Talent management: how organisations can help or hinder

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Talent management has become a familiar phrase among managers and HR professionals, stimulated by McKinsey’s ‘war for talent’. The idea has often courted controversy, especially when it has meant concentrating development resources on an elite. But what is talent management? It seems that some businesses are not entirely sure: the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)’s 2006 survey of learning and development found that 80% of organisations reported no definition of ‘talent’. Also, perhaps not surprisingly, 60% of organisations had no talent management strategy.

What It Is

The CIPD’s website states that ‘broadly speaking [talent management] can be understood as referring to the identification, development, engagement/retention and deployment of those employees who are particularly valuable to an organisation – either in view of their ‘high potential’ for the future or because they are fulfilling business/operation-critical roles’.

Our view is that talent management is about investing in developing the knowledge, skills, behaviours and attitudes of an organisation’s people. The purpose of developing people’s talent is to improve their capability to perform and achieve better results. Furthermore, we recommend an inclusive approach that does not focus solely on an elite. There are two reasons for this: firstly, all people can improve their performance if they receive the right leadership and appropriate development for their roles. Secondly, all organisational positions should be essential to the business, meaning that the people in them can always add greater value with the right development.

Organisational Context

We argue that talent management activities must be shaped by the business strategy. People will not be able to implement successful change, or learning, if the organisation’s structures and processes and systems do not support them. It is also true that if the strategy, structures and processes change, without people having the chance to learn the new ways and methods of working, the intended changes will not be successful.

Employee Engagement

The successful development of talent is directly dependant on employee engagement. Engagement is influenced by:

  • The perception that the organisation supports the individual’s personal development, and
  • Management capability – reflected in professional, fair and impartial behaviour.

Therefore, there must be a unity of purpose between the individual, the individual’s manager and the organisation if talent management activities are to be successful in driving up performance for current and future business activities.

Talent and Effectiveness

We advocate that organisations strive for organisational effectiveness – the ability to maximise results in the competitive external environment. The achievement of this aim depends on three essentials:

  • Knowledgeable, skilled and motivated people,
  • Effective leadership, and
  • An organisation designed to enable people to achieve.

Clearly, knowledgeable, skilled and motivated people are the outcome of successful talent management. Effective leadership and an enabling organisation are the principal means to foster talent that will build the capability to improve individual performance, which will in turn lead to the improvement of organisational performance.


Given the importance of managers in mediating the relationship of people with the organisation, especially with respect to engagement and productivity, it is critical that they are equipped with the knowledge, skills and confidence to play a leadership role in managing talent. Whether or not managers are proactive in contributing to talent management will largely depend on an organisation’s culture and specifically its views on the manager’s role.

Even with highly paid knowledge workers and professionals, the leadership style of the manager is critical. In appropriate circumstances and times, managing professionals can demand a ‘lighter touch that gives ‘headroom’ to the individual. However, high performing organisations go beyond simply giving space for motivation in a particular job; they aim to engage people in the realisation of the organisation’s purpose and the achievement of its business strategy. This demands an active commitment by managers to the management of talent in relation to the purpose and goals of the organisation.


Organisational culture will have a substantial effect on whether talent management activities will succeed and contribute to improving results. Organisations will be more effective in their talent management if they encourage active leadership by managers and the coaching of their people to ‘go the extra mile’.

In the early 90s, Peter Senge promoted the value of the ‘learning organisation’ and how, for this to be effective, the organisation had to establish the value of ongoing learning in its culture. This meant developing the role of managers in enabling learning among their people. To stimulate innovation and creativity, the development of talent is essential, and managers must take the lead with the support of their HR colleagues in Learning and Development.

With respect to changes in strategic, organisational and/or working process, executive and line management need to be sufficiently committed to these new ways to be able to communicate with and coach their people in ‘what it means to them’. This has huge implications for developing managers themselves.

Practical Implications for Managers

For talent management to be successful and enable the organisation to adapt to the changes in the external environment and drive up results, both managers and the organisation need to be developed appropriately.

Managers need to develop their capability to actively identify talent and manage its development. Firstly, this means accepting accountability for this aspect of their role. Secondly, it means developing their skills and confidence in coaching their people, especially their direct reports. For managers of managers, this latter activity is part and parcel of their leadership responsibility for shaping the right culture that supports the development of talent.

Practical Implications for Organisations

To shape a learning organisation, the leading executives need to be active in demonstrating their support for talent management. This means fostering a coaching culture among managers. Executives can do this by being active in coaching their own direct reports and/or making themselves available to coach promising less senior managers.

Most importantly, Learning and Development professionals need to be provided with the resources to:

  • help managers be effective in fulfilling their responsibilities for talent management through developing leadership capability as well as skills and confidence to coach the development of talent, and
  • provide the tools and processes to support the identification and development of talent.

This latter function is particularly critical in relation to identifying potential management talent or for where it is desirable to identify an individual’s capabilities beyond their present occupation.


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