Talent Management Road Kill (Part 1 & Part 2)

article by Dr. John Sullivan & Master Burnett As seen on ERE.net Part 1 and Part 2

Some things take time to figure out, while others are blindingly apparent at first sight. For the best and brightest in the HR world, the fact that senior leaders were demanding that talent management be elevated to an all-new level following the collapse of the “new economy” during the spring of 2000 was blindingly apparent.

Leaders were fed up with boom and bust, and new visions were espoused of organizations that could forecast and respond more quickly to fluctuations in economic conditions. Unfortunately, the best and the brightest make up less than one percent of the total HR population, and five-plus years later, the rest still seem oblivious to the mandate that may some day render them less than useful to the 21st-century HR function. 

Patience Is Waning

Senior leaders thoroughly understand that building an organization or changing one takes vision, planning, patience, and flawless execution. To that point, they have given HR five years. All indicators are that HR has yet to change or plan to change anything, and that the patience of senior leaders is wearing thin. Around the globe, corporate leaders ó and in a few cases, the boards of directors are taking action, and in most cases that action supplants HR professionals with years of experience.

For example, one of the world’s leading banks recently decided to sack an entire team of HR professionals, opting to replace them with a team made up of professionals from other functions including finance, marketing, and sales. In a leading global software company, the board of directors has issued an order that establishes a talent management role that will report on the health of the workforce to the board each quarter.

These mandates are widespread, and not exclusive to the world’s most elite companies. Prime talent-management-related jobs, such as those responsible for workforce planning, are being awarded to professionals so far removed from the human resource function that they’re not even sure where the HR offices are located! It’s a truly sad day when business professionals cannot prove they are capable of mastering a practice that is theoretically the foundation of their profession. 

The Better Candidate 

During a chance encounter with an exceptionally talented individual, who now heads workforce planning for a company charged with monitoring one-third of the world’s airspace, it was clear why her leadership team found that the best candidate for such a mission critical post didn’t come from HR. Leaders explained that the company needed:

  • Someone capable of demonstrating an understanding of the business at a macro level
  • Someone capable of applying common forecasting and planning models to the organization’s workforce
  • Someone who could communicate with senior leaders and managers in a language they understood about what actions need to be taken to maximize the productivity of the organization and achieve its strategic objectives

The statements above certainly aren’t groundbreaking; in fact, leaders have for years complained that HR professionals lacked such basic business skills. The truth is that it was just a matter of time: either HR professionals would step up to the plate, prove their value, and change the perception of senior leaders, or said leaders would get fed up and other functions would seize control of choice HR activities.

Events of late indicate that judgment day is upon us, and that many of those people who now make up HR maybe heading to the unemployment line, or redeployed to posts most leaders accept as administrative such as the mail room. Regardless, change is coming. 

Stepping Up

In the world of business, perception is everything. If customers fail to perceive value, they won’t buy your products. If investors fail to perceive capability, they won’t buy stock in your organization. If senior leaders don’t perceive that you are working for them, they will get rid of you! The time is upon the HR profession to abandon the old, embrace the new, and prove that the function is worthy of the business partner title many fought for so long to have. Winning the battle for survival will come down to proving that HR practitioners are:

  • Business professionals first and foremost (not social workers)
  • Capable of mastering finance, change management, strategic planning, and communications
  • Understanding of the business itself, including what it produces, what role each of the pieces play, and the delicate relationships between each piece
  • Willing to stop doing what is easy (focusing on efficiency) and start doing what matters (focusing on effectiveness)
  • Believers that standardization is not the answer to everything!

Talent management isn’t easy, but it isn’t rocket science either. At its core, talent management is a macro-level practice that combines the scope of recruiting/staffing, training and development, and performance management with robust capabilities of strategic workforce planning, forecasting, and change management.

While talent management may not change the ownership of talent resources in an organization, it most certainly coordinates the acquisition, development, deployment, and retention of them in an effort to maximize the capability and capacity of the organization.

