Talent Management: Putting People First

By Nancy Painter

Talent management is attracting a crowd. While usually delegated to HR, it is currently gaining visibility and sparking discussion about just what it encompasses, and who is best qualified to lead it.

Howie Outerbridge

There are almost as many definitions of talent management as there are HR practitioners. Sometimes seen as interchangeable with career development, in reality talent management encompasses development along with other processes including performance management. It is a holistic overview that should begin before employees are hired and grow with them throughout their work life.

“People see talent management slightly differently based on their background and area of practice. It encompasses recruitment, retention, development and working with people so they can function at the highest level possible,” says Howie Outerbridge, VP of client solutions at Logan HR. “Those are all building blocks of talent management, as are performance management and career development.”

Outerbridge himself likes the Johns Hopkins definition: “A set of integrated organizational processes designed to attract, develop, motivate and retain productive, engaged employees.”

It comes down to what processes you use to ensure your employee value proposition is stated clearly in the marketplace, and upheld so you keep employees, he adds.

“To retain and engage employees, you need to make sure they feel their careers are being developed,” Outerbridge explains. “It’s a really important part of organizations, how they develop their talent. It could be sitting on pan-organizational committees, job shadowing, mentoring …”

Leading People and Managing Processes
Lindsay Benard, owner and director of training and development at Ellembey Training and Development, describes talent management as “an entire process that can be described in two functions: you lead people and you manage processes.”

Accountability for talent management goes both ways, Benard says. It ensures the highest outcomes for employees, while obtaining the best results for the organization, too. Done well, “it allows the company to commit on a higher level to the employees.”

Christina Seargeant, CPHR

That the two support each other is recognized by Christina Seargeant, CPHR, HR business partner at Workday, who knows first hand how employee experience supports the organization.

“Talent management is all about the employee experience—what attracts them to your organization and keeps them,” says Sergeant, recognized as CPHR BC & YK’s 2016 Rising Star. “I’m not just talking about benefits like massage and foosball. It’s about career experiences that open employees up to new opportunities, chances to learn and develop their skills and opportunities to contribute to their organizations in meaningful ways. That’s talent management.”

There are those in the marketplace who question whether HR is the right place to lodge talent management. HR professionals disagree.
“If not HR, then who?” asks Benard. “HR has a wide viewpoint. It touches employees at every stop in their career path – who better to understand the process?

“HR is about human talent, making sure everyone has the tools necessary to be successful. HR has to fight for it, to see themselves as more than just a department,” she adds. “When HR is connected, oh my gosh, what they can do for an organization!”

Sharing the Responsibility
That said, while HR is the leader and overseer for talent management, effective implementation follows a much more distributed model.

“More and more, the role has to be shared,” confirms Cecile Leroux, Florida-based VP of human capital motivation innovation at Ultimate Software. “The idea of encouraging ongoing development—leaders and managers need to take responsibility for that talent development. Studies show there is 25 per cent more productivity when they do than if employees do it on their own.”

“HR has a critical role in creating the environment, practices and policies, choosing the technology to support it, and keeping it in front of managers to remind them of their role in it. They are the ones who can recognize defining moments or opportunities to step in and provide development support,” says Leroux. “But the practices and suggested actions and content for those leaders to act on—that should be something HR develops. Most managers need some sort of development, especially if they’ve been promoted from within and their former peers are now their reports.”

Lindsay Benard

Benard cites an example of one of those defining moments. In one of her classes, she encountered a young man who loved working for his company and thought it was the best in the world. However, when the group was asked where they saw themselves in three to six months, he asked, “What if you don’t see yourself at your company in six months?”

When asked, he admitted he hated his job, and did not care too much for his manager. “It sounds like you’re in the wrong position,” Benard told him. “Ask HR if you can move elsewhere in the company.”

Benard learned that he often spent his weekends doing market research—even though he didn’t work in that area. His whole body language changed when he talked about marketing. He had approached his manager, but not found no interest in finding a better fit for him. As a result, the young man felt that the company culture didn’t support lateral moves.

Benard encouraged him to push harder—and he was moved into marketing. Within six months, he became a VP—a classic example what happens “when people are in the right place and capitalize on their talents and enthusiasm, their passion,” Benard says. “But where was his manager in all that? They could have lost an incredible employee.”

