Ride the Talent Wave

Five years ago I started to research a question that seemed fundamental to HR: If succession planning and talent management work, how come the wrong people so often get to the top? After hundreds of interviews and an intense review of the academic literature, it’s clear the paraphernalia of succession and talent management are not part of the solution. They are a major part of the problem.

What has gone wrong is that HR — desperate to be seen and contribute — has invested more and more effort in trying to control the relationship between talented people and the organization, on the mistaken assumption that it is dealing with a simple, linear system. Yet employee-employer relationships are in a constant state of evolution, typical of a complex adaptive system, and thus are essentially uncontrollable.

Even the metaphors we use to describe talent management undermine attention to a dynamic, constantly changing relational landscape. For example, the term “talent pool” evokes imagery around shallowness and stagnation, and that’s what happens in many organizations which have a narrow definition of what talent looks like and rarely revisit their assumptions about talent identification.

Similarly, pipelines are associated with constriction into narrow, inflexible, one-directional paths that can easily get blocked. They also tend to leak. The reality is pipelines reduce choice and the ability to react to change for employees and employers.

A metaphor more in keeping with dynamic systems is a talent wave. A wave is pure energy. On the sea, it is not the water that moves, but the energy waves that pass through it. For HR and for corporate leadership, the choice in identifying, growing and retaining talent lies between largely ineffectual attempts to control this energy and finding imaginative ways to harness and work with it.

When we look at the evidence about whether these attempts to select, mold and slot talent actually deliver value, it is woefully thin. At best, the leadership competency frameworks, the nine-box grids and the succession charts create mediocrity in the levels of senior management. At worst, they undermine attempts to overcome the persistent problem that diversity at the bottom of organizations isn’t reflected at the top, and they provide exactly the kind of tick-box environment where sociopaths can maneuver their way to positions of greater influence. Some of the key lessons from my research are:

• Use all the HR bling only to help people think about development, not to judge who is or isn’t talented. View the landscape of job roles and available talent as constantly evolving. Instead of trying to hold back change, ride with it and even encourage it. When a job vacancy arises, don’t think about who could fill it as it is, see it as an opportunity for a bright person to transform it. Many times this person will not be on the radar or even in the talent pool.

• Rethink what we mean by leadership. Innovation is increasingly driven not through formal structures but by informal alliances on the corporate Internet. Three roles seem to be critical: identifying issues, creating innovative solutions and finding the resources to implement them. Only the last of these is hierarchy dependent. It’s time to re-examine our fixation with leadership as invested in single heroes and see it as a more distributed, systemic phenomenon.

• Raise the quality and honesty of dialogue between employees and the organization. There are four critical conversations: one that helps employees understand themselves, their ambitions and values more fully so they can take greater charge of managing their own careers; one between employees and their key stakeholders about using current opportunities to develop capability and track record; one more generally between employees and the organization about aligning careers and business development; and one that takes place within the social networks that employees and companies share.

Together, these conversations give a clearer and more diverse perspective on where talent lies and how not to get in its way.

In short, do and control less; enable and listen more; and remember that, while most managers instinctively define talent as someone like them, genuine talent is fickle, unpredictable and apt to fail occasionally because it pushes boundaries.