The Art and Science of Talent Management

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2 min read

May 23, 2023

By Tim Toterhi. The article was originally published in Insights for Professionals on April 5, 2019:

Business leaders often claim that people are their greatest asset, but few approach talent acquisition, development, and deployment with the same transparency and rigor applied to other organizational processes.

Despite making considerable investments in technology, many companies have not realized a meaningful ROI – namely a tangible impact on the health of talent pipelines and succession plans or an increase in employee performance. 

While part of this failing is due to robotically automating ineffective paper processes, more often it can be attributed to skirting the “art” aspect of talent management. If leaders hope to win the talent Space Race, they’ll need more than flashy tech and big data.

Technology as table-stakes

Many companies now have the wherewithal to manage performance, rate “9-box” potential, and manipulate succession charts electronically. With the ever-increasing availability and affordability of talent technologies, the science component has become table-stakes. Before declaring victory in this factor however, leaders should assess their investments to ensure they are not wasting resources. If you by a sports car and keep it in a garage, you won’t get anywhere. Writing a check for technology is all too easy, so before you do:

Formalize the scope

All employees are important, but considering the administrative and management resources required to run an effective talent management process, thought should be given as to who (level, location, positions, etc.) are actually in scope for the endeavor. It’s also a good idea to ensure the executive team supports the inclusion criteria.  Petty arguments about focus can derail your efforts before they begin.

Revisit the workflow

Your process should never be limited or dictated by technology. Part of getting the basics right is establishing talent management business rules and process maps that outline how decisions are made, how actions are taken, and how resources are allocated. This limits the effects of personal bias throughout the employee lifecycle. 

Embrace a common language

Your process and technology should be supported by a common language that keeps all participants on the same page. When all stakeholders understand what potential means and what it looks like to “exceed expectations”, managers can be accountable for their assessments and employees for their performance.

The differentiator – The art side of talent management

Aligning process to strategy and securing nimble technology to support your design is a solid start. To outpace the competition however, leaders must remove the shroud of ambiguity that has infiltrated talent management. Navigating this paradigm shift is not easy, but it can be made more so via the following actions:

Adopt transparency

Employees want to know where they stand in terms of both today’s performance and tomorrow’s opportunities. The latter often scares leaders to stone. But silence is not the answer. Sure, telling someone they are great or, well…not so great might cause them to demand more or care less. But saying nothing says a lot about how little you care about them. Instead of fretting over potential negatives, embrace thoughtful career conversations. Even tougher ones can enhance understanding and spark engagement.

Clarify the benefits

Each stakeholder group – the organization, managers, and employees, can benefit from a well-managed talent program. Before saying word one about system features or innovative reports, share the WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). 

Openly address fear

People don’t fear the unknown. People race toward the unknown in every phase of their lives. In truth, people fear what they think they know, but don’t. Some employees will rally against your process because they’ll equate it to some horrible sub practice they’ve seen in the past. Overcome the perception problem by taking time to explain your design to employees and listen to their concerns. Reaction to change, even those rooted in technology, is personal, emotional and largely internal. However, when openly discussed, you’ll earn a greater understanding of and likely support for your program.

Embrace your advocates

For every resister there will be an early adopter. Instead of simply thinking of these people as technical super users, consider their role as change agents. Engage them correctly and they’ll help you instill a coaching and development culture that supports and drives the transparent approach to talent management you desire.

Resist the quick and stupid

Every organization is different so don’t take short cuts by bolting on a sub process you read about in an HR blog. Sure, GE made the force distribution process famous and a lot of HR leaders followed them down that road only to discover it was a dead end.

Before adopting a fast fix, consider the context, culture, and connection. For example the process may not work if you operate in a talent stretched market (context), have an inexperienced management team that shies away from providing feedback (culture) or lack the infrastructure to support the constant hiring, training, and elevated compensation expectations that come with the approach (HR connection points). Regardless of your selections, you must also have the wherewithal to reevaluate your efforts every two or three years as you would any strategic plan.

Understand your why

Getting the art and science of talent management correct is critical, but the process should begin with establishing your guiding principles. You have to know why and to what end you want to hire, train, reward and retain employees in the first place. Be careful: While there’s no wrong answer, each is complex and must align to your employee brand – the overt and implied promises you make to the market.

For example, some companies endeavor to hire once, perhaps on the lower end of the compensation band and then make considerable investments in training and career pathing with an eye toward near lifetime retention. Others hire top talent and pay well, but churn through employees as their up or out culture ensures only the strongest survive. Both philosophies and every version in between is betting on besting the breakeven point i.e. will my employee performance outpace my investments in the talent lifecycle?

It’s a tough equation to solve, but it starts with a simple question. What is your business case for development?