Prioritizing People Key to Strategy
“Regardless of who is leading talent management in your organization, you need to ensure that talent is a priority and aligned with the overall strategic direction of the organization,” says Seargeant. “From there, HR may be well poised to lead it, but ultimately it’s a job for each and every employee.”
Support has to come from the top down, adds Benard. “Who is the organization? What are we about? To hang all that on HR is not fair. HR drives the bus, but planning and implementation is everybody’s responsibility.”

“The employee/manager relationship makes or breaks whether an employee stays in an organization,” Cecile Leroux says. “HR has to create and provide the tools and technology, guidelines, policies, and the right environment for it to happen. We have a critical ongoing consultative role, to make sure things are happening to support implementation by business leaders. It’s really a shared responsibility, an iterative process that needs to happen throughout the organization.”

“Talent management is largely driven by leadership, but very much involves all employees participating,” adds Seargeant. “In this way, the whole organization drives talent management—from hiring, development and retention—in a very holistic way.”

HR Providing Leadership and Resources
While leadership and the organization as a whole help establish the organizational brand and employee value proposition, there are some vital tasks that still fall to HR, beginning with the hiring process.

Good job descriptions are great for attracting the right people to positions, and offering training and educational experiences are too, Benard says, but HR needs to go beyond that in their hiring conversations. “People want to know—How am I going to know I’m doing a good job in that area?”

“Expectations have to be clear and well communicated during the interview process. ‘Here’s what we expect, can you commit to it, can you see yourself doing that?’ You have to know what you’re looking for and why, and be really clear all through the process, says Benard. “And then those conversations need to be documented, as a place to begin future discussions.”

“HR needs to ask the right questions when hiring,” she adds, referring back to the young man who loved marketing but was hired to a different position. Questions can ascertain whether a potential hire is good fit with the organization’s culture, too—citing Vancity Credit Union as a good example of the practice, making sure potential employees share its commitment to community involvement. If a candidate doesn’t, she adds, they just politely tell them, ‘No thanks, I don’t think you’re a good fit.’”

The individual must connect with the organization’s vision, mission and values, Benard maintains. “They need a strong ‘why.’ Imagine working in an environment where everyone is committed to the same thing—how amazing that must be!”

Tying to Corporate Strategy
“Talent management done well is tied to the organization’s overall strategy,” Outerbridge says. Strategy can be tied to environmental factors, which can play out in a variety of ways: from obsolescence of a viable industry (a.k.a. driving to the video store to rent a video) to finding ways to attract top-notch employees to work in Vancouver despite the city’s expensive housing market.

As the department that understands human dynamics, HR needs to be part of setting corporate strategy, says Leroux. “If you don’t include HR, that’s a huge mistake.” HR has a broader knowledge, an overall perspective that goes beyond one department or relationship, and understands that strategy must consider both the people and the organizational or business needs.

While talent management can seem somewhat nebulous, selling it to the C-suite requires more than that. Putting people first helps bring clarity to the value.

“The first step is to determine whether people are a/the priority of your organization,” explains Seargeant. “A wise strategy when thinking about how to “sell” talent management to your leadership is to tie it back to the organization’s core values. A strategy that is tightly aligned to the organization’s fundamental beliefs is difficult to refute.”

Measuring Talent Management Benefits
For actual metrics, HR pros cite engagement levels, employee turnover, absenteeism and productivity as ways to measure the effectiveness of talent management—all of which contribute to productivity and the organization’s bottom line.

Cecile Leroux

“You’ll have a higher level of customer satisfaction if you have a keen workforce that feels competent and ready for challenges,” Leroux explains. A culture of trying things out will raise the level of innovation. Health and safety incidents will be reduced, as well turnover and absenteeism. “Those are pretty tangible benefits.”

Moreover, if you are able to create a better brand in the marketplace, hiring will be easier, she adds. Talent management contributes significantly to that. “A study in October of the North American workforce showed that 76 per cent of employees say it’s important to have the opportunity to improve themselves. For Millennials, the percentage goes up to 80 per cent.”

Whether you offer online courses, attendance at conferences, job rotations or other learning experiences, employees of all ages want the opportunity to improve themselves. Millennials, in particular, will just move on to a different employer if their needs are not being met, Leroux adds.

Measurement needs to go beyond numbers, cautions Howie Outerbridge. “We see organizations with checklists, but the problem is they should be measuring not just, ‘Are you doing it?’ but ‘How?’ and, ‘Are you doing it correctly?’”

