Talent Management: fad, buzzwords, or truly achievable?

Talent Management | February 4th, 2010 | No Comments »

Despite being a much talked-about strategy and one routinely listed in business publications as one of the top business priorities, effective talent management remains an elusive aim for many organizations.

Often seen as a set of initiatives that distract from revenue-generating activities, “senior managers’ lack of high-quality time spent on talent management” has been cited as the number one obstacle preventing talent management programs from delivering business value (McKinsey Quarterly, 2006). Lack of attention to this aspect of operational management unintentionally sends the message that people strategies are of lesser importance for the leadership.

Is 2010 the year to make these initiatives stick?

With the lean mentality of organizations today and the dire need to engage and retain the best, coupled with the necessity to attract fresh talent for future growth, talent management may be poised to play a center role across most industries this year. For some, talent management is simply a spin on performance management. Yet others, realize its connection to such important practices as succession planning, but fail to crystallize how investing dedicated attention to it today, can impact the organization tomorrow. Certain aspects of talent management can be viewed the same way we look at a business. For instance, take a business with multiple business units. Expecting certain return from each unit, attention is paid to which ones are: underperforming, remaining flat, delivering modest return, or consistently exceeding expectations. Adjustments are then made to course-correct or further invest where necessary. The same set of expectations is applied to internal talent. To ensure business growth is not compromised by focusing all efforts on a single revenue stream, diversification is secured with different product lines, complimentary services, etc. With talent, diversification is achieved by bringing in people with different skill sets, temperaments, and points of view, among others. This way, a mix of analytical, creative, and general management tracks among the employee population is available to be placed in appropriate roles. The HR leader must be vigilant to the right mix necessary based on business objectives and expected growth, and ready to counsel business leaders accordingly. A proactive approach sends the message that HR is in control of its area of purview and has the ownership to initiate change when necessary.

Where to begin

Certainly, performance management is a necessary step in the process. However, the essence of talent management is the talent review process. This is where performance information is gathered about those being reviewed and where both skills and potential are candidly discussed and assessed. Once the information is collected, different classifications are assigned to the reviewed individuals and a plan of action is devised to position the person for success and continued growth. This last step is crucial, because if no one is paying attention or following through, career derailment or loss of talent may occur. In addition to losing all the investment made in someone’s career up to that point, morale issues among the employee population could seep in when they see talented individuals departing from the organization.

More in-depth talent review processes will be discussed in future posts. The malaise plaguing talent management however, has more to do with leadership than with the talent process itself.

Why do talent initiatives fail to gain traction?

Unlike monetary capital management, human capital management often falls by the wayside, easily becoming a back-burner initiative. Although frequently mentioned as a burning platform among business priorities, focused attention may fall short. Certainly, this is not news to HR leaders. In fact, the inability of the business leadership to focus on talent initiatives also reflects on the HR department and its credibility, becoming a major source of headache for the function. HR leaders, in recognizing this ubiquitous lack of follow through on talent commitments, will find it imperative to reassess how they manage the relationship with their clients.

Leaders who do commit to the talent management process are known for their consistency, the value they place on people, and the vision they have for their teams and organizations. Not surprisingly, they quickly gain reputations for attracting exceptional talent and for the loyalty they inspire in others. They have high expectations for those around them, and people work hard to meet or exceed those expectations. Such leaders unfortunately, typically come in low numbers, and despite their presence within organizations, countless others fail to realize the need to follow suit.

There is no ill intent behind the neglect. It’s easy to fall into a mode where fires are being put out every day in an effort to “fix” emergent business problems. People strategies can be easily overshadowed by revenue strategies. Not realizing how the former directly impacts the latter is one of the most common mistakes leaders make in managing their business. At times, managers may feel they have a grasp on their teams and may not need “outside intervention” to handle how they develop and grow their people. HR, in its overarching organizational capacity, must dislodge this position.  Talent is owned by the larger organization, not by the separate business units. HR’s role in this respect is to break down the silos that are obstructing sound talent practices.

HR in the game, not on the bench

Certain organizations where the HR function reports to the CEO, routinely add the input of the HR partner to the performance review of the business leader. Obviously in such cases, HR is poised to make a strong statement, and yet, lack of attention to talent also plagues pockets of areas within these organizations. For all other types of organizations, the HR executive, leader, or professional tasked with executing on talent initiatives, must take on stronger relationship building with their clients as the best chance of influencing them in the right direction. Credibility in the knowledge of the talent management process, talent assessment, analytical skills, and understanding of the business, all help in making the case for HR. When everything else fails however, HR leaders must internalize their duty to recommend consequences for those who fail to execute on agreed-upon priorities and rewards for those who exceed at them. Not following through on this recommendation, makes HR part of the problem rather than the solution.

Finally, HR must also feel the pain when talent initiatives fail to take off. While the business leaders own the execution, HR must carry some of the weight for assisting them in getting to the finish line. If HR is responsible for part of the strategy and is the expert resource around the solution, it must have skin in the game and be held accountable accordingly – when talent strategies succeed as well as when they fail.

Talent management is achievable when quantitative and qualitative action is put behind the intentions to focus on talent initiatives. And when both HR and business leaders partner in a concerted effort to leverage people strategies as a competitive advantage.

Who loves ‘ya? (Does anyone like HR?)

The HR Brand | January 31st, 2010 | No Comments »

Quoting from the 70’s show Kojak, whose character would frequently belt out a humorous “who loves ‘ya, baby?” greeting, I’ve decided to label my first post as such and tackle the issue of HR’s image – head on.

