Getting to grips with talent management in higher education

Circus acrobats doing a balancing actThe concept of talent management seems to be striking a chord in higher education at the moment. Ahead of our Talent Management Symposium in June,  Dr Wendy Hirsh from the Institute of Employment Studies reflects on what she sees as the talent management issues emerging in higher education and some of the practical barriers that need to be tackled.

In 2017, in response to growing interest in talent management, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (now Advance HE) published a report entitled Talent management: learning across sectors, which has generated considerable interest. The publication of the report has created several opportunities for me to work with many HEIs over the past months at events, in smaller networks and with HR teams inside individual institutions.

In several events and workshops I have asked relevant professionals working in institutions to identify where in the workforce talent management is a real issue. These are some of the common themes emerging from such discussions.

A lack of successors or talent pools for leadership roles. This can apply to the executive team, but seems a more pressing issue at head of department and dean or head of school / faculty levels. The main issue is not really about potential but a set of structural and cultural problems with these jobs. Becoming a head of department is a big leap into the unknown in terms of leadership, brings with it a mass of routine administration and has an uncertain impact on the individual’s career thereafter. To put it politely, the historic head of department role seems to have passed its sell-by. Some institutions are starting to address this by reviewing administrative workload and offering more development support in preparing for these roles and in getting up to speed after appointment.

HEIs need productive and high profile professors, principal investigators and heads of research units, especially in subject areas of priority to the institution. Many sectors have a similar need for top professional talent, including science-based industries, professional services and the arts and creative sectors. Attracting and retaining top academics is a challenge, and Brexit is an added concern here. But their leadership approach is also of concern, as they need to role model the values of their institutions and play a positive part in leading and developing the early career academics who work with or for them. Concern about the early career development of researchers – and indeed teachers – often comes back to the quality and consistency of support received from their principal investigators (PIs) and professorial colleagues.

In the layers below institutional leaders and high profile academics, HEIs rely increasingly on the skills and good will of highly experienced academic and professional service staff. They are experiencing greater workload pressure and sometimes unsettling change in response to top-down strategies. One challenge often reported is of experienced academics who may become disengaged. Here talent management needs to adopt OD approaches in addressing anxieties, involving staff more actively in the change process and decisions affecting their work, and supporting skill and career development at all career stages.

Other sectors see increasing workforce diversity as a key strand of talent management, and this is certainly the case in higher education. Attention is certainly being paid to the appointment process, but initiatives to change the external brand of the sector in this regard or to offer differentiated development opportunities to under-represented groups are not yet widely embedded.

Many HEIs are strengthening their leadership development at a range of levels, which is to be welcomed. Many also want to adopt more systematic and rigorous succession planning for key roles, but there is still a lack of confidence about how to make this happen. In particular there are concerns about explaining this process to staff and how to broaden the talent pools of successors as part of the approach. Institutions have been re-articulating promotion criteria, but less often communicating the criteria to be used in succession planning or in identifying potential for promotion.

In getting to grips with talent management, there seem to be a few common hurdles which the sector needs to address. Talent management rests on workforce planning but there is often a big gap between strategic planning at institutional level and the rather short-term, reactive and budget focused planning at faculty or departmental/service level. Talent management rarely has clear governance in terms of collective decision-making at either institutional or faculty/school level. This still gets in the way of it being a systematic and transparent process. There is much talk of better career conversations but it is often unclear in HE who individuals can have these conversations with.
As the research showed, talent management is a mindset. HEIs need to make sure that the senior leaders and academics they are promoting or appointing right now understand the importance of spotting potential in people and then helping those people to grow.

How to tackle shared challenges, consider potential solutions and ensure that the focus on talent enables diversity in access and outcome enable will be the focus of the Talent Symposium on 19 June. Featuring case study inputs from inside and outside higher education, this event will be the first in a series exploring differing approaches to talent in higher education.

Dr Wendy Hirsh is one of the speakers at the Talent Symposium, along with Jacqui Marshall, deputy registrar & HR director, Exeter University, Sarah Churchman, head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing, PwC and Debra Lang, director HR and organisational development, organisation development and change, DCMS. Book your place for the Talent Symposium.