Is it really necessary to develop talent?

Talent Development and Management

The question seems superfluous because all HR professionals claim that it is necessary. Talent development is a major ingredient of the employer brand and, one can imagine, of the employee experience. It is also a marker of a “talent management” that is struggling to differentiate itself from traditional people management. Talent development is the sound management of human capital, the response to employees’ expectations to grow and flourish, the indispensable milestone of a human ecology.

However, we must beware of unanimity; we can dream of developing talent, but the observation of reality invites us to ask three questions. If it is so important, why is it we do not do it much? Besides, can we really develop talents and, if we could, do we really know how to do it?

Developing talent, we don’t do that.

The time is long gone when companies had long-term training policies enabling employees to develop their skills and evolve in their professional life. Today, in management, we are not really in the business of developing talent and learning managerial gestures over the long term; rather, we are in the business of raising awareness, sharing messages, dealing with short-term problems such as urgent reorganization or implementing new processes. One effect of this approach, in terms of management, is to see a reduction in training or learning time: a management seminar rarely exceeds two days, including top-down information from management board.

Another trend seems to show that this is not being done. Jon Smith, CEO of HireYourTalent, points to the transformations in recruitment in recent years; the search and selection tools are no longer the same, but even worse, companies no longer seem to recruit, as in the past, in response to the emergence of a need for new skills; instead, they have adopted more permanent and pro-active practices in the search for skills and talent. In fact, Jon Smith points out that finding, attracting and recruiting talent remains the primary concern of many business leaders, but they look for it externally rather than trying to develop it internally. In many companies, it’s less about attracting good young graduate candidates than it is about going on social networks to look for the talent that is already ticking all the boxes. If you look externally, it’s a sign that you no longer want to develop talent internally.

There are several good reasons for this. The first is the assumed cost: looking for talent externally is often considered less expensive and more efficient. You don’t have to train them, you don’t have to bear the cost during the learning process, and you imagine them to be effective immediately. Better yet, costs are made more variable by hiring even more expensive talent only when it is needed. 

The second reason also stems from a risk analysis: we think rightly or wrongly that a talent that has succeeded elsewhere will inevitably succeed in our own context: the game then becomes about going outside to get an exact copy of what we need and asking them to reproduce it.

A third reason lies in the multiple applications and new recruitment tools when social networks and big data are combined. They give the impression that the benefits of the technique have finally made it possible to discover the molecule of success, the magic formula of the announced performance.

One can also imagine, with a bad mind, that it is difficult to look inside the company at the talents because one does not know what talents are available. It is not the classic performance assessment tools and the quality of their handling that can really help a lot. And even if one knew what talent was available, the supposed generation studies should not dazzle one according to which the rule of their professional life is to move and zap.

Developing talent, we can’t do that.

If we don’t do it, maybe it’s because developing talent is not possible. In the paradise of the talents, the employees who have developed their talents are rewarded while the third one is punished for not developing them. The difference in treatment is not because of the number of talents involved, but only to whether or not they were developed by those who hold them. The same is true in the artistic or sporting fields: gifts are necessary, as are context and atmosphere, but a successful sportsman owes it above all to his work, just like the artist.

Chopin’s little eleven-year-old performers are undoubtedly gifted, as are so many children, but above all they have worked hard. The high-performance swimmer often has physical fitness, a supportive family environment and talented coaches, but she is the one who swims 18 km every day, even in the middle of winter. 

People develop their own talents, no one can do it for them, even if it runs counter to the illusions of “no pain, no gain” or the right to success for all. Conditions can help this development; it is no longer the question of developing talents but of helping them to develop, and we then enter those areas where the spirit of finesse in human resources management must compensate for the spirit of geometry to which we would like to reduce them.

Developing talent, we don’t know how to do it.

The managerial function is often approached according to two major figures, that of the manager and that of the leader. The latter evokes the notions of coaching, inspiring others, building a vision when it is not giving meaning. The apprentice leaders then consider that leadership depends essentially on them, on a model to imitate, on actions to develop, as if leadership was finally the leader’s problem. Conversely, managers make systems work, ensure discipline and local well-being by checking that table football still has balls. Talent development is rarely on the roadmap of these two figures or, if it is, it is with little detail on the operating mode.

Another sign of our inability to develop talent is found in the fascination of professionals with all the digital tools that should make it possible to distinguish skills, to approach the mystery of human personality and behavior: isn’t sensitivity to the sophistication of the tools also a sign of an inability to accompany and develop by oneself?

In terms of skills management, we know how to build more and more precisely reference frames, tables with lists of skills, their precise definition and the metrics to measure them. We are often less able to make them work in a dynamic way, to master the acquisition of a skill and above all the transition from one to the other.

A few tips

The challenge of talent development is therefore well ahead of us. Many countries are experiencing a need for a skilled workforce, in some countries university tuition fees are being lowered so that young people continue to make the choice to study rather than enter the labor market too early. If the labor market becomes difficult for employers, if we finally realize that the search for talent from outside is not always efficient and cheap regardless of the originality of the tools and performing social networks, we will probably have to ask ourselves the question of developing talent internally. Three tips are then conceivable.

  1. The first is to remain cautious about the tools. We should not forget it that for decades we have known that the best predictor of future performance is past performance, gained experience, or at least what we have learned from experience; this is an invitation not to give too much importance to the measurement of new forms of skills or intelligence that are supposed to explain the mystery of human behavior and performance. If one recognizes the weight of experience, one will not believe either in the infallibility of the sophisticated analysis of large numbers of profiles on professional social networks to prejudge performance in one’s own company; one knows that performance is contingent and contextualized; it is not because one has succeeded in one type of mission in one environment that one will succeed as well in another corporate culture.
  2. The second piece of advice is to never forget that talent often develops in the relationship with someone. Any experienced person recognizes that his or her professional development has often involved a meeting, support, and sometimes disturbing stimulus that has made development possible. We know that all mentoring and coaching approaches must be handled with care because it does not decree the interpersonal chemistry necessary for these fruitful encounters. But at least one must ask oneself to what extent such coaching approaches fit into the management or leadership approach.
  3. Finally, if we cannot develop talents, we must always ask ourselves what are the favorable conditions for people to develop them themselves. Here again, we must be careful not to implement new tools, as most companies already have so many. It is undoubtedly necessary to revitalize existing tools. Without adding additional questions, a performance appraisal interview or any debriefing can contribute to this development. Developing talent is less a question of tools than it is a question of managerial commitment and setting an example for senior management.

Here’s an idea: why shouldn’t intern be a more fertile breeding ground for management committees?

Published by Dave John

Decade of work experience in leadership consulting with strong focus on talent acquisition & assessment across different industries and geographies.

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