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Implementing a Successful Talent Management Process: 10 Key Lessons
For more than 25 years, I have been involved in designing and implementing talent management processes for companies both large and small—most with great success, but some less so. Even with the less successful endeavors, I have walked away with crucial information that helps reshape future talent management action plans. Creating a talent management process that is wholly integrated into the fiber of an organization is the most fundamental key to its success. To achieve this success, I have mapped out 10 thoughts for executives and HR practitioners, based on my experience, which could be applied to any organization regardless of size or sector.
1. Be clear about why your business needs to implement a formal talent management process.
Any process, especially one that commands resources and management attention, must address a real business need. Throw out the old platitudes like “our people are our most important asset” or “we are in a war for talent,” and dig deep for the core needs of your business.
Perhaps your organization has identified a critical skill or competency it needs to be competitive and wants to protect, enhance or develop. Maybe a different set of leadership skills are needed to move the company from product to solution focus, or there simply are not enough leaders in the pipeline to fill key positions. Whatever it is, leadership needs to be clear about why the company is investing time and money into the project. At some point in the process, other priorities will emerge. Having a clear, agreed-upon vision of the importance of the process is critical in maintaining the focus needed to implement or upgrade it.
2. “Start where the system (organization) is.”
The notion above is attributed to Herb Sheppard, one of the foundational thinkers in the field of organizational development - and although simple, it’s as critical today as it was when I began 25 years ago. Before going forward with a full scale implementation of any large change process (talent management, Lean, Six Sigma, implementing an new IT system), a leader must understand the organization’s history, its successes and failures, and what has brought it to this point. Is the organization ready for such a change? If not, what needs to be done to lay the foundation? I’ve seen well-intentioned change initiatives—like implementing a new talent process—struggle because leadership has overwhelmed the organization without first laying the groundwork or understanding where the organization is in its readiness to move forward.
3. Are you willing to see the process through?
Like any other change effort, implementing a talent management process involves tweaking or changing the culture of an organization, a difficult and often risky endeavor that is hard enough to pull off even with an aligned senior leadership team. Senior team alignment is critical to address after you have given leaders time to participate in and understand the direction the organization is taking. Implementing a talent management process requires a leader/champion who won’t allow management to sabotage and undermine the process. Sabotage can rear its ugly head in many forms, including tacit head nodding while actively (or passively) undermining progress. If this is the case, the effort will sputter on—consuming resources and time—but producing little in the way of actual results. Eventually, enthusiasm, energy and effort wane, and leadership will be viewed as weak, divided or non-committal. Implementing a successful talent management process that delivers results is not a spectator sport. At a minimum, it takes the attention, commitment and effort of senior leaders.
4. Keep the accountability for success where it belongs.
In an effort to implement the talent management process, many larger organizations tend to develop a shadow organization of content specialists whose jobs are to “facilitate” or “support” the new direction. Too often, leaders and managers make the mistake of handing over the change leadership accountability to this group as the initiative moves forward. Though the group may be full of bright, articulate and competent people, they are faced with impossible expectations and are often left without strong guidance from senior management. By passing the buck, so to speak, accountability has been deflected away from where it belongs—on management. Small, focused groups of experts inside or outside the organization definitely can help move an effort forward. But remember the accountability for the change lies with management—period.
5. Quality conversation is key.
Though many vendors of talent management software exist and can be a great help in keeping data relevant and timely, they are not solutions in themselves. Having a quality, focused, action-oriented conversation around the organization’s key talent is critical. Charlie Bishop, a colleague and the founder of Chicago Change Partners, always stressed that the quality of the conversation about talent with senior management was a key differentiator between processes that get results and those that don’t.
When sitting in on talent review meetings that include discussions on high potentials, succession planning or development, I can quickly size up the effectiveness of the program by the way the discussion progresses. Is the discussion simply a presentation of a slate of “favorite” successors assembled by HR, or does the slate emerge from a realistic review of each candidate by the leadership team? Are the leaders candid with each other, do they push back or challenge a favorite candidate offered by a powerful member of the team? Do leaders come to the meeting prepared for in-depth discussions on key candidates? Are creative stretch assignments considered for HIPO candidates? Does the CEO drive the conversation and push the group as needed? Are plans made or next steps agreed to? Are metrics or prior agreements for development reviewed and members held accountable? Does the HR leader help guide the discussion with relevant and important observations? Does he or she understand the story behind the data as a good CFO understands the story behind the financials? All of these questions can be used to quickly assess the health of an organization’s current program.
6. Select a small number of meaningful processes and business outcome metrics.
As with any major process implementation, driving a talent management process is as much about belief, passion and gut-feel as it is planning and project management. It is important, however, to establish an agreed-upon set of measurements for the purpose of communicating whether the process is on track, and is having the hoped-for business impact. It is better to select a few important measures than to create a scorecard of obtuse, though scientific-sounding measures.
There are two major types of measures to be addressed in any measurement scheme. The first concerns measures that communicate progress around implementation, and how the talent management system is faring. Examples of these include project milestones such as the movement of individuals from one function or department to another, the number of successors for each critical position, and the number of classes attended by high potentials. These measures are important for describing the workings of the program or process itself, but they don't offer any tangible information about the impact the process is having on the business.
Measures of business impact are more difficult to develop, but are crucial to keeping the leadership team focused on the importance of the work. Complicated and strained calculus showing talent management's statistical contribution to ROI and the like might be interesting, but are not necessary to prove the validity of engaging in talent management. Sticking to simpler strategy related measures such as the number of leaders who possess necessary skills and experience to launch a new line of business, engage in merger and acquisition work, or have the flexibility and cultural literacy to open a business in China, may not be as sexy as talent management’s contribution to shareholder return, but they are arguably more important.
