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?