Talent management – for the many or just the few?

Dr Wendy Hirsh, co-author of Talent Management: Learning Across Sectors, the Leadership Foundation’s latest research publication, challenges higher education to consider the development of staff in the same way they would the learning growth of students.

Working on talent management with many organisations, their managers and staff, I often encounter unease and even hostility to the possibility that some development opportunities might be offered to some people but not others. So is talent management for the many or the few or can it be both?

If we unpick this issue from the business perspective first, we see that the ideas of business needs and business risk are very central to what organisations in a range of sectors mean by the term talent management. Talent management is absolutely not about giving employees all the development they would like, but about prioritising business investment in development where it will make the most difference to business effectiveness – and decrease business risk. Therefore it must be central to an organisation’s strategy.

However, often in universities, the human resources and talent management strategy (if it exists) sits alongside the core priorities and can become disconnected. This blog draws from new case study research commissioned by the Leadership Foundation to learn about talent management as practiced in other sectors. A key issue for universities like other organisations is whether to focus development resource on the many or the few.  For example, does a university need to invest in senior leadership, mid-career academics and professionals or helping younger researchers gain the skills and exposure to get their feet on the funding ladder? The answer to this question will always be a mix, but it is unavoidable that the decision will be informed by budgets and capacity if nothing else.

The public sector in the UK has traditionally been very good at investing in those just starting out on their careers and those near the top. This can leave the “middle” neglected. The more successful businesses, for example leading technology and professional services firms recognise the importance of prioritising and developing the capacity of the “middle” by redesigning roles, changing work and skill mix and business practices. The message here is this kind of development is not just about courses but about giving well established staff access to new experiences, extending and expanding roles, such as being involved directly in leading change, albeit supported by  informal coaching, mentoring or perhaps learning sets to practice new approaches. We suggest universities might usefully re-examine the capability of their experienced teachers, researchers and professionals, assess the skills gap and unfulfilled potential and use institutional wide talent management strategies as an enabler for success in an increasingly competitive environment.

We also see some talent management priorities arising from labour market shortages in what companies often call ‘operationally critical’ jobs or workforce groups. For example, some universities find it difficult to fill technician roles when long-serving staff retire or find clinical-academics in areas like medicine when higher salaries can be earned outside the academy. These are national, not institutional problems. Pharmaceutical companies adjusted their training pipelines for technician roles many years ago to accommodate both graduate and vocational routes and to raise skill levels to respond to increasingly complex lab techniques and equipment. Such issues could be addressed by universities sectorally or regionally as well as individually.

The second set of business decisions about priorities is trickier. Will we develop everyone in a particular workforce group to the same skill level or will we sometimes select individuals for more stretching development activities? The trend here in other sectors is clearly to aim for a both/and answer to this question. For example, companies are re-investing in first line manager training for all such managers, because good management is so central to the performance, engagement, development and retention of the people they manage. However, on top of this universal development, a talent management approach may also be trying to spot first line managers who want to progress their careers and have the ability to do a bigger or more complex management job. Depending on the context, a university may be wanting to invest in people already thinking about becoming a Head of Department, or looking a bit earlier for individuals who simply want to grow and are interested in exploring their leadership potential. Such individuals may be offered more stretching developmental opportunities to help them progress their careers and also to test their career preferences. The Leadership Foundation’s Aurora programmes and Athena SWAN does something of this kind for women in academia. So taking a business view, different kinds of development investment may address both the many and the few.

Of course, if organisations try and spot potential for career progression, they need to be very careful to avoid managers just developing their favourites or perpetuating inequalities of gender, race and so on. This is why talent management does have to be inclusive and include relevant definitions of potential for different kinds of jobs or levels in the organisation, test and challenge the views of individual managers and integrate talent management with real time tracking of diversity and inclusion data.

Moving from the organisational to the individual perspective, the idea of a Personal Development Plan is long established. However, other sectors are trying to move this away from being just about courses and to make it individually tailored and genuinely personal – that is related to the strengths and needs of each person and their situation. So we would not expect PDPs to give the same development to everyone doing the same job. PDPs are also being modified to include career-related development as well as development to improve performance in the current job. Talent management explicitly includes talking to individuals about their career aspirations and interests. There is little point developing someone towards being a Head of Department if this is simply not something they want to do or if they show no sign of the people skills required to do it successfully.

In essence talent management brings together these two perspectives and has to be “everyone’s business” and not just human resources “baby”. It needs to focus development where it is needed by the business and where it matches the aspirations and abilities of individuals. When it works well it’s a win-win for the “many” in the organisation and also for the “few” at the level of the individual. But to go down this route, we have to get used to the idea that not everyone needs to learn the same things at the same time in the same way. The best universities aspire to attend to the individual needs and interests of their students – supporting those who needs extra help and challenging those who can go further. Why would they wish to do less for their staff?

Dr Wendy Hirsh is an employment researcher and consultant specialising in career development, talent management, succession planning and workforce planning. Talent Management: Learning Across Sectors, was co-written with Elaine Tyler, Research Fellow, Institute for Employment Studies.

