Strategic Talent Management in a VUCA world

January 31, 2017

Locating reference material via an online search engine which allows users to look for both physical and digital copies of articles has helped, and given her access to material such as Greenberg’s paper in 1987, which even then explored employees’ trust as a reaction to the management of change using the constructs of organisational justice.

HR practitioners have identified organisational justice as a common theme and, perceived fairness, procedural justice and interactional justice are all very much top of mind for employees. Kim’s interaction with Cranfield on these subjects has been both challenging and energising although she quickly learned that Academia doesn’t give advice – it says ‘here is what we know’ and ‘here is what we don’t know’ and the questions raised should form the basis of future research.

The focus on the line manager

Kim considered whether or not her work at Cranfield had affected the way she works at GSK – apparently the new CEO at GSK ‘owns’ culture and is currently looking very closely at all HR processes, challenging and questioning everything whereas in other companies the focus is often on the line manager, or online assessments, or longitudinal assessments.

Questions were raised around ‘can you take a graduate trainee through to CEO?’ but people mature, grow, make mistakes and are affected by life experiences along the way. Everyone needs to be the best they can be in their current role and be allowed to flourish and have personal goals, but also to recognise that sometimes life gets in the way and those who may come to a bump in the road need picking up and protecting so they can fly again. Or they may be shining in their current role and identified as a high potential, but not be ready to move two levels up or able to handle the uncertainty and complexity of a bigger role.

The advice is to recognise what the organisation needs; what does the individual want or aspire to have and do they match or could they be adapted to deliver what they want? The advice was to try to get breadth whilst you are young and mobile in international roles, explore a variety of experiences, find a really good sponsor, learn from people you admire and don’t forget the power of ‘luck’ and when to spot it and act on it!

With the current emphasis on the employment of Millennials, who are often Domain experts but may not necessarily have leadership qualities, it’s a hard blend to find people who are strong technically but also able to lead. There is also a sense of entitlement from this younger group which means they are more aware of the quality of personal treatment and, now that HR is often devolved to line management, likely to ask ‘was I treated fairly by my boss?’. The role of the line manager is key and it’s crucial to have someone who is able to have open and honest conversations, handled in a positive and meaningful way.

Greenberg’s findings ‘have significant implications for organisations, emphasising the pivotal role of line managers in promoting justice and enabling trust during change. In particular, the research emphasised the importance of good two-way communication and the demonstration of caring attitudes and roles by socially sensitive and skilled line managers’.

High potential candidates and the definition

Decisions around the definition of high potentials and who is in or out of that select club are often anecdotal or based on personal experience or legacy rather than hard evidence. This can raise questions of trust, transparency, fairness and engagement, along with managing the effect on individuals of appraisal, promotion or the lack of, and lay-off processes.

There are tensions – is talent innate or acquired, transferable or context dependent? And what makes people successful in one company and crash and burn in another? Is it really all about the person or is it the job, the culture or the environment? We need to understand the belief systems and practices which demonstrate this to employees – is it inclusive or exclusive? Or are all people, especially in organisations like McKinsey, ‘Talent’? Is the talent pool and building ‘breadth’ more important than solid succession plans, or do we need both?

There is an assumption that this group, having been identified as ‘Talent’, delivers more value to the organisation and there is a negative effect and perceived injustice in those employees who are not regarded as high potential. And yet we know that past performance is no predictor of future performance so why tell these people that they are talented? There is a strategic ambiguity in that companies are sometimes uncomfortable with telling the truth – high potentials may leave, have a sense of entitlement, or believe that their career paths aren’t delivering. There is a concern about peer group jealousy when individuals are singled out for that costly Harvard course – and clarity or not, there will be consequences for those who aren’t selected and feel they should have been.