The Risks of Ignoring Talent Management
The risks of not doing talent management are also measurable. “Those who ignore talent management will lose talented employees to other organizations who choose to prioritize their people,” Seargeant says. “The market for top talent is too competitive to take the risk—not to mention, it doesn’t take much to build a negative image around your people practices. Anything you can do to foster talent management in your organization is a step in the right direction.”

“In today’s more transparent world of social media, the risk of not being able to attract employees is important to note,” Leroux says.

“Remember that classic 1980’s shampoo commercial where you tell two friends, and they tell two friends, and they tell two friends, etcetera?” asks Outerbridge. The effect is magnified exponentially with social media.

“If you do it right, people talk about it,” he says, “but if you do it wrong, even more people talk about it. An organization is only as good as its brand.”
Some unhappy employees will leave, but those who stay are also a danger, Benard says. “Negativity is like a cancer in an organization. People will just show up, but aren’t engaged. It’s a much bigger problem than you ever thought you could have—and it’s not fair to them or to you as an organization,” says Outerbridge.

Putting Technology to Work for Talent
Technology can help a key assist in this instance, providing both a diagnostic and the key data needed to affect change.

“Technology can enable talent management in many ways,” Seargeant says, “including employee surveys, performance management tools and online learning. Here at Workday we are revolutionizing workplace learning, combining on-demand learning all in one application. This will undoubtedly impact the talent management space in a powerful way.”

“Technology’s role is to assist and make things easier,” Outerbridge says. He cites Seven Geese, a start-up that has applied social media principles to performance management to provide ongoing, real-time feedback from co-workers and supervisors.

“Technology plays a huge role now,” says Benard. “LinkedIn is probably one of the most widely used talent reference tools—folks go there before they go anywhere else when they are looking at individuals. Facebook tells you a lot about people, too.”

A good learning management system (LMS) takes over all the documentation and task-reminders related to certifications and other employee learning, and can be customized to an organization’s specific needs.

“Technology is a tool that, if used correctly and responsibly, can really help talent management,” Benard adds.

“There are specific technologies to help organizations understand employees’ sentiments,” Leroux says. She points to the Natural Language Processing (NLP) engine, which can analyze responses to open-ended questions within seconds, providing incredibly rich data. “It even recognizes regional language meanings. You can derive much, much more meaning from qualitative data. It extends what the organization can do. HR can provide immediate feedback and findings and recommendations to the organization.”

Technology helps bring visibility to all the moving parts of the talent management puzzle, Leroux adds, with dashboards that can provide predictive analytics such as individual employee’s flight risk or probability of becoming a leader.

“The insights are remarkable,” she explains. ““It can provide a comprehensive, integrated and unified look into employee development—for example, noting certification expiries, when someone wants a mentor. It keeps it all visible, without requiring 16 pieces of paper.” In short, it allows leaders to understand people and how employees are doing, so they can have ongoing conversations.

NLP is augmenting, not replacing what people can do, Leroux says. “Technology can provide deeper insight more quickly, and it allows managers to have more meaningful, impactful conversations with employees,” she says. “I think one of the most exciting areas in talent management is new technology providing new insights—weaving those into the day-to-day fabric of managers’ work. It can be transformational, because it rolls all the different aspects of talent management into one perceptive technology.”

What the HR Pro Needs to Know
Even with new and emerging technology to help them, HR professionals need specific skills to manage talent well: the ability to advocate, being able to build partnerships, understanding both business and employee needs, being strategic and visionary, having the confidence to ask the right questions at every level, being dynamic and adaptable to change—and knowing when to seek outside help.

Overall, talent management requires establishing and maintaining balance between meeting employee needs and reaching organizational goals, but the two are not mutually exclusive. “We used to think in terms of different processes, but now we think of it as more of a convergence that all makes up the employee experience,” says Leroux.

The end result of putting people first in the employee experience equation, while perhaps unsurprising to HR professionals, is something for which all organizations strive.

“Employees will feel they are valued and have the opportunity to develop, and will both feel and see how they are contributing to the organization,” says Leroux. “The approach makes more sense for employees and is more natural for managers. If we focus on the overall experience, it helps employees correct course throughout their careers.”

Most importantly, those employees are productive and contribute to your organization’s immediate and long-term success. That’s successful talent management.

(PeopleTalk Spring 2017)

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