Monday October 26, 2009
Jane Sunley on the misguided use and abuse of 'talent pools'.
I was sitting around the table with a dozen HR directors* at a breakfast debate about talent management when the discussion turned to talent pools.
People started to describe how they selected their talent pools and the development this elite group of people would have available to them as they fast-tracked their way to the top. Now although you could consider me an expert in people matters and a specialist in talent management, I'm not an HRD by background and this causes me to question some of the conventions from time to time.
Surely your whole workforce is a talent pool?!
After all, you'd only recruit talented people so to employ them and then announce to the majority of them that they're not 'in the talent pool' and therefore, by definition, lacking talent is surely a negative and not particularly smart thing to do? And from a diversity perspective, it just isn't acceptable.
"Ah" said one "but we don't tell those who aren't in the talent pool that there is one - just those who make it". So it's a covert operation then - whereby the 'unsuccessfuls' would somehow manage not to hear about it?
Thankfully, the others made the process considerably more transparent. However, when the method of identifying talent was described, it seemed to involve senior line-managers putting people forward based on performance and, in some cases, perceived potential. This must surely rely totally on the ability to spot and nurture talent and to feel good about facilitating movement onwards and upwards.
So now I'm sounding horribly cynical though I speak from experience of working with many organisations where managers have blocked development and progression or simply failed to spot potential.
So are the prerequisites of making it into the talent pool to do with performance, or potential, or experience and expertise, or aspiration, or some or all of those?
Arvinder Dhesi, Group Talent Management Director of Aviva agrees the concept of a 'talent pool' is outdated. The classic approach is to have 10% of people (for example) recognised as the 'talent pool'. But how, he questions does this make the rest of the organisation feel? He talks about the basic human need to be recognised, to feel significant, to be treated as an individual and to be as important to the organisation as the customer. And, on another note, would you send your child to a school where statistically they were 90% likely to be earmarked as 'untalented'? He argues that the best talent management practice for now is one where everyone has the opportunity to grow, and is less of a 'war for talent' but more like 'fertile fields' whereby people are planted, and nurtured and encouraged to grow to greatness.
So then, the answer has to be that the entire workforce is a talent pool. All should have the opportunity to be expertly performance managed, their aspirations understood and skill levels and potential tracked on an ongoing basis not just once a year. Each should have access to development as appropriate to the individual.
For some this will indeed be a fast-track executive development programme which should be termed as such and not suddenly become 'the talent pool'. Success measures must be clearly defined from the outset. The process and how to get there must be completely transparent so that all know what they have to do, how well they are doing towards that (or not) and if they don't make it and would like to, why not.
This all sounds obvious though I do feel compelled to jump onto my soapbox about this issue.
There are some organisations that have put in really robust online talent management systems such as our own talent toolboxâ„¢. The advantage of this is that everything is transparent and fair with the same opportunities available to all. Also, it allows for flexibility when business or personal circumstances change. People understand where they are, can flag up where they'd like to get to and the detail around making this happen is clear.
It's simply not acceptable to rely on an inconsistent system for such a business critical area as developing and nurturing talent and it really doesn't make good business sense. How do you handle this potentially contentious issue?
*On a lighter note, have you ever wondered what the collective noun is for HRDs? You know there's a pride of lions or a school of dolphins. Or remember those weird ones in the school English test such as a murder of crows or a smack of jellyfish? Perhaps the right term would be a coach of HRDs or perhaps a tribunal or even a covey (which incidentally is the collective noun for partridges or quail).? A group of HRDs I know debated this recently and came up with: a riot of HRDs. OK, maybe you're not one of the riotous ones, so do you have a better idea?