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Talent Matters

By TLF Research

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ 13th Annual CEO Survey, in the UK 65% of CEOs plan to increase investment in leadership and talent management and 78% plan changes to their talent management strategies in the wake of the financial crisis. Opinion about when we will recover from the crisis is divided. However, organisations that are well-led have a much better chance of survival and are able to take advantage of new business opportunities created by changes in customer demand and spending. Talent management has rarely been more critical to business success.

cognitive mind

The meaning of “talent”

In difficult economic times, smart organisations don’t automatically follow conventional wisdom – extracting more from employees and investing little in people development. Instead, they strive to make their organisation attractive to “talented people” who already know how valuable they are. But, what do we mean by “talent”? Is it the few or is it the many? Unsurprisingly, opinions differ. Graduates, high performers, senior managers and people in short supply are frequently mentioned and the answer often depends on the organisation’s culture as well as personal opinion. It’s important to use definitions and labels that don’t denigrate others, especially now when many employees feel de-motivated and are wondering about job security. In 2007, research by Cannon and McGee, for the CIPD, concluded that it was possible to distil differing opinions into a definition that can provide a working basis for the development of a talent management strategy:

“Talent consists of those individuals who can make a difference to organisational performance, either through their immediate contribution or in the longer term by demonstrating the highest levels of potential.”

Interestingly, this definition applies to the few, for example the top 1% of performers in a high-growth bio-technology company, and the many, such as receptionists and restaurant employees at a 5 star hotel, who are key to an exceptional guest experience. Terms for talent management vary too, but the CIPD’s latest research report seems to sum this up nicely as:

“Initiatives and/or strategies put in place to harness the unique talents of individual employees and convert their talent potential into optimum organisation performance”.

What is clear is that developing and communicating a common understanding of talent within an organisation is critical to success. This will vary considerably between organisations, but it is important to be clear about: ‘what do we mean by “talent” and “what does talent management mean to us”.

Why talented people stand out

We know talent when we see it – an artist, musician, dancer or sports person – but exactly what makes them stand out? Many talent identification processes consider what people do now – their performance – and what they appear to be capable of in the future – their potential. Cannon and McGee put forward a view based on a series of indicators, as follows:

high performance indicator - high potential indicator

Has your organisation identified its “talent”? If it hasn’t, you don’t need rocket science; existing performance management processes are a good starting point. 9-box grids (see chart 1) plotting performance and potential and competency / skills frameworks offer powerful insights about the extent to which “talent” exists. If your organisation doesn’t know its talent, they certainly will.

talent mapping chart

Experiences that talented people value

In terms of developing competence and capability, what type of experiences do talented people value most? My research and client experience leads me to the following:

- Exposure to leaders (including the top leadership team) throughout the organisation – being inspired, challenged and encouraged

- Time to think at events – testing ideas, thoughts

- Formation of peer groups across the organisation – keeping in contact with like-minded talent

- Feedback on their performance – importantly how to improve

- Learning new techniques – technical, presentational

- Support and challenges from colleagues – as a team player and an individual

- Prioritising and planning – balancing creative and practical attributes

- External coaching and mentoring – creating self awareness, reflecting on different learning and developmental experiences

- Greater involvement of / coaching by own manager – critical to post-programme, back-at-the-workplace life.

Talented people can inspire others to strive for the top and this happens in all walks of life. Steven McRae, Principal Dancer of the Royal Ballet and Graduate of The Royal Ballet School, takes time out from his dancing to meet students at The Royal Ballet School – a wonderful opportunity for them to meet one of their leading role models. “Don’t be afraid to dream” is one of his key messages. That’s something the lost generation of young unemployed people in the UK need to be encouraged to do right now. How many business leaders, I wonder, provide inspirational experiences for their employees?

The content of talent management programmes, of course, must be driven by organisational requirements. Examples of what’s run by three leading organisations in the pharmaceutical, financial services and food retailing sectors are set out in the “Talent Management in Practice” panel on the next page.

Managing clever people

In their book Clever: Leading your smartest, most creative people, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones look at talent management from a “clever people” perspective. Clever people really care and it shows in their teams, which are found in a wide range of organisational settings. Clever people are highly talented individuals with the potential to create disproportionate amounts of value from the resources that the organisation makes available to them. So, every organisation needs clever people. Goffee and Jones set out “rules of clever engagement” which include:

do and dont

It would be interesting to compare the views of “clever people” and those who manage them, on the basis of these dos and don’ts.

A final thought

In its latest research, the CIPD found that “social networking is becoming more important, both as a driver and outcome of talent management programmes. As organisations become more fluid in terms of structure, people need to be able to work in virtual teams, form alliances across (geographic) boundaries and have easy access to knowledge and people. Contemporary talent management programmes provide a way for people to ‘bond’ with peers they would normally not have access to.” Talent definitely matters!

Top Tips

- Clearly communicate the rationale for and objectives of your talent programme or pool

- Ensure participants’ expectations in a programme or pool are consistent with the expectations of the business

- Include effective development opportunities such as coaching, mentoring and networking

- Ensure selection criteria for talent management programmes are administered consistently and you have a strategy for those who are not accepted

- Make the selection process a learning event in itself and ensure all applicants have detailed and constructive feedback

- Agree valuable ways in which the energy of previous participants can be harnessed


The three organisational examples here are drawn from the CIPD Survey Report “The Talent Perspective”, Summer 2010.

barclays - astellas - pizza express

Raymond Robertson Director, Strategic Reward Consultant, Visiting Lecturer, Guest Speaker and Author

Tel: 01425 612789; email:

Ray works with a wide range of organisations to develop and implement HR practices which drive employee engagement and business success. His clients include Manchester United, Whitbread, Siemens, ABB, Northumbrian Water, Porsche, Miller Insurance and Ralph Trustees, owners of one of the largest independent 4* and 5* luxury hotel groups in the UK. Ray is a visiting lecturer/guest speaker at several business schools and conferences. He facilitates HR/Board away-days, in-company events, focus groups and workshops. He is the author of a major book The Together Company – Rewarding what matters most to people and organisations.


Goffee, R and Jones G, Clever: Leading your smartest, most creative people

Bersin & Associates (2010) Enterprise learning & talent management predictions. Research report. Oakland, CA

CIPD (Summer 2010) The Talent Perspective

CIPD (2007) Talent management: design, implementation and evaluation

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