Deciding the Future of Talent

Image courtesy of Flickr/Palantir

The talent pipeline plans ofthe past couple of years looked “future perfect.” There was no way they could fail.   

This common belief was drawn up thanks to advances in human capital technology platforms that are now able to produce slick reports with the succession module as the star of the show.

Unfortunately, a bumper crop of “ready now” successors hasn’t materialized despite the new technological heft.

As a number of recent benchmark studies have reported, the success rate of talent planning processes is dismal — most studies put the plan-to-place rate at less than 30 percent. Yet talent practitioners accept this “hit rate” as the nature of the talentbusiness.

Imagine how the board of directors would regard the chief financial officer who misses financial forecasts two-thirds of the time? 

What’s behind the poor track record of talent planning? Go back to the basics of the practice, and you’ll see it’s based on decisions.

Whether you’re deciding the next manager to promote or to pursue an external search, talent management is driven by decisions. Great calls on talent indicate excellent decisions, while poor judgments point to faulty ones. The decision rhythm and rhyme is central to building a quality talent pipeline.

In my experience, paying attention to this fundamental is critical. Left to chance, the other talent building practices will be shaky.

To improve the odds of success, here are three challenges to high-quality talent planning decisions: false positives, hidden negatives and predicting.

1. False positives are the talent decisions that are too good to be true. A star performer at middle management is seen as the next senior executive. Oftentimes we were right, and with strategic developmental assignments, the star was ready when the position opened. In some cases, however, that star never ends up shining, and even with the right moves the person never develops as a “go-to” backup successor. 

Confusing current role performance with the capabilities needed for senior positions was the root of the error. Of course, there is a range of traps enabling false positives, like a lack of a clear consensus on destination position requirements or a singular evaluation point of the employee.

2. Hidden negativesare the fatal flaws that make talent really unsuitable for bigger jobs. But they are not always clearly present or considered. More serious than a minor weakness, these include inability to step up the strategic demands of senior roles, poor interpersonal skills or failure to build strong teams and high-performing talent. Often these are known at some level but tolerated because of othertowering strengths. 

3. Predicting, rather than preparing,is the dangerous assumption that avoiding false positives and surfacing hidden negatives alone will be enough to produce a great supply of “ready now” talent. Doing your best here will improve the odds, but these are still not guarantees.

High-performance talent planning is a delicate balance of driving hard on practices that matter but also recognizing the limits of dealing with the unknowns of the future. The unknowns include dealing with the dynamics of the market where today’s critical role becomes tomorrow’s irrelevant desk.

New business strategies will demand new competencies that may be unseen today. Don’t forget, judging human potential to grow in untested areas is tricky. Compound that with the shifting personal values and life-career changes wheretoday’s globally mobile leader announces a “stay-put” preference. 

To be sure, these things can’t be predicted, but knowing there will be uncontrollable variables should refocus our decision making from being perfect to being prepared.

Prepare by staffing with flexible players who can grow into multiple roles. Prepare by increasing the options with a biastoward recruiting upwardly mobile recruits. Prepare by increasing the frequency of career discussions with top talent and of talent planning in pace with changes in business strategy shifts.

All in all, consider improving the decision disciplines to have your organization and talent best prepared for the future.