As a strategic practice, it by itself, when executed, flawlessly proves that HR does have what senior leaders demand from a strategic business function. Next week, we will introduce a shortlist of talent management program elements that must exist, be tested, and marketed to senior leaders to prove worthiness of a continued existence.

If you have experience or thoughts on the issue that you would like to contribute to Part 2, please email them to [email protected] for consideration.

article by Dr. John Sullivan & Master Burnett Last week, in Part 1 of this two-part article series, we discussed the growing trend of choice HR jobs being awarded to non-HR professionals following years of senior management dissatisfaction with HR in general. Many of those readers who responded to Part 1 agreed that they have seen the same thing taking place in their organization ó but they didn’t seem frustrated, upset, or willing to do much about it! Having spent a great deal of time in Asia these past few weeks, we found that the attitude presented by many in HR who are experiencing this is nearly identical to that of many Asian HR practitioners, who argue that strong culture prevents change and limits what they can do to be strategic. In the case of Asia, I agree that the challenges are many and great (not insurmountable). But elsewhere, failure to change is driven largely by apathy. Readers responding to Part 1 raised some very valid points:

  • R. Bistrick noted that many in HR have no associated industry work experience, which limits their understanding of the business and its issues to one of keywords, often without the benefit of context. (This is certainly true for many corporate recruiters!)
  • “It is not a new concept that HR is, and will continue to be, an ‘easy mark’ for the blame game and manipulating perceptions,” said A. Jordan, “unless HR professionals become acutely adept at appropriately demanding and nurturing ways to become and remain part of the strategic planning process in an ongoing fashion within any industry or organization.”

A much more common element of the feedback provided demonstrates the apathy around this issue. Many wrote that the blame for the failure of senior management to accept or recognize the work done by HR on strategic issues rests not only on HR, but also on the shoulders of the senior leaders themselves. Effectively, such statements amount to, “It’s not my fault if you don’t see what I do as being strategic!”

Accepting Responsibility, Answering Key Questions 

Stepping up to the strategic plate requires that you know and can answer the hard questions that get thrown at HR and that you build solutions into the processes that drive HR to demonstrate action on the answers. While the questions are many and vary by industry, some of the more common ones include:

  • Does it make more economic sense to hire inexperienced talent and develop it to meet specific needs, or recruit just in time?
  • What is the fiscal impact of having a vacancy in both key and non-key jobs? What is the impact of hiring below-average, average, or above-average performers in key and non-key jobs?
  • What are the leading indicators of having too much or too little talent on board?
  • What factors limit our ability to hire, retain, and motivate great people?

(For more on the tough questions that get lobbed at HR, see my article on Recruiting Questions from Hell.) 

Talent Management Element Audit 

Simply being able to answer the questions above is not enough to prove that you have risen to the level of strategic performance that senior managers expect. You must become adept at marketing your actions and impact internally around each of the talent management elements listed below. Consider using the following list as an audit. If your organization fails to do more than one third of the items on the list, then you could be at risk, even if your managers like you as a person. The list below is organized around the following talent management components:

  1. Talent management strategic planning
  2. Workforce planning processes
  3. Recruitment and staffing processes
  4. Retention processes
  5. Development processes
  6. Employment branding processes

Talent Management Strategic Planning Elements 

A talent management strategy that defines the coordination required between each of the major systems involved in talent management is essential to ensuring strategic level performance. The high level elements required in your talent management planning include:

  • Integration with other core business and strategic planning activities.
  • Defined processes to extract talent inventory drivers from business strategy and product/service lifecycle plans
  • Clearly defined points of coordination and collaboration required between talent management factions
  • Performance measures and targeted levels of performance for each of the talent management system processes
  • Communications to inform individual line managers of talent management initiatives that will impact them as forecasted by quarter.

