Managing a wealth of high-flyers

by 08 Jul 2009

How will leading global companies create value through people? Les Pickett gives HR Leader a peek at a new UK report on “tomorrow’s global talent”

The war for talent is over. Talent is abundant and in today’s competi tive market takes many forms.

Senior executives and human resource professionals need to rethink what they mean by talent. Talent is about people and their potential, not just about the jobs and skills they have acquired.

At present, most companies reserve the word talent for high-flyers who are destined to become top executives or high-level specialists.

This is too narrow a view for a world with multiple challenges – a world which needs people with a range of capabilities.

Talent is all around us just waiting to be unleashed.

Tomorrow’s company will be operat ing in an era and a new business environ ment in which value creation depends on environmental and social issues as much as on economic issues. This triple context presents significant challenges to corpo rate leadership and human resource pro fessionals and places new demands on people in organisations.

Contrary to popular belief and practice, we believe that talent should not be seen as a rare quality. It is a diverse, multi-faceted one that exists in everyone.

It is a nice quirk of the English language that talent is an anagram of latent, under lying our view that much talent remains hidden and undiscovered.

A big challenge confronting executive management is to discover talent. Instead of looking for people who correspond to some narrowly defined notion of talent, talent becomes something that companies must define in their own terms, according to their own circumstances.

Talent is something that their inter nal recruitment and development processes should be able to uncover in unexpected places.

As well as finding the appropriate talent, creating value through people means engaging them in pursuing the company’s goals.

This can be achieved only by identify ing what people care about and then devel oping the overlap between individual and corporate priorities.

In all of these areas, leadership is criti cal. But leadership needs to change. Tomorrow’s leaders will have to lead with sustainability at the front of their minds and they will lead in new ways.

Sustainability means being capable of keeping going. We define a sustainable company as one that understands that its long-term success depends upon – and, therefore, it must contribute to – the health of the economy, the environment and to society.

Building a sustainable company in the face of the triple context places considerable demands on the enterprises and their people. These will require new capabilities and approaches to talent and this will impact on the way in which they select, develop and advance their people.

Companies that believe talent is a scarce quality tend to adopt a filtering approach that excludes more and more people as they try to track down the elusive next generation of leaders.

Companies which believe that talent is abundant will widen their search and endeavour to get the best out of everyone in the organisation.

They will set less store by CV’s, qualifications and detailed job descriptions, believing that talent is about people and their potential, not just about the jobs and skill they have acquired.

Talent can be discovered inside and outside the company and the biggest task of the company and its leadership is to discover, unlock and harness it. This means recruiting for values and motivation and developing skills.

Research shows that many talented people work best in organisations that place little emphasis on hierarchical authority and more emphasis on the authority that is earned though knowledge, expertise or experience.

Many talented people tend to be non-conformists. Managing them is like herding cats. Unless an organisation can adjust its structure to accommodate such people, they may find themselves losing them to those who have flatter structures, ultimately leaving them full of conformists.

Talent is wasted in every organisation that pays only lip service to the idea that its employees – all of them and the way they interact – are their most valuable asset.

Once people have been recruited development is essential. Much effort goes into the recruitment process, finding the theoretically ideal person for the job. Once the person is inside the organisation the assumption that they are the “perfect fit” often means that they are left with little support.

This ignores the fact that new recruits need to learn about the organisa tion and the particular context in which they will be working. Instead of this systemic shortcoming being recognised and addressed, the individual is judged to be lacking in the necessary talent.

Once people join an organisation they quickly gain a sense of how much they are valued. They can quickly become demotivated by processes and cultures that suggest that the organisation regards its real talent as being the small cadre of leadership succession candidates to whom it devotes development investment and executive attention.

By contrast, other organisations have thrived under the opposite approach – one in which the company is seen as the star and everyone in the company sees themselves as contributing their talent to its success.

Even when companies resist the star culture, but still retain groups of con spicuous high-flyers, problems can result. Those who are not included in the high-flyer group may become resentful and lose momentum.

Those who are included may not stay in any one job long enough for any real learning to take place. Others may find themselves staying too long as regional or divisional managers try to hold on to them and their abilities.

As the massive implications of the triple context become increasingly understood the value of employees who can navigate the multiple strands of sustainability will become increasingly recognised.

Beyond the challenges of attracting suitable people, developing and retaining talent will become a highly competitive capability. Traditional methods of engagement must be redesigned to reflect the interests of the emerging talent pool, and the needs of this pool must be understood.

In the end it all comes down to leadership. Successful leaders will also appreciate that they are simply looking after the business for a stage of its journey. They are stewards of the company and its people.

Tomorrow’s leaders will be exceptional individuals. They will be more exceptional than previous generations of leaders. It was relatively easy to be a leader who made the decisions and devolved the execution. In turbu lent times the acquisition of leadership talent is not just business-critical – it is country-critical.

Tomorrow’s leaders will really care about developing every ounce of individual and collective capability that exists within their organisa tions. Talent will be one of the top three agenda items for the corporate executive team.

Different leaders can produce dramatically different results from the same team of people. This says something about both the team and leader. As well as demonstrating the leader’s effectiveness, it shows how good the team can be and just how much talent is wasted by poor leadership.

Our report shows that the way organisations and leaders think about talent has to be fundamentally different. To help understand the impact, we have identified a new mindset to progress our global inquiry into how leading companies will create value through people.

Les Pickett is ambassador for Tomorrow’s Company, chief executive of the Pacific Rim Consulting Group and partner, Australia and South East Asia, for McBassi & Company. Les can be contacted at: