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The Talent Management Game: How to Hit It Out of the Park

by Michael Tobin on

I have an unfortunate chronic ailment: I am a Chicago White Sox baseball fan. I believe the biologists would say that I am the victim of imprinting; when I was boy, soon after I discovered baseball, my team went to the World Series. They lost, of course, but my brain was forever branded with love for a team that swung between exciting and horrible for the next 46 years, until 2005. That glorious year they not only returned to the World Series – they won it and became the World Champions!

What, pray tell, does this sad story have to do with Talent Management?  Twice in my lifetime the White Sox went to the World Series.  Both times they demonstrated great baseball fundamentals: they could pitch, field, and run. (They were not distinguished by hitting at all. In fact, the 1959 Sox were called “The Hitless Wonders!” The 2005 World Champions hit just well enough to win.) Now, I pay attention to teams that can execute baseball fundamentals. Pitching and fielding together will make any team highly competitive.

Talent Management (or TM), when applied with rigor, is a powerful tool for business success. Consistently focusing on the fundamentals will assure that an organization has the leadership talent and the organizational capability to execute its strategic plan, achieve its goals, and compete to win in the marketplace.  It is not rocket science – but it provides “rocket fuel” for any organization!

So what are the fundamentals of Talent Management?

Assessment Aligned To Business Strategy

Formal assessment of talent is crucial to business success. Assessment to what? We recommend that leaders be assessed to a formal Model which is aligned to the business strategy. Essentially, the Model should identify the key leadership capabilities necessary (beyond the functional skills) to implement strategy and achieve high-level goals. Developing this is a C-Suite task, usually facilitated by Human Resources and/or a Talent Management consultancy.  Don’t underestimate its importance: a carefully-designed Success Profile or Leadership Model will ensure the right talent is in place to drive their strategic plans.

Keeping the Bar High – No Matter What

Most companies need best-in-class talent for key roles in their organization. Obviously this applies to CEO succession, but it includes a number of other important roles upon which the success of the business depends. It is crucial to set a discerning standard when assessing for these roles. We find that one of the most common challenges for organizations is to keep the bar for their competencies very high. In fact, with the speed of change in business, and increase in complexity, the requirements are continually going up. The temptation for companies to lower the bar to accommodate the talent already in place is a very common error and one doomed to result in failure. Rather, someone – usually Human Resources – must maintain a high bar and insist on realistic assessment. Clearly seeing where the gaps in talent lie will allow the company to make the necessary decisions for success. Leader courage is particularly useful in having the discussions required to keep high standards for talent assessment.

Making Leaders Accountable

TM is strengthened or weakened substantially by the sense of ownership leaders feel for their team’s bench strength. If TM is primarily an HR-driven process, you can expect it to ultimately fail. Business leaders, both operational and functional, need to be held accountable.  Rigor here needs to be driven from the top of the company. Leaders’ rewards and opportunities for advancement should be aligned in part with the strength of their teams. Thus, TM should be considered a performance criterion for leaders. Nothing will drive successful talent management like leader accountability.

For example, Vantage met Drew Fraser, now CEO of Method Products, Inc. when he was a young General Manager from Clorox. We were struck at how strong his Talent Management skills were in his early thirties, and inquired, “How’d you get this way?” Drew told us that his manager (1) showed him how to manage talent, and (2) held him accountable for the strength of his team. After four years, he was world-class in his talent identification and cultivation skills. The formula is compelling: demonstrate TM to your direct reports, then hold them accountable to have very strong teams.

Regular, In-Depth Talent Reviews 

Rigor in TM is most often demonstrated in Talent Reviews. Active and productive reviews can be the “playing field,” the organizational venue for TM presentations, discussions, and decision-making. The timing and frequency of these reviews is important. Vantage believes that a calendar for Talent Reviews is a simple tool critical to driving outcomes. For CEO succession and C-Suite talent, at least twice annual reviews are necessary (and quarterly are suggested). Typically, Board reviews are required at this level, and provide a good opportunity for executives to share their designated Key Succession talent and discuss the strength of the succession pipeline.

For business and functional teams, quarterly reviews are good, monthly are better. The goal is for talent to be managed routinely, like revenue and profitability. Consistent with accountability, the leader drives these processes, typically partnering with HR, who can provide the data, tools and facilitation skills. With this kind of rigor, a number of key aspects of TM will be developed:

  • Calibration and increased accuracy of assessment, including collective understanding of what is required
  • Key talent gaps identified
  • Development actions created and their outcomes observed
  • Decisions taken, i.e., advancement, development, exiting from the company, recruiting new talent

A nine-box tool is often employed by companies during Talent Reviews to identify relative capability and potential of personnel. This tool needs to be action-oriented. Movement is expected, e.g. development required for advancement, or improvement needed to avoid exiting an employee. Vantage has observed a lot of value-neutral nine box discussions. TM is not a spectator sport. Reviews should result in plans and decisions, with clear accountability identified.

Champion sports teams rely on the consistent execution of fundamental skills. Those 2005 White Sox players demonstrated amazing pitching and defense on their way to a championship. Developing rigor in Talent Management takes trial and error. Calibration regarding talent can only be accomplished by doing it and committing to continuous improvement. TM is a strategic capability which, when rigorously developed and practiced, can fuel great organizational performance and sustainable competitive advantage.

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