Keeping the number of measures small and focusing outcome measures on moving a particular company’s strategy forward seem to work best. In the case of measurement, pragmatism, simplicity, and clarity are most important.
7. Use the talent management process (selection, development, movement) as a way to communicate to the organization.
Implementing a talent management system gives an organization the opportunity to communicate with employees about the value it places on development. It communicates through behavior, rather than slogans or platitudes about human capital. Funny then, how many organizations want to keep this news under wraps. The rationale goes that if employees actually knew whether or not they were considered high potential, or whether they were in line for a particular position or promotion, chaos and anarchy would ensue. This might be true if decisions about talent were made on the basis of favoritism, keeping the status quo or just seemingly random. But if management is in the process of, or has instituted, an approach that puts the best talent where it's needed based on business strategy, why not communicate it? And, if you think the “word” doesn’t get out, then you are surely mistaken.
The most effective organizations recognize the value of communicating and even showcasing the way they manage talent. Communicating what competencies and skills are needed to be considered high potential in an organization enables employees to assess themselves against those competencies. In one organization, not only were these skills and competencies published, but also employees were given the opportunity to go through an assessment to determine whether they could be a part of the organization's talent pool. This annual assessment gave an employee who may be lacking in a certain set of skills or experience the opportunity to improve by adding those particular skills to their developmental plan for the next year.
That same organization allows its high potential talent to opt in or out of the pool based on life circumstances. Since being identified as a high potential candidate included rotations in different areas and departments, some with young families or aging parents could not meet this requirement. The organization allows these individuals to opt out of the high potential pool, without career repercussions. If later they are able to meet the requirement that high potentials rotate assignments every two or three years, they can re-enter the pool. This method demonstrates how this organization values its employees and pays particular attention to the intricacies of the work-life balance.
Organizations that tend to keep communications secretive seem to diminish the quality of the talent management process. On paper, a succession plan may look great: several candidates identified for each position, candidates in the ready now, midterm or future categories. Then an opening occurs, a key executive resigns or is terminated, and the candidates on the succession slate are not willing to move into the position. Without communication, these candidates never knew they were successors for the position. The possibility of making that change did not factor into their planning for the future, and they are unable or unwilling to make the move.
Again, I think it's important to start where this system is. If you're working with a particularly closed culture, where information has been shared on a need-to-know basis only, then start there. Just having a dialogue about talent with the executive team may be the best first step, but an organization should always work towards an open process to produce the results needed to move the business's strategy forward. Implementing an effective talent management process is not cheap, in time or resources, so why not work to get all you can from it?
8. Use the talent management process and discussions as a way to develop the leadership team.
You can learn a lot about a senior team by the way they talk and interact with each other, especially when there is something at stake in the discussion. When a leadership team is involved in reviewing high potential talent, successors, and developmental moves, you can be sure something is at stake.
As we know from the team effectiveness literature, certain team behaviors can help or hinder the quality of the team's decision-making. This certainly holds true in discussions related to talent. For instance, are there certain members of the leadership team that are more engaged than others, do members of the team question each other in a way that gets to a quality decision, or are there things that are off the table, left unsaid or ignored? Are there leaders who hoard talent, develop talent or offer up weak players as high potentials? These are all opportunities for teaching, developing and/or improving the functioning of the team. To really push the team, the relationship between the human resources leader and the CEO is crucial. If the CEO and HR leader are aligned, they can offer observations, best practices, and push back as necessary.
In some cases, it may be necessary to do more fundamental team building before undertaking a major talent management implementation. Remember, the quality of the discussion will make or break the process. If the leadership team is dysfunctional, the quality of the team’s work will suffer. While this is not rocket science, left unaddressed, the talent initiative will have little or even a negative impact.
9. When discussing development, think beyond current roles to transferable skills.
One hallmark of a very effective talent management process is management's ability to think broadly about skill sets and competencies held by individuals and match them to the needs of the business. If there is a need based on the strategy of the business for leaders with a particular set of skills such as the ability to manage large-scale organizational change, then the pool of candidates should include those skill sets. This sounds obvious, but how often do leadership teams have a set leadership progression in their heads--all leaders come from finance, or legal, or operations? It's important to think broadly and reach across functions, to assemble the best pool of potential leaders. The set of skills and experience defined by the business's strategy, coupled with the candidate’s skill, experience and developmental needs should guide selection.
When thinking beyond an employee’s current role, however, keep in mind that over reliance on data from performance management systems can be risky. It's acceptable to have performance in a current role part of a larger assessment of potential as long as there is an understanding that what's required in a new role could be (and most often is) completely different.
10. Use every opportunity available to talk about the importance of the talent management process.
In attempting to make talent management a part of an organization's culture, it's key for leaders to take any opportunity to talk about the importance of putting the right talent in the right place. Oftentimes, when leaders visit other parts of the company and meet with management and employees, they follow up on developmental plans, talk to high potentials engaging them in real business issues, point out successes in other areas of the company and challenges the organization is facing in managing talent. The thinking here is to engage the organization in the process, keeping it vital, fresh and linked to the business strategy. It also shows the organization that talent management is not just in the once a year review cycle. The process has to involve a constant revisiting of the organization's commitment to developing talent, and its desire always to move the strategy of the business forward.
Regardless of your organization’s size or sector, following these ten thoughts designed specifically for executives and HR practitioners will undoubtedly bring you positive results. Creating a fully integrated talent management process is crucial to the fundamental success of any organization, and by following these guidelines, you and your organization will achieve desired results.
Many more articles in The HR Refresher in The CEO Refresher Archives