Where Did All the Talent Go?

Scott Esposito

There are a number of areas where HR can make a huge impact on the business it supports. None of these have greater importance than the development and readiness of leaders to guide the company’s future. Whether the business is growing or shrinking, the depth and breadth of talent is the only sustainable competitive advantage in the long run.

Consider the following scenario:

"We have a robust college recruiting program and pipeline, a high potential list, a quarterly leadership development review, talent goals embedded in performance appraisals and 'ready now' successors for our key roles. Why has this executive opening gone unfilled for 6 months? Where did all the talent go?"

Perhaps a bit exaggerated, but who among us would not admit to hearing something similar in the past? The first step in addressing this puzzling situation is to understand what business succession planning is not. It is not an annual event, an HR program, a line item in performance objectives or an application available on the IT system.

Philosophy and Process

At the operational level, business succession planning is a process with a definable purpose: to identify future leadership needs and manage a set of supporting activities to fill the gap between talent demand and talent availability. At this level, we create a system, apply standard work and follow the program cycle to produce a succession plan. In this context, succession planning becomes the MRP of the HR world.
At the strategic level, succession planning is the means by which the organization plans for its evolution. What is lacking in many organizations is an overarching philosophy that guides thinking and forms the basis for quality decision making. Ultimately, the process execution piece of succession planning must be connected with a talent philosophy to truly achieve a sustainable system. When philosophies are adopted, values, beliefs and operating principles follow. Unity of purpose becomes clear, disagreements are resolved through rationale and objective criteria, and discussions turn into rich collaboration. A talent philosophy might include a set of beliefs such as the ones listed below:

  • Acquiring and developing top talent is a competitive imperative and a priority for our business.
  • At every opportunity, we grow our high potential talent in stretch assignments and place them in critical parts of the business to accelerate their development.
  • When top talent is identified, we always find a place in our organization as an entry point.
  • We invest in developing talent ahead of our current needs to provide for instantaneous succession and to export talent to other parts of the business.
  • There are no compromises on talent selection and no situational hires; our goal is to put the right person in the right job at the right time.
  • There are no career bystanders in our business. Everyone has a path and an executable plan.

Once beliefs are adopted and internalized by all the stakeholders, the right behaviors and actions follow and a universal language is established that transcends position and level.

Diagnosing the Major Symptoms

What are the consequences when there is lack of clear alignment between the operational and strategic levels? Talent and succession planning decisions that once made perfect sense stand out as inconsistent with current business needs. These disconnects become more evident with changing business conditions and competing priorities. Some of the most common manifestations include: recognition that people on the list may not be the right ones, disagreements on who is selected or how it is done, and the promotion of leaders who do not perform as expected. These conditions are highlighted below with some ideas on how to address them.

1. High potential candidates that show up on the list year after year as "ready now," but never ascend to the next level.

High potential is not a life-time appointment and the organization should be flexible enough to take people off and put them back on the list over time, if appropriate. Do not create a list without planning for continued change and refinement. Never use high potential status as a reward or retention tool.

2. Disagreements on talent choices, even in the presence of agreed upon pre-slates for specific jobs.

Ensure that all stakeholders are trained against the selection standards and assessment criteria. Provide for collaboration across functions, business units, and through successive management reviews -- avoid the temptation to have managers independently put people on the list. Concerns, reservations, or disagreements should be surfaced and resolved before successors are picked-- not when the openings occur.

3. The promotion of leaders who do not demonstrate the required competencies.

All individuals included on succession plans should have a formal development plan that maps the path from the current state to their indentified ultimate potential. Assignments that exercise required skills and competencies should be the result of planning, not chance. When the appointment is made, the organization should have a high level of confidence that the incumbent will be able to handle the job scope, forge the right relationships and successfully navigate the political climate.

Foundation for a Strong Talent Management Process

Listed below are guidelines for establishing a comprehensive talent management process. They stand out as the most significant ones based on many years of practical experience and lessons that emerged from root cause analyses and corrective actions.

Each organization should articulate a talent philosophy and develop a set of operating principles to guide talent processes. Constructive discussions, vigorous debates and disagreements should all be governed by a common set of beliefs.

The high potential list should be a mix of early, mid and late career candidates. If the list is limited to early career employees, you have dramatically discounted the available talent pool and set the stage for an exclusive, rather than inclusive, culture. The list should provide for some level of turnover and serve as the organization’s tactical play book.

Ensure that high potential selection and assessment criteria are objective, measureable and linked to observable behaviors, competencies and performance indicators. Include a sunset provision to make sure the criteria remains relevant in light of changing business needs.

Talent demand should be calculated for a 5 to 10 year period. Evaluate demand for both volume and skill mix (even shrinking organizations generate significant needs) Factor in to the equation: future products and markets, turnover, development lead-times, and productivity factors that adjust headcount requirements.

Establish a high potential pipeline that reaches back to college recruiting -- not all of them will make it to top leadership roles, but do not forfeit 5 - 10 years of thoughtful consideration. If we have truly hired the best, most promising talent out of school, by definition they are all high potential from day one.

Gain leadership alignment around all successors and their readiness for key positions; open positions should be more about execution, and less about discussions. Organizations should know, in advance, which positions will be internally sourced and which ones are best suited to external sourcing.

Place demands on high potentials to identify, coach and develop other high potentials at lower levels in the organization. A discipline for talent management at an early career stage will forge strong behaviors for the future.

Final Thoughts

Very large and successful companies struggle with talent management and succession planning -- most would admit to not getting it perfect all of the time. However, if an organization starts with a clean sheet of paper and defines a talent philosophy all of the other pieces will fall into place; policies, systems and standard work will align with strategy and decisions will be consistent with business needs. If we get it right, the time invested on talent management will be spent on developing future leaders rather than answering the question: "Where did all the talent go"?