A Perfect Set of Delusions in Talent Management

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Talent Management a domain that is becoming increasingly maddening for HR professionals. The career paths that we create for employees with so much love and effort become are seldom followed. Skillsets and roles that we have invested so heavily in become redundant. Increasingly fewer number of employees look at their current organization as a career destination. Frequent changes in strategy, reorganizations and rapid scaling up & downsizing in workforce are making talent management resemble the game of ‘Calvinball’ where you make the rules up as you go along!

When the reality doesn’t suit us we are tempted to use the bricks of delusions to create a world that affirms what we would like to believe. This article is an attempt to look at some of the fundamental delusions (assumptions) in the talent management practice and to explore some of the possibilities to overcome those delusions.

Delusion 1: Talent can be managed

Most of our talent management practices indicate the underlying assumption that talent can be managed in the same manner as any other resource. The problem is that talent comes with problematic parts like head and heart (and probably, soul) in addition to hands and legs. Also, talent, at least good talent, manages the organization as much as the organization manages the talent. It is a curious feature of human nature that we are more keen to manage than to be managed. Thus, the traditional ‘plan – implement – review – control’ approach to management doesn’t work very well when it comes to talent management.

A more appropriate approach to management would be ‘understand-predict-engage-facilitate’ when it comes to talent management. This requires developing deeper understanding of the human nature and human behavior in the workplace context, of the evolving employee preferences and of the enabling structures and choice architectures that can ‘attract’ employee behavior to desirable patterns. This would help talent mangers designing initiatives like ‘mass career customization’ that enable talent to manage themselves facilitated by a clearly defined set of options and implications of those options.

Delusion 2: Talent management is an annual event

In many organizations, talent management is an annual ritual that focuses on creating career & development plans for the employees and succession plans for critical positions. After this we go through the rest of year believing that our work or at least most of it has been done. The trouble here is that these plans crash-land into everyday business reality with very limited survival rate.

In a rapidly changing business and people context, the progress against these plans should be monitored periodically and changes to the plans should be made where required. The best practice is to have at least one formal review every quarter. This need not be an elaborate and time-consuming affair. All that is required is to do a quick check on two things: whether the action points (role changes, development actions etc.) that were scheduled for the intervening period are on track and whether there are any significant changes to the business or people.

Delusion 3: Talent management can be done in a standalone manner

Often, we tend to look at talent management as a standalone HR process. There are two basic problems with this. First, talent management is not an HR only process. Second, talent management can’t exist in a vacuum.

To be effective, talent management has to be integrated with the business planning and workforce planning processes, with the talent implications of the business strategy being the starting point for talent management. The best practice is to begin talent review meetings with a structured discussion on the immediate and long term talent implications of the business strategy and plan, the talent gaps and challenges based on the same and the talent action plan to remedy the gaps. All discussions about talent movements and talent development should be done keeping this as the base.  Another important aspect here is to closely integrate talent management to the Learning & Development and Performance Management processes.

Delusion 4: Talent management is all about managing high-potentials 

In many organizations, almost the entire focus of talent management is on identifying and developing high-potential employees. It is true that high-potential employees can create a much higher business impact, as compared to average talent, especially when there in critical roles. However, we would be deluding ourselves if we think that the organization runs on only high-potentials.

High-potentials form only a small percentage of the overall employee population. Achieving adequate levels of validity and reliability for the high-potential identification process has been one of the perennial problems in talent management and this makes an exclusive focus on those high-potentials a very risky approach. Yes, there would be some talent that needs to be managed out of the organization. For the all the other talent in the organization, talent management should offer a compelling value proposition. Yes, segmenting this population and customizing the value proposition for each of the segments is a best practice. One such segment, apart from high-potentials, that merit extra focus and investment is high-performers in critical roles.

Delusion 5: Talent can read the mind of the organization

It has often been observed that an employee realizes how valuable she was to the organization and what great plans the organization had prepared for her only after she submits his resignation. This brings us to our next delusion – that talent can read the mind of the organization, especially when it comes to good things. Ironically, employees often have a more accurate idea on the potential risks for them in the organization than the potential opportunities!

The best practice here is not to communicate labels or titles, like high-potential or top talent, to the employees. It is to communicate how the organization looks at the employee at this point and the actions that the organization intends to take subject to the employee keeping his side of the bargain, like maintaining a certain performance level and consistently exhibiting a defined set of behaviors.  Of course, the organization should not make promises that it won’t be able to keep.

Delusion 6: On the job development would happen automatically 

This is a very convenient collective delusion for talent managers! The script is something like this: The organization adopts the best practices of the 70:20:10 approach to employee development which correctly assumes that less than 10% of the learning takes place through formal training ad that most of the learning takes place through on-the-job- experiences (70%) and through coaching and interactions (20%).  This finding can be used as an excuse for ‘cutting training budgets’ and for ‘absolving HR managers of their responsibility in talent development’ without establishing any concrete mechanism for facilitating the learning through job experiences and interactions’.

Unfortunately, learning through job experiences and interactions does not happen automatically as it requires deliberate planning, practice and facilitating in-depth reflection to derive learning from the experience. Thus there is a need to put in place a mechanism to structure, facilitate and track this type of learning. For example, ‘the way a job is structured’ is a critical factor in deriving learning through on-the-job experience. This calls for an intervention at the job design level to ensure that the jobs have sufficient responsibility, authority and scope. ‘Job rotation’ and ‘special projects’ also offer high learning potential. This would require that the organization puts in place policies that encourage job rotation and assigning people systematically to special projects. Experience maps can be designed to highlight the most important experiences to develop towards a particular role. Manager capability building is essential to enable them to help the employees to plan & execute the developmental experiences and to derive more learning from the experiences through coaching.

Delusion 7: Talent Management is only about long -term employees

Often, we assume that the talent management should focus only on those employees who are likely to stay on for a long time in the organization. This has become a delusion in an environment where the average tenure of the employees in a particular organization are reducing and when the employees who stay on for a long time are often not the best talent.

So what makes more sense is to assume that the organization would be handling only a limited (often very limited) part of the career in the case of most of the employees and to design talent management strategies & processes that would enable the employees to contribute within that limited time. Of course, making a focused attempt to increase the time that certain segments of the employees (e.g. high-potentials and high-performers in critical roles) spend in the organization is definitely worthwhile.

So why do we say that these seven are a perfect set of delusions? Let me just say that the number seven is considered to be a perfect number in many cultures and some even associate mystical qualities to it. While this could also qualify as an assumption (delusion!), overcoming the seven delusions discussed above do give us a good starting point in taking a fresh look at what we do in the domain of talent management. While perfect solutions don’t exist, by being more aware of our delusions and the approaches to overcome them, we can definitely be more effective in our craft and also be saner and happier!

Prasad Kurian leads Talent Management and Organization Development for Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Pvt. Ltd. The views expressed here are personal views and they don’t necessarily reflect the views of the employer.

Author –Prasad Kurian is Executive Vice President- Organizational Development at DFPCL (Deepak Fertilisers And Petrochemicals Corporation Limited).

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