Define "Talent" before Investing in Development

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Most organisations don't have a formal definition of "talent", and as a result don't focus their talent management efforts where they will be most effective, research shows.

Talent is an overused term and the lack of agreement on its definition - Is it innate or can it be developed, for example? Does it refer to performance or potential? This makes it difficult for organisations to select, develop and engage the right people, according to a white paper from Psylutions and Curve Group. 

Their study found most organisations don't have a formal talent definition in place and subsequently report challenges with ambiguity, subjectivity and inconsistency in the way they develop their people.

Among those that do define talent, few refer to potential in the definition, the paper says. This can cause problems because "current performance and future potential are not causally related."

Ignoring the "potential" side of talent can mean an employee who isn't considered a high performer might be overlooked for complex roles and challenges to which they're suited, or conversely, employers might wrongly assume that employees who are high performers will therefore make good future leaders.

Talent Strategies

Best practice recommends that a talent strategy be developed with regard to specific business challenges, the organisation's desired results, and the behaviours needed to achieve those results, the paper says.

In addition, core talent and leadership programs should be linked to a leadership and competency framework, at all levels of the organisation.

The researchers found that among the employers studied, a clear definition of talent and a talent strategy linked to the business strategy were "more of the exception than the rule", but nonetheless most organisations do have processes for identifying and developing talent.

The problem with these approaches is that they more commonly involve self-nomination or manager nomination (via performance reviews, for example), rather than objective processes such as psychometric assessment.

"This suggests that the 'real' talent may be overlooked if they do not have the confidence to self-nominate, or if they don't have the relationship with their managers to be nominated. This also indicates that more subjective identification processes tend to identify current high performers without taking into account their future potential."

A more balanced mix of subjective and objective approaches - to identify high learning agility and "below the line" motivations and preferences, for example - "gives a more in-depth understanding of a person's performance and their potential", the white paper says.

Issues with Current Practices

The paper identifies the most common programs in place in organisations and where they tend to go wrong.

 Leadership Programs, for instance, tend to focus on graduates and employees at senior levels, "suggesting mid-level management may tend to miss out on this focus".

"This could also possibly mean that there is a growing gap of critical skills and behaviours between entry and senior level positions and this could put enormous pressure on succession planning for senior roles," the paper says.

Stand-out programs, however, tend to focus on:

  • Foundation management skills for frontline or first-level leaders;
  • Personal development and self-awareness;
  • Creating networks across the business and gaining exposure to senior leaders;
  • Senior leader mentors and shadowing;
  • Formal sponsorship into external and industry based leadership programs and
  • Individual development plans linked to business and personal strategies.

Graduate Programs are seen as crucial to the pipeline of future leaders in organisations that run them and the people selected are considered "talent in the making", the paper says.

The researchers, however, question what happens at the end of grad programs and to what extent development continues, particularly through middle management levels.

They say the best grad programs involve:

  • Quarterly training sessions (influencing, negotiation, presentation skills, change management, project management, business writing and so on);
  • Formal mentors;
  • Rotations throughout the whole organisation and exposure to the 'best of the best';
  • Ongoing peer support;
  • Accelerated career development and
  • Career plans.

Mentoring/Shadowing happens in many organisations and whether formal or informal can become "an assumed part of the culture".

The researchers say that regardless of the formality of a mentoring program, organisations should provide more training and development to mentors.

How to do it right

The paper's authors recommend that organisations investing in talent management consider whether their programs:

  • Meet the "so what?" test for talent outcomes. Will development discussions extend beyond the program? Are there tangible (measurable) outcomes?
  • combine nominations with objective data (such as psychometric and behavioural assessments) to ensure the right people participate;
  • skill managers to provide feedback "in the moment" so development continues after the program ends;
  • distinguish between training and talent development;
  • link talent development initiatives to key business challenges and strategies;
  • develop skills for both future and current business needs and
  • Link to succession plans and workplace planning processes.