Talent Management in a Post-COVID World

There is a danger that talent management is another HR fad – a solution looking for a problem. It was first mentioned by McKinsey in their ‘War for Talent’ report in 1997. Since then it has been widely adopted by HR, but like so many HR terms there is a danger that it has been undermined by the way it has been implemented. We have seen some great examples but also examples of talent management processes that are:

  • disconnected from the business strategy – defining talent against a historic, generic competency framework, not against future business needs
  • overcomplicated and so time-consuming that by the time decisions are made the world has moved on
  • focused on process compliance versus actioned outcomes, with the result there is no follow-through and of course no discernible value
  • have no leadership or management buy-in, so decisions on talent are taken outside the talent management process
  • political minefields where leaders protect ‘their’ talent to avoid their best people being poached by their internal competition.

Only talent management processes that address these issues will be relevant in our new normal.

In his article in HBR [i] in 2016, Todd Warner identified three reasons why talent management wasn’t working. In re-reading the article, I was struck by how even more relevant his thoughts are in a world where strategy has moved from certainty about the future to uncertainty about anything!

  • Leaders promote familiarity, not talent. They want people they are comfortable with. This rarely works, but in our COVID world of massive change we need cognitive diversity – people who think differently, not people who tick every box in some bland generic competency framework.
  • Leaders promote people who make them look good. Again, in our current environment we don’t want box-tickers, we want people who challenge our thinking because what got us here won’t get us through the crisis.
  • Leaders promote people who fit their context. But if the external context is changing as rapidly as it is today, we need people who fit an ever-changing external context, not an internal context that was relevant in January but isn’t relevant in July.

So what is the impact of the current economic crisis? The rapidly changing economic climate has produced shock waves through some organisations. For talent managers there is the need to look through two lenses.

Short-term Survival

This presents a number of issues:

  • Measures are needed to retain existing talent, and this involves assessing just how fit they are for the immediate future we are facing. Getting ‘line of site’ is not easy when we are operating to such short time horizons and often virtually.
  • Areas such as risk management, being able to take tough decisions and managing the talented in a difficult environment are taking priority. How do those without relevant experience gain appropriate ‘fast-track’ development opportunities in these areas?
  • There is the need to support leaders who feel responsibility for the current situation with a consequent sense of guilt and, in turn, developing leaders’ capability in supporting staff. It is very noticeable how some leaders have thrived, and others have disappeared. We have to update our assessment of leaders based on their ability to operate in the current uncertainty, not in times of certainty as it is highly unlikely we will return to certainty.
  • In a crisis situation the time frames for action are possibly as short as 60/90 days, whilst talent processes often operate on an annual cycle.

Longer Term Reset and Thrive

This presents a number of different challenges:

  • Securing talent, including those with rather different competencies from what was looked for previously e.g. agility, flexibility, resilience, lateral thinking and courage. This is at a time when bonuses will be severely curtailed with a potential impact on motivation.
  • It is unclear whether supply and demand is a problem or not. There will be new business opportunities to be seized which will arise as a result of the crisis. How can talent management support these?
  • As we change our business models, we might need very different skills and attitudes in the future. Are these dimensions present in the current competency frameworks? Are they aligned with the needs of the current and future organisation due to the different emphasis being placed as the crisis moves forward? There is undoubtedly an increased emphasis on a results focus. The talent pool needs to be viewed as just that, and people moved into essential roles for the organisation where their strengths will be well-deployed. Development for those in the talent pool will be through the challenge of getting results in the short-term through other people.
  • One of the clear changes is that many managers will be faced with having to manage in a tough situation, something of which they may not have any experience. There is the need for change agency skills and authentic leadership.

It is even more critical that talent management is aligned to an emergent business strategy to ensure it is adding value, not just taking time and resources. Talent managers should focus less on the process and more on:

  • agility and simplicity – using Occam’s Razor to cut through overcomplexity and speeding everything up
  • relevance – embedding talent issues into the business strategy process and demonstrating the impact of talent shortages, e.g. growth constraints against new business opportunities
  • risk-oriented – linking talent to business risk, e.g. succession/continuity/sustainability, using data to quantify risk where possible
  • opportunism – riding on the back of other issues to drive the talent agenda
  • focused – prioritising time and action on those areas where there are key strategic future business needs, not focusing exclusively on leadership but including constraints due to shortages in future key roles
  • credibility – being business-focused, forward-looking, action-oriented, and engaging in style and content.

There is an old saying that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. The context for talent management has changed dramatically – do we need to dramatically rethink talent management?

[i] https://hbr.org/2016/07/3-reasons-why-talent-management-isnt-working-anymore


Upcoming Events

Talent Management: Careers, Development And Succession In A Changing Landscape Wednesday 18 November, 12:00 – 13:00

CRF Learning: Integrated Talent Management 23-24 November

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