The (as of yet) Unfulfilled Promise of Talent Management

Talent Management is the new black. It’s trendy, chic, and virtually every Fortune 100 company wants to have it. But, what exactly is it? The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) defines it in the following manner.

A holistic approach to optimizing human capital, which enables an organization to drive short- and long-term results by building culture, engagement, capability, and capacity through integrated talent acquisition, development, and deployment processes that are aligned to business goals.


Do me a favor. Walk into your CEO’s office and give him/her this definition and tell me how long it takes for their eyes to glaze over. I’ll bet you $5 you don’t get past holistic. But, if you ask him or her what drives the business, having the best people is most likely going to come out in the first sentence of their answer. The rush to establish talent management as a function is based on the perception of the C-Suite that people are indeed important coupled with the uneasy feeling from those same leaders that they don’t know how to get, develop, and keep the best people to work in their organizations.

The knee jerk reaction is to create a talent management function that owns “get, develop, and keep” for the company. A leader is appointed, several functions are assigned to them (most likely executive and organizational development, performance management, talent acquisition, and perhaps diversity), and this newly created organization often finds that they have no mandate, specific objectives, and, most critically, no true executive level support.

Anecdotally, the feedback I’ve received on the above scenario is rife with frustration from all constituents. In one company, the lead talent management role has been a hot potato position within the senior human resources team. Several HR VP’s have taken it on and have found talent management to be completely disconnected from the business. In another company, the newly minted VP, Talent Management has found himself with the charge of transforming recruitment, development, performance management, and succession planning into an integrated department against the backdrop of HR processes and client expectations, resistant to change, that support a siloed approach to these functions. In several cases, I have seen talent management leaders who run to their area of comfort, severely neglecting the groups reporting into them with which they have the least experience. For one reason or another, talent acquisition is the function that most often ends up getting the short end of the stick.

I believe that the reason why so many companies get into this problematic situation is that the C-Suite too often abdicates its own responsibility for talent management. It puts someone in charge of talent management and forgets about it; the feeling being that if someone owns the function then things will get done. However, as one of our recent placements in talent management related to me, if some “one” owns the function, then talent management is doomed to failure in an organization. Talent management is a shared responsibility and needs to be ingrained in the DNA of a company.

General Electric is one of the acknowledged global leaders in developing talent (you GE haters should feel free to roll your eyes as you read the next paragraph). Guess what? GE doesn’t have a discrete talent management function. Talent management doesn’t have one owner; the company as a whole owns talent management beginning at the top. In Ram Charan and Bill Conaty’s book The Talent Masters, they state that Jack Welch devoted 40% of his time to talent issues. In his eyes, managing the talent pipeline for the company wasn’t an additional responsibility, it was his key responsibility. Welch’s obsessive drive to have the best people in the right positions created a company infrastructure designed to support talent management and a core value amongst GE leadership that it was their responsibility to develop the next generation of leaders in the company.

What are the implications for the emerging function of talent management? First, if managing talent isn’t a fundamental belief of an organization, particularly the CEO, the function will never achieve its potential. Second, if a company is not willing to invest in processes and change behaviors in order to support an integrated function, talent management will continue to be delivered in a piece meal fashion. Third, the talent management leader’s role should not be to create the talent vision but to operationalize it. The “what” is the shared responsibility of the leadership team; the “how” is the responsibility of the talent management function.

For those of you out there thinking about senior roles in talent management, I’d suggest you never accept a position if you don’t have the opportunity to interview with the CEO and several members of the leadership team. If you don’t want to end up in a marginalized position or in the discount bin with the rest of last year’s trends, you need to confirm that senior management has a sincere, long-term commitment to attracting, developing and retaining the best talent in the market.

John Touey
John is a Principal and member of the SSG management team. He has over 20 years of experience providing executive search, human resources and management consulting services to a broad range of organizations and industries including healthcare, financial services, utilities, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals. You can follow John Touey at @JohnTouey on Twitter.

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