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Managing Talent – An Art or Science?

By Pauline Nolte

Pauline Nolte

There’s no denying it, we can’t live without technology. i-this, e-that—technology is tightly woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. And let’s face it, who wants to go back to the days of snail mail, memos, and faxes? But what role should technology play in managing talent?

I was speaking recently with an organisation development manager who was as excited as a five year old on Christmas Eve as she told me about her organisation’s new talent management software. She seemed to believe that the new software would cure all their talent management woes, and that concerned me. Technology is definitely a valuable enabler of good talent management, but it’s not a panacea. This thinking is a bit like hoping your new kitchen appliance will make you a great cook!

Effective talent management is a blend of science (strategy, systems, tools) and the art of managing and unleashing the potential of people through good-quality conversations.

The Science of Managing Talent Starts with a Clear Strategy

Managing Talent – An Art or Science?An overarching strategy will help you focus your talent management efforts. Best-in-class organisations are clear about what talent outcomes they are striving for and how they will be measured, e.g. improvements in productivity, growth in emerging markets, improved engagement scores, and lower cost of hire, etc. Having started with the end in mind, they then consider their business strategy and what sort of culture they are looking to build, and that translates into the types of challenges their leaders will face over the next three to five years.

Armed with a thorough understanding of their business landscape, top performing organisations start to consider talent implications in terms of people trends (retirement, cultural diversity), the current state of talent management (senior management support, systems, the role of HR), and if they have the right mix of people to achieve their long-term goals. This results in a talent balance sheet, summarising the quality and quantity of talent in-house.

Only then do high-performing organisations start to align their human capital practices to close talent gaps. At the heart of this growth engine is a focus on defining what success looks like in different roles/levels across the organisation. With a clear foundation of competencies or success profiles, organisations then define and refine tactical selection, performance management, development, and succession plans.

But a robust talent management strategy alone is not enough. You’ll also need clearly communicated, easy-to-use processes and tools. And technology can play an important role in driving process efficiency and capturing data that can be used to inform current and future human capital decisions.

Conversations Are the Art of Managing Talent

Managing talent is not an exact science. No two individuals are precisely the same. We all come with our own predispositions, values, biases, skills, and experiences. The artistry of managing talent comes from our ability to interact with others.

Like a lot of Gen Xers, I recently purchased a tablet to help me be more efficient at work (and save a few trees along the way!). Initially, I was dazzled by the number of apps that came on the device, and I love using the Notes function during client meetings but, at the end of the day, it hasn’t dramatically changed the way I work. My skill as a consultant is still driven by the quality of the conversations I have with clients to understand their business challenges and to configure solutions that will help drive bottom-line results.

The same principle applies to talent management software. How can you create a quality development plan if you haven’t had a collaborative conversation with an employee to understand their career aspirations, agree on strengths and development needs, and decide how you will work together to close development gaps?

How effective are your leaders in engaging in good-quality discussions with direct reports to:

  • Agree on goals and objectives?
  • Help them overcome challenging situations?
  • Give them feedback (on their successes as well as for improvement)?
  • Discuss their career aspirations?
  • Explore strengths and development needs, then agree on development activities to close gaps?
  • Gauge their levels of engagement and retention risk?

DDI’s research shows that there is a core set of skills everyone needs to master in order to effectively build relationships and get work done. We call these skills the Interaction Essentials. They help individuals meet both personal needs (to be respected and involved) and practical needs (what people want to accomplish). Both needs are met through an effective communication structure. What are you doing to build the capability of your leaders to engage in meaningful dialogue with their teams—or with their peers, managers, or customers for that matter?

At the heart of an effective talent management system, and, indeed, a high-performing organisation with an engaged workforce, lies the ability of your leaders to effectively engage with their teams and gather accurate data that can be used to inform talent decisions.  It would be remiss to overlook the value that software can play in capturing those insights, but don’t be fooled into thinking software is enough.

Aim to strike a balance between the art and science of managing talent. We know from DDI's most recent Global Leadership Forecast that human capital is the number one challenge cited by CEOs. A clear talent strategy linked to your overall business strategy, with the support of your executive team, passionate HR professionals, and leaders, and systems and software to drive the mechanics are all important ingredients for success. Failing to recognise all these components may leave you feeling like that five year old on Christmas morning when she realises she hasn’t received the gift she was hoping for.

Pauline Nolte is a strategic account manager in DDI Australia’s Sydney office.

Posted: 23 Jun, 2015,
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