The Talent Wave

Successful talent management requires HR to promote conversations that allow employees to be more honest and open about their intentions and aspirations, writes guest contributor David Clutterbuck

Five years ago I started to research a question that seemed fundamental to HR – If succession planning and talent management work, how come the wrong people so often get to the top? In the past two years, that question has gained a great deal of energy, as once proud and highly successful companies around the world are brought to their knees by poor leadership.

So what has happened? How do these people get there? And why, given the vast sums spent on equal opportunities, is the diversity at the bottom of organisations not even remotely reflected at the top?

The reasons, my research shows, are several and all relate to a tendency, by both HR and business leaders to focus on the wrong things.

One of the first problems is the metaphors that we use to describe talent management – for example, talent pools, the leadership pipeline and “the war for talent”. The term “pools” is associated with shallowness and stagnation, and that’s what happens in many organisations, which have a narrow definition of what talent looks like and rarely revisit their assumptions about talent identification. Similarly, pipelines are associated with constriction into narrow, inflexible one-directional paths that can easily get blocked. They also tend to leak. While some of the assumptions behind the leadership pipeline concept have been supported by research (principally that different levels of leadership require transitions into different ways of thinking), the detailed competencies at each level are much more open to question. The reality is that pipelines reduce choice and ability to react to change for both employees and employers.

The phrase “War for Talent”, like “The Leadership Pipeline” derives from a much-hyped book. Just as the pool and pipeline metaphors restrict thinking and flexibility, so the metaphor of being at war with other employers tends to block out opportunities for thinking more creatively about what an employee is and how to collaborate in making more talent available.

So what’s the alternative? The phrase I propose in the title of my new book is The Talent Wave. A wave is pure energy. On the sea, it is not the water that moves, but the energy waves that pass through it. For HR and for corporate leadership, the choice in identifying, growing and retaining talent lies between largely ineffectual attempts to control this energy and finding imaginative ways to harness and work with it.

My researches have led to conclusions that question the whole basis of corporate approaches in succession and talent. First, I looked for evidence that the nine-box grids, succession charts, 360-degree feedback, leadership competency frameworks etc delivered what they promised. It was a lot easier to gather evidence that they did not work. On the basis of the hard evidence, it would be as effective – and a lot cheaper – to select future leaders on the basis of some random physical feature, such as the size of their noses! The evidence suggests that all our efforts to identify who is and isn’t talented simply create a tick box environment that intelligent people (including organizational sociopaths) can manipulate.

So how come we have been seduced into accepting all this “HR bling” as valid and helpful? The reasons stem from top management’s desire to measure anything that moves and HR’s desperate need to prove that it adds value. And the system does work, in the sense that, if you identify a particular group and give them lots of opportunities to experience and to learn, they are likely to advance faster than less privileged colleagues. But that doesn’t prove that these were the most talented employees. In reality, those people may have taken the hint and gone off to work elsewhere, often for themselves, where their talent is appreciated.

Another powerful reason is that all of these systems are based on a major misunderstanding about the nature of the relationship between talented employees and employers. The underlying assumption is that this relationship is a simple, linear system. You put your money in the machine, press the right buttons and out come the future leaders your organisations need.

Nothing could be further from the truth! In reality, organisations and their employees form a complex, adaptive system. People and organisations are constantly changing, so the relationship between an organisation and its talent is dynamic and evolving.

Set your talent free

Achieving high alignment between organisational aspirations and employee aspirations isn’t easy. In a complex, adaptive environment, however, the trick is to support people in creating this alignment in their own unplanned, inefficient and messy – but ultimately highly effective – way.

Four critical conversations

From my interviews with HR directors and leaders around the world, many of whom recognised the limitations of simple, linear thinking in talent and succession – even if they did not articulate it in those terms – four distinct types of conversation emerged, which they could encourage and enhance.

The first of these relates to the conversations that employees have in their own heads and with trusted confidantes about their ambitions and career aspirations. The second relates to their current working environment – the conversations they have with bosses, peers and HR about themselves and their work. The third consists of the broader, context-making conversations between an organisation and its employees more generally. In essence, it is about the psychological contract between employees and employer with regard to development and career planning. The fourth kind of conversation brings in the external world and, in particular, the social networks employees and employers use.

The impact of promoting these four kinds of conversation is firstly that the organisation and its talented employees can be much more honest and open about their aspirations and intentions. Secondly that they can plan together in a flexible way that not only allows both to make use of opportunities, but to create opportunities.

Riding the talent wave

Intelligent HR functions and leadership teams should not be frightened at the thought of letting go of control of their talent. Indeed, many HR professionals I have interviewed and spoken with have been excited about the opportunity to shift from a policing to a shepherding role. It requires a shift in mindset and the courage to lever both HR and line management away from the desire for unproductive certainty towards living with the creativity of managed uncertainty. That is a challenge for all business functions, but HR could lead the way!


About the author

Author of more than 50 books, David Clutterbuck brings a wealth of practical experience and leading edge research to developing leaders at the top. A visiting professor at two universities, he works across the world, stimulating top teams to become role models for learning and examines how they can raise their collective performance. A global authority on coaching and mentoring, and on Board behaviours, Clutterbuck’s latest book, The Talent Wave questions HR practice in talent management and succession planning.


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