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Don’t Give the Talent Strategy to HR

The title of this piece is not intended to offend anyone – especially not those in the HR profession.

I have had the privilege of leading groups of South African HR and talent leaders to engage with top global companies in Europe and the United States on the subjects of talent management, leadership development, and learning and development. These included the following organisations:

All these organisations fall into what I call the ‘premier league’ of admired organisations. They may not be the most sustainably profitable, but most are in the top rankings of “Best Company to Work For”, “Most Admired Company”, “Best Company for Leaders” and similar surveys. They have also mostly been around for a long time!

What is it that differentiates these organisations and ones like them from all the others? Why is it that they can generally attract and retain some of the best talent in the world?

One of the greatest lessons that I learnt from these companies is that few of them see talent management as the preserve of the HR Department. To the contrary, their CEOs and other leaders recognise that the attraction and retention of highly talented and skilled employees is a key factor in the execution of their business strategy. Therefore, they not only support talent management initiatives, they also play a leading role in ensuring their success. They consider talent as one of their key responsibilities.

Does that mean that the HR department has a diminished role? Certainly not! Indeed HR plays a key role in building the initiatives, processes and systems that ensure effective talent management. But they don’t own the talent strategy; they support the executive in their leadership of talent role.

The point is illustrated by the following hypothetical question: Assume that a ‘second league’ organisation were able miraculously and successfully to ‘cut and paste’ into their own setup all the talent processes and systems applied by Proctor and Gamble, would this automatically elevate the organisation to the premier league with the likes of P&G? The answer clearly is no. So the key question is: If it is not the HR processes and systems, what is the differentiating factor?

That differentiator is leadership and the attitude of leaders to talent development. These premier league organisations, including some leading South African organisations, have created a leadership culture in which talent development is a key factor. Although this leadership culture is manifested in each organisation in very different ways, most organisations share the following characteristics:

  • They support a culture of what I call a talent surplus. P&G told us that it is their policy not to recruit for levels higher than graduate trainee (although I am sure they do on occasion!). What they do is recruit the very best graduates from around the world and then place them on highly stimulating graduate development programmes. Many will leave, but they will have had the benefit of the best preparation in the world while they remained with the organisation. In South Africa any really good marketing department in any leading organisation will probably have someone whose early career was shaped in Unilever. In manufacturing, SABMiller is a leading producer of manufacturing management to the country. This mental model which drives these organisations to build a robust talent pipeline, although often not articulated, is one of the factors that differentiates premier league organisations.
  • There is a culture of talent and leadership development – and it is required to be executed by line managers. At CBS, for example, their training department plays a minimal role. Leaders are expected to build the skills of the talent entrusted to them for the future of the organisation. Furthermore, such development, whether formal or informal, is not just about sending people on pleasant courses. It is rigorous, stretching and demanding, and talented recruits are expected to perform, often in very challenging environments. Such development is about creating great learning experiences, providing coaching and support, and monitoring how talent performs.
  • A key priority for all these organisations is creating global diversity, in every sense of the word. The leadership culture is geared to facilitating inclusion as a value, so that talent from all parts of the world, all generations, different genders and with different world views (but which align with the organisational values) are encouraged to engage with the organisation.
  • Unlike many other organisations, leaders in these organisations are open to the changing nature of work and, rather than adopting a defensive approach to technology, they leverage technology to provide flexibility that can more easily accommodate the individual Another significant lesson for me is the importance of organisational purpose with which persons with diverse talent can identify and align their own life or career purpose. For talented persons, contributing to or being part of something worthwhile (other than enriching faceless shareholders) is a hugely motivating factor. Increasingly, talent favours organisations where the organisational purpose supports sustainability and has a valuable social purpose.
  • needs of those with talent. Hence, the work environment and work practices play an important role in talent attraction and retention.
  • It goes without saying that these organisations all have effective succession and talent pipelines. Important, however, is the depth of conversation about the kind of person who is required for a particular role at a particular time. Too often in organisations there is an HR-devised competency ‘tick box’ which results in a very superficial understanding of what talent is required. Leaders, in particular, play an important role in that conversation, and are also required continually to assess and evaluate talent.

None of the characteristics of premier league organisations mentioned above can be created and maintained by HR. HR provides a key role through guidance, processes, systems and various initiatives. However, a talent-directed culture can only be driven by leaders at all levels. The CEO and executives play a key role in setting this culture, but it needs to become pervasive at all levels of leadership in the organisation. It is this talent-directed culture and leadership behaviour that differentiates premier league organisations from the rest. It can only be built by the organisations’ leaders.

Terry Meyer
 is a strategy and leadership consultant, an academic, author of six books and a keynote speaker. His areas of expertise include strategy, organisational design, leadership, and human capital and talent strategy.

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