A few years ago, at a regional SHRM conference I attended, the main speaker for the plenary session was Robert Gandossy, one of the editors of the highly recommended book HR for the 21st Century. Gandossy started his presentation by recalling an occasion when he went golfing with a friend and another player who happened to be the CEO of a company his friend was consulting for. This was his first time meeting this CEO. Not soon had the game begun, the conversation turned to the obligatory topic of work and the CEO asked, “so Robert, what do you do?” Gandossy, a senior consultant at Hewitt, responded that he was in the HR field. The CEO’s response was a succinct, but disappointed, “oh,” after which he proceeded to maintain minimum contact with Gandossy for the rest of the game.

The above story elicited a roaring laughter from the audience, all “in the HR field” themselves. Gandossy told that story to illustrate that something needed to change in the way HR was being executed. He was of course, also promoting a book that was full of essays from various experts in the area and with a title that hinted of “things to come.”

This story stayed with me. There are a number of ways to interpret the CEO’s response. Certainly, for some, HR can become a target for jokes. Who can forget the Evil HR Director from the cartoon Dilbert, a parody of an incompetent and sadistic director of human resources?  For some reason, I’ve never felt victim of the image some have of HR. If anything however, I’ve been frustrated by the lack of general knowledge over what HR is and what it can do, but I’ve never felt my work did not add value.

What to do?

Granted, not everyone is fit to be in HR. Just like not every doctor has compassionate bedside manners, there are folks in the HR field whose temperament may not be suitable for the job. As in any profession, having wrong people in the wrong place contributes greatly to the image people associate with the field.  It is no mistake that many MBA degrees offer a concentration in HR. After all, business acumen is a key skill an HR professional must possess and analytical skills are important to gauge the impact of our proposed interventions and programs. Other traits needed to be in HR can be similar to the ones needed in other roles, such as being able to deal with ambiguity, relationship building, consultative skills, political savvy, etc. One trait that must be stressed however is the ability and desire to care about others. There are happy moments in our roles, but there are also plenty of difficult and even sad moments. This ability to care enables us to perform our roles with professionalism while upholding the dignity of others.  If this is missing from your toolbox, perhaps it’s time to rethink your HR career.

I’m not certain that we need to change what we do. After all, we’re always evolving as a function, always looking for new and creative ways to manage talent, always knowledgeable in the latest coaching rave or technique, and just as importantly, our intent is on being a service to others. What some HR leaders and professionals may need to do is change how they do what they do.  It is not acceptable to be at the sidelines of what happens in the business. Rather, it is absolutely necessary to embed ourselves in the business, know how it makes money, how it can lose money, what its growth strategies are, and gain an intimate knowledge of the professional profile of many of its players so we can position ourselves to help them and the business succeed. In other words, be a business partner.

How does HR get a seat at the table? The boardroom table, that is.

Pick up any book or publication directed at HR and you often find variations of “the table” analogy with encouraging advice on how to get there. The fact is that HR people have been in the boardroom for many years. They’ve been there in the way certain companies have managed not the function, but the people they select for the top HR roles and the set of expectations they bestow upon them.  As the function whose main focus is people strategies, why would any important business discussion be conducted without HR in the room, and yes, at the table? Even Jack Welch, arguably one of the most successful general managers of our time, boasts in his book, Jack: Straight from the gut, about how much the people decisions and processes he put in place gave GE a winning edge. And he credits his HR officer as his right hand in this strategic endeavor.  Like any other major function, if HR has metrics tied to business success, it has a seat at the table.

Before HR was HR, leaders (generally men at the time) from other departments were selected to head what was then, the personnel department. They were charged with hiring people, training them, paying them, and with dealing with ways to comply with the growing amount of labor laws. In many companies, the Head of Personnel was an important and well-respected function.  This all happened before HR was put under other departments such as Finance and others in some companies, and where the head of HR did not report directly to the CEO, an archaic practice still observed in some spheres. Some successful companies today have retained the tradition of moving talented individuals, generally of high-potential caliber, into an HR “stint” in an effort to round their leadership skills and general management track.  Other companies, who hire and retain highly talented individuals in all functions, routinely include their HR employees in general talent reviews and discuss their capacity, potential, and interest to grow their careers in other areas of the organization.  Since the HR staff is a resource of the organization just like all other employees, this practice should be the norm and not the exception.

For those whose heart and passion remain in an area where the focus is on molding people strategies to help achieve business goals, HR cannot be seen as a dead end. This only detracts talented people from entering the field. HR leaders need to understand this risk and take progressive action to turn any less-than-positive image into one of professional respect and credibility. One good way to start is by asking if we have top-notch, best-in-class talent in our teams. It is imperative that we ask ourselves this about our own talent before we advice others on theirs.

Are we alone…?

Now, does HR suffer alone in the image arena? Hardly. At any given time, the image of lawyers, mortgage brokers, and to many, that of the euphemistic “management” can be highly compromised and so are the image of countless other professions. They all have their respective value. But for a function tasked with helping others be successful in the workplace, HR leaders should realize how improving the function’s reputation can be a worthwhile endeavor to challenge ourselves with. This, if we are to continue to be trusted with the role of impacting the careers of others and if we are to attract the best talent into the field.

Similar to the way organizations consult with their HR departments, "HR for HR" is a term used in some organizations as the area where internal HR staff may turn to when they need advice, counsel, or mentoring. NewHRforHR.com is a site dedicated to further the understanding of HR's unique consultative approach, strategic focus, and people-oriented business alignment.