Is talent scarce, as has often been assumed, especially given that we are often recruiting or replacing for jobs that probably won’t exist in 5 years time? And what do we mean by inclusive and exclusive? Perhaps all people are talented and what we should be doing is developing each person on an individual basis – and everyone wants to progress whether it is up, down or even sideways – but this is a difficult concept to put into practice. And when data is filtered through the line manager it’s tough to find the talent in global organisations made up of thousands of people – there is an in-built bias and senior managers may be blinkered or reluctant to take a risk.

Identifying talent might be made easier by offering progression as an opportunity to all, so it’s their choice to join in once they understand what they may gain, and what is expected. Some companies use a self-nomination process – but by saying ‘you tell us if you think you’re talent’, by definition, those who take up the challenge are self-starters. Does this suggest that talent is an exclusive group? And are we sure everyone wants progression anyway? Often they don’t – they just want enrichment of their existing role. And whilst it can be risky taking on someone who may not have the experience, do we allow them the time they need to learn and develop? Often we don’t want to wait 6 months so opt for a safe pair of hands and then wonder why we don’t have leaders with breadth.

In our mentoring assignments at Merryck, we can come across leaders who feel disenchanted, or stuck, or perhaps not enjoying the role any longer and we ask the question; ‘looking back over your career, can you recall any ‘golden moments’ when you felt as if all the stars were aligned and you really were able to deliver a good job? And what were the conditions which delivered that?’. There are no hesitations – they say immediately, ‘The organisation took a chance on me, they took a risk, gave me freedom and allowed me to decide on the strategy, gave me space, believed in me, respected me and supported me’. It’s then a good exercise to question the leader as to ‘how often does this happen in your company now? And if not, why not?’

Some companies create the environment, broaden the definition and criteria to allow people to fly, and others struggle to see beyond the line manager or CEO who can have a huge influence along with reliance on context.

Assessment tools/consultancies can often be decided on by the preference of the Group HRD or CEO and can be either exclusive or inclusive. Tools such as Extraordinary Leader was mentioned as one that was solidly based on research, delivered useful data and had an impact, and whereas some other assessment tools and consultancy input had mixed results or were deemed inflexible and not bespoke enough. We should use them to equip employees to gain a level of self-awareness around strengths and cultural fit, allow them to understand how to manage personal growth, recognise their own values, goals and contribution. Equally the company should have clarity around direction so that employees feel empowered and open to explore new opportunities without feeling as if they won’t get time to deliver. There is a difference between ‘telling’ (short termism) and ‘coaching’ (longer term but hopefully a richer result) and there should also be an awareness of what would be the biggest de-railer.

Using the concept of ‘gates’ or criteria experience more than function or geography can force line managers to make decisions around the experience and skills, exposure and knowledge needed to deliver in a new role so the candidate is fully prepared for the next role when it comes up.

Organisational justice is now coming into sharper focus (Lepak and Snell’s employment model of human capital management and performance was mentioned as a good point of reference) and we no longer ‘own’ human capital – the world has moved on and there isn’t a linear view. There are also consequences to the treatment of employees and much more awareness of both what they expect and what companies should deliver.

Talent progression is now more agile/complex, though we don’t get it right in all cultures. An example from ICI was used to explain how a wish to have Asian leaders rather than ex-pats in Asian markets worked after huge attrition, but took 20 years. The required movement of Asian talent to New York and back again to give them the breadth of cultural experience to enable them to lead was costly and time consuming but ultimately successful. Global nomads are more approachable and marketable although there is now a huge cost implication and companies are less keen on paying relocation packages. The world is changing so fast that organisations need to be flexible, adaptable and show they are agile – but realistically are usually unable to look much further ahead than three years. Showing that we employ ‘bright’ people is fine, but we need to be clear that we don’t just value ‘bright’ – leadership may need different skills, a mix of development experience, emotional intelligence and a level of stretch, and sometimes this might mean looking at and managing resource differently.

In a VUCA world where we can’t predict the future, it’s going to be interesting seeing what Kim’s research on Talent Management Strategy surfaces – we are looking forward to hearing more.

© Merryck & Co 2017

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