Workforce Planning Process Elements 

Workforce planning is an essential process that takes input from a multitude of directions and translates it into forecasts around the organizations talent pool used to focus other talent management processes. It informs other processes and line managers about the type and volume of new talent needed, the movement of existing talent, and the release of talent no longer of use to the organization. The high level elements required include:

  • An inventory of key questions your personalized workforce planning process must answer to line manager’s satisfaction
  • A clearly defined set of data feeds that contribute information about the demand and supply of requisite talent
  • A forecasting model that has been validated by senior leaders
  • A communications process that provides actionable information to line managers “just in time”

Recruitment and Staffing Process Elements 

Recruitment and staffing process are responsible for the acquisition and deployment of talent in the organization. Largely driven by forecasts from the workforce planning process, recruitment is responsible for filling new talent needs that cannot be mitigated through internal redeployment or development. Staffing is responsible for maintaining the optimal deployment of talent throughout the organization. High level elements are:

  • A position prioritization schema that allocates recruiting and staffing resources to positions based upon their potential to impact the success of the organization
  • A mapping of pre-identified talent tools relevant to each family of positions in the organizations and the optimal channels used to reach each
  • A defined set of processes to identify and reallocate existing talent that could better serve the organization in a different role (i.e. proactive redeployment)
  • Performance measures and targets for each of the core processes used to power both recruitment and staffing initiatives

Retention Process Elements 

The retention process is by far the most overlooked process in talent management, and by far the only one many organizations have yet to dedicate full-time headcount to. The retention process is responsible for identifying key talent that is essential to the organizations success, mapping its key retention drivers, and coordinating the delivery of said drivers when possible. Key elements include:

  • A pre-defined process to determine who in the organization is essential to the success of the organization (Note: This is not the same as taking an org chart and lobbing off the bottom 85%; this is a mapping of roles and incumbents that are truly mission critical. Many organizations could lose a high percentage of their senior management team and still have the ability to achieve the firm’s mission!)
  • A process to continuously determine what factors drive retention of this special population
  • Authority to treat the pre-identified mission critical population differently
  • Performance metrics which demonstrate the impact of retention efforts both in percentages and dollar impacts

Talent Development Process Elements 

Talent development is often seen as the least integrated of the core HR functions into talent management. While it is true that skills only enter an organization in one of two ways ó either being purchased (recruited) or built (development) ó rarely is recruiting and training/development coordinated. Under talent management, coordination is not an option, it is a prerequisite. The major high-level elements of talent development include:

  • A process to determine the cost benefit of building versus buying talent for each of the major job families and experience levels needed in the organization
  • A forecast of what talent needs identified in the workforce plan can be developed internally by the time needed at a better cost/benefit ratio than recruiting or staffing can provide
  • A defined set of training and development channels that can be relied upon to provide needed skills by the time needed and at the mastery level needed
  • A plan for each talent resource in the organization that links his or her capability/capacity to the workforce planning forecast of requisite talent

Employment Branding Process Elements

While the bulk of talent management focuses on the here and now, the employment branding process focuses on making the here and now easier to manage long term. It uses the longer term projections from the workforce planning process to drive research initiatives that determine what factors make a firm desirable as the employer of choice and coordinates the development of an employment brand that embodies those factors. The major high level elements of employment branding include:

  • A process to determine the desirable employment factors among key talent pools as identified by the recruiting and retention processes
  • An analysis of current perceptions about the organization relative to each of the major desirability factors as determined above
  • An organizational change plan to adjust an organization to meet the needs of target talent when possible
  • A communications strategy capable of adjusting or manipulating the perceptions of the target audience
  • Performance metrics and targets for each relative to each goal identified in the organizational change and communication strategies


The dictum is clear: Talent management is seen as strategic by senior leaders, but the perception is that HR professionals, in general, are incapable of executing it well. As a result, many senior leaders are tapping non-HR professionals to fill choice talent management-related roles.

To stem the tide and secure your future, you must become adept at marketing to senior leaders your successes in the area of performance management in a way that responds to their perceptions, not yours. While your actions and performance to date may have been strategic in nature in your eyes, it’s not your eyes that matter.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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