Wednesday 25 April 2012

The Head of Talent Role: Challenges and Opportunities for Talent Managers / 4


  As well as dealing with the truth about talent, the need to create value and opportunities for career development, the fourth big challenge for talent managers / heads of talent will probably be their own role.

The key research here is Heidrick & Struggles’ report on strategic talent management: the emergence of a new discipline which I saw presented at the HR Directors Business Summit in January.

H&S suggest that:

  • 66% of companies are not satisfied with talent management implementation
  • 60% admit talent management is not part of corporate strategy
  • 57% fear that lack of talent will hinder growth in the near future
  • Only 33% know their companies need for talent in the next 2-4 years
  • Only 25% conduct gap analysis concerning age, qualifications and requirements.


In the light of these concerns, H&S find that CEOs are increasingly appointing heads of talent to help make talent management more proactive and creating awareness of the importance of talent to corporate success:

“Some senior executives readily understand that talent is a central enabler of strategy and that great talent management can be a source of sustainable advantage. A good number though, still regard talent development as a hygiene factor. Talent management in these companies can become an exercise in gap-filling and tactical


For this reason, heads of talent tend to be viewed as distinct from the rest of HR, even when they report to the company’s top HR executive.

However, the role is full of paradox and ambiguity, requiring heads of talent to be diplomats rather than commanders.  The report suggests that there does at least seem to be acceptance of this situation, rather than a belief, like John Boudreau’s, that everything needs to be done in the same way (in my view, a consequence of talent being recognised as a driver for competitive success has to be that talent management is performed differently from firm to firm - competitive success in any school of strategic management always rests on differentiation, never in doing things the same):

“We discovered great variety in the ways in which Heads of Talent operate and relate to line managers. Some are focused primarily on infrastructure for talent and leadership development – processes, systems, and metrics. Others spend more time on specific development initiatives: business school programmes, projects that involve high potential managers, and the like. Still others spend time ‘walking the floor’, trying to keep high potentials engaged and providing front-line intelligence to senior line leaders.”


In addition to these activities, there is at least some evidence that some heads of talent are also / instead focusing on outcomes (talentness) in the organisation.

“If we don’t connect business and talent strategy, we will be nothing more than a typical HR unit, focusing on activities and not on impact and outcomes.”


For me, this is the real key which shifts the HR role into something else (though I’d also suggest that talent can’t be optimised on it’s own, so I prefer Ed Lawler’s suggestions about organisational effectiveness to this).  Heads of talent need to focus on talent as an outcome.  The activities which lead to this can be delegated to line managers, HR and elsewhere.  That leads to another point – H&S suggest heads of talent need to take on responsibility without authority:

“CEOs expect their Head of Talent to create consistency between line divisions, but rarely give them direct authority over hiring, promotion, deployment or retention. They were expected to increase consistency (as well as efficiency and effectiveness across business units) to identify and deliver a more integrated corporate talent strategy. But most of the power in the companies we looked at rests with the line leaders. Our Heads of Talent confirmed this when we asked them what made a successful head of talent. Moreover, they told us the winning talent manager operates through influence and suggestion rather than by exercising power. Interpersonal skills were critical, we learned as was the ability to build trust. Heads of Talent explained their need for resilience, tenacity, energy and the ability to deal with setbacks. The Head of Talent must therefore take a lead without formal authority.”


I’d go further than this – I’d suggest / have suggested that heads of talent take accountability for their organisation’s talentness / overall effectiveness too. 

I’ll finish with a last paradox heads of talents need to deal with – the requirement to focus on both the business, and on talent:

“We also found ambiguity around the positioning of talent management, with many suggesting that sitting within the HR function impacted credibility and acceptance by the business. Interviewees told us that engagement was higher where they demonstrated commercial savvy and spoke ‘business’ rather than ‘HR’ language. ‘The challenges we face are all internal. There’s a real ambivalence around talent here, the business is just not interested.’ ”


I have to say (have said) that increasing focus on business is precisely the wrong way to optimise value from talent.  And I’ll post more about this (again) tomorrow.

I’ll also be posting shortly on the Economist’s Talent Management Summit and how you can win two tickets to come along with me on 14th June!




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