact that we’ve all got it, and most work models are too rigid to facilitate the experimentation and practice required to see it bloom.

  2. Pingback: Is talent management too elitist? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  3. Annabel Kaye says:

    Trouble is ordinary day to day management is not exciting or sexy, it is getting the job done and helping others get their job done, over and over again. It is easy to get distracted by things that seem more glamorous or exciting – but the real work is in the day to day, in the little things that make a relationship work, a process work, a job work. No high flying – just continuous setting the standards, teaching how it is done, measuring it, feeding back, doing it again.

  4. Meg Peppin says:

    There ain’t no war, just people trying to make money and make a name for themselves. Isn’t it the £20bn recruitment industry that has benefited the most?

    Bounce by Matthew Syed does a pretty good job of debunking the myths around talent – if we want to and we work at it, we can all be exceptional.

    Thinking about David’s writing about coaching, and the Veblen Good curve (love learning something new) – when I started as an independent nine years ago, I consulted various HR folks on fees to help me strike the right level. I was told by several that they would pay up to £5k (a session!!!) for an executive coach for a director. That told me everything about the path we were on as those same organisations would not have dreamed of investing in more than the occasional day of time management training for their first line management teams.

    I wonder if there is a correlation between high TQ and low EQ.

  5. Coulson-Thomas hints at the real problem when he contrasts care for the individual with the workgroup. Talent management is an ideological construct based on the idea that effective performance is always the product of the individual and that such individuals are exceptional (thus the common belief that 20% of your staff produce 80% of your performance).

    The key assumption of talent management is that talent is an independent and objective value. In other words, it exists outside of the business and it can be quantified and measured. This means it can be treated as a commodity and a market created.

    There is little recognition that talent is relative and as much a product of the business as the individual. A simple analogy is football. A player can be highly effective in one team and then ineffective when transferred to another. The player’s innate talent has not changed, but the environment has.

    While a footballer’s performance can be objectively measured, just like that of a production line worker, the type of roles upon which talent management is lavished tend to be less measurable, despite balanced scorecards and the like. The consequence is that talent management is an act of faith, closer to voodoo than empirical rigour.

    Formalised talent management is often counter-productive. It encourages a command-and-control leadership style (“making a difference”), over-reaching (“I was fast-tracked so I must be right”), and status anxiety. It also erodes trust and respect among the wider team as the chosen few skip work to attend their MBA courses.

    Systemically, it leads to over-investment in the leadership class. The assumed scarcity of talent thereby becomes a hedge against poor executive performance. Consider the bafflement of CEOs who expect pay rises while their share price goes south. The “war for talent” is ultimately cover for executive looting.

  6. Gareth Jones says:

    Meg, we have found our next research project – to prove the correlation between high TQ and low EQ 😉

    Joking aside, Meg is spot on – the whole war for talent is a myth and just a new set of emperors new clothes for HR and the exec suite. ! blogged about it some time ago, you can catch that post here:

    The post contains an excellent quote from Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss who opened a leadership conference I attended a few years ago with this gem:

    “I do a lot of cooking and in my experience, it’s the scum that rises to the top”

    Colin Coulson-Thomas is also right to point out the dangers of focussing too much on the “top talent” or should I say a small minority of the employee base. Modern economic history is littered with many corporate corpses, whose lives was taken by the very people they classed as “top talent” – enron being a very simple case in point.

    There is no shortage of talent – the problem is that most companies are either too arrogant or stupid to recognise that they employ all the talent they need. The war for talent has Vietnam written all over it: Lots of needless suffering, total waste of resources and no winners.

  7. Colin Whalen says:

    Great post and comments (my lunchtime reading) – managing the talent you have is so much more important than managing a top-talent programme.

  8. Amen to this post and comments thread. A colleague of mine once said “You know, we hire these amazing people… And then a year later we’re complaining that they’re no good and we need to get rid of them… And as far as I can see the only variable here is us.”.

  9. Danny McCall says:

    I encourage you to consider how we are solving this problem. We are advocates of “talent stewardship” versus “talent management.” We’ve traveled a (very) long road of learning and trials to get to this point. As a result, we have discovered a practical means to bilaterally synthesize and offer better theory, illuminating information, empowerment and support equally to supervision and worker.

    Now I can confidently state that what we have is working well in organizations of all sizes and industries, and equally, … and most importantly, … in workers’ lives who within any work role.

    Please do not consider my comments as anything more than inviting each read to join with us in making “better work in better lives” (… these should NEVER be mutually exclusive!).

    Here information about one of our foundational solution suites:

    Relations Research

    Should you desire to learn more:

  10. Cheers for the mention and for helping me connect the coaching dynamics with the talent dynamics. A couple of things have stood out for me…

    Firstly we’ve not defined “Talent”. I think we all here have a sense of human talent being multi-faceted. However, in most organisations it is not defined that way…. “Talent” is often potential or actual “organisational leadership” or “business generation” (succession & sales). So it’s not at all surprising that in a pyramid hierarchy of revenue driven organisations that the talent lens is so narrow! It’s the only thing that matters to those crammed into the pointy apex of the pyramid…

    The second thing is just how much of this is a large organisation issue – a generalisation but the formal talent programmes are often the realms of the large multi-national. In an SME, elitist talent management systems don’t exist in the same way. Toadyism may do but despite our revulsion I wonder how much of it is the evolved human system and how much is the construct of the modern workplace. It doesn’t mean things can’t change but perhaps it’s a consequence of large complex apex systems…

  11. Dipper says:

    I believe that a few years ago McKinsey did a study on what is the key success factor in top businesses. They identified recruiting top talent as #1, and picked out the leading company of the time as a shining example because of they way they had fierce internal competition and gave top talent complete freedom. The company was Enron.

    I’m sure others on here will know this story better than I.

  12. Tyler Murphy says:

    Surely companies should be nurturing the talent they already have – there could be diamonds in the rough right under their noses. Plus managing difficult people (i.e. Rock Stars) sounds like a headache!

  13. I empathise with comments made above – both as an investigator and as an experienced process vision holder of large and complex transformation programmes. I will be telling an ACCA audience this week that a period of uncertainty and recession can be a good time to adopt performance support as beneficial impacts and multiple paybacks can usually be obtained within months.

    The motivation for the research is that requirements and priorities often change by the time many expensive, time-consuming and disruptive change and transformation programmes deliver. I have endeavoured to identify and develop more affordable routes to creating high performance organisations that can quickly deliver multiple benefits for both people and organisations.

    The “Talent Management 2” report – and a related report “Transforming Public Services” (😉 which applies the approach to the public sector – look beyond the problem and present a practical and cost-effective way forward. They include mini-case studies of applications of performance support with the results obtained, how to implement the recommended approach with existing people and cultures, and the wider implications.

    While the findings are consistent with other work (Groysberg and others are cited in both reports) and offer a route to a better and more sustainable future they will not be universally welcomed. Powerful vested interests exist that champion many widely adopted and costly approaches. Others may feel their jobs require a continuation of issues that could easily be addressed. Hence the importance of thinking, questioning, challenging and ‘telling it as it is’ when reporting findings.

    Colin Coulson-Thomas (Author of Talent Managment 2)

  14. Pingback: Fake goods | Floraworks

  15. Jattzz says:

    Reblogged this on jattzz and commented:
    I think this is an absolutely brilliant post. Nobody should fee that they cannt achieve something only due to the fact that they are not the brightest.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s