Download the report here: www.lfhe.ac.uk/hirsh5.8

10 essentials of performance management

by Dr Mark Pegg

Is a great performance management system compatible with academic life? Why is it that most professional services organisations find it so much easier than universities to manage in a performance regime, while respecting the freedoms and independence of their staff?

For most of my career I’ve worked in a performance management system. I wanted recognition and reward for success and was ambitious for career advancement, but I never found my professional freedoms were constrained in any way. Later when I become a director in executive education, I held annual objective setting and reviews, with informal half year progress reports. I contracted with my staff to work on their own initiative, trusting them, sharing and agreeing performance objectives, including internal and external performance measures.

These meetings drove reward and remuneration, but the focus was at least as much on personal and professional development as it was on business achievements. This is best practice, but hardly rocket science either. Not much to worry about here, in fact, it is good to know what your boss thinks, to get a pat on the back when all goes well, and a clear steer if more development is needed.

So what is there to fear? There is no one size fits all and teaching can be valued as much as research excellence. Irrefutably 95% of university staff love their jobs, share the values and culture of their organisation, are self-starting, hardworking, and dedicated, creative and innovative people. From this perspective, performance management ought to be unexceptional for academic staff.

How can the psychological barriers be broken down? How do you do build a regime that works, and what can possibly go wrong? I have learned so much from my own staff over the past 35 years, and if I summarise their views, we might have the making of a 10 point plan for performance management success:

1. A clear vision please – we need to know where are we heading, feel we had a part in it, see where what we do fits, then we will believe, work hard and add value;
2. Delegate, delegate – be clear what you want us to do, but don’t micro-manage, set the boundaries and let us get on and make it happen, don’t interfere except when we need a steer, want your advice or where you make connections;
3. Let’s communicate with each other – we hate ‘mushroom management’ –we are not interested in your day-to-day upward reporting, but we do expect to hear about ‘big ticket’ items;
4. Engage with us – we will respect you if you ask our opinions and show you are listening, consult us as knowledgeable team members who want success too.
5. Support and challenge – the best organisations to work for strive to get better and better and we need challenge to aim higher, although an organisation without support is not a happy place.
6. Openness – set clear objectives but also have a reality check, this is a place where we can broach difficult subjects, where a genuine dialogue can be held and nothing is off limits.
7. Trust and respect – why should anyone be led by you? We should trust our boss to fight our corner for us – for resources, for recognition – do this and you will earn our respect;
8. Fairness – treat us all fairly, praise the best performers, but also coach and encourage lower performers to do more and address ‘bad behaviour’ firmly;
9. Appreciative – let’s go for ‘the glass is half full’ if we can – inspire us to see the opportunities as clearly as the threats, be optimistic, and a little humour goes a long way;
10. No ‘i’ in Team – we want to fulfil our own potential, but we value and should contribute to a strong community that helps us thrive and prosper, a secure place to achieve our personal best.

And finally underpinning it all is a strong process. Performance reviews are our moment, give us airtime, listen as well as inform, keep a proper record of what we agree, have the difficult conversation if you think we need it and complement us and reward us if we deserve it.

Dr Mark Pegg is the chief executive of the Leadership Foundation.

The Leadership Foundation’s runs an in-house programme on performance management visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/LFperformance to find out more.

Where are the leaders?

Dr Paul Gentle

While writing a book proposal a few months ago, I asked my first-year undergraduate son for some feedback on an idea I had for the title. I knew his response would be frank and direct; what I hadn’t expected was the thinking it would provoke in me.

When I gave him my suggestion, he looked nonplussed. “The challenge of inspiring collective commitment in our universities”, I said, already embarrassed that the words weren’t exactly rolling off the tongue.  At the time, I wasn’t sure if his implied disapproval was because the very length of the title took up half the characters in a tweet. Or maybe it was down to the sheer uphill struggle involved in inspiring anything in a university, from his perspective. One way or another, he remained more than usually silent for quite some time.

When asking participants on our programmes (such as Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership) to reflect on where leadership can be found in a university, I’ve often been encouraged by their responses. The starting point is frequently an assertion that leadership isn’t confined to what senior managers do – or middle managers, or indeed necessarily any managers. It simply isn’t automatically associated with positional power.

What really seems to count in many situations, people think, is a set of personal qualities associated with leadership presence. Those individuals who can tap into this successfully are able to invest energy and emotion in relationships, facilitate collaborative conversations and build teams with a clear sense of mutually-agreed direction. People with these qualities can be found everywhere in universities – in the student body, in research centres, in estates and maintenance staff, in teaching teams, in offices… regardless of pay grade.

The challenge for universities is to recognise that they are already ‘leaderful organisations’, and that if they could align personally influential individuals with their institutional direction of travel, they may indeed inspire collective commitment (Bolden et al.)

A few days after our initial exchange, my son called me into his room.

“I’ve got an idea for that book of yours”, he said.

“Oh yes?”

“Yeah – be straight up about it – ‘Who’s in charge around here?’”

Paul Gentle is Director of Prgrammes.

His book title is Engaging Leaders: The challenge of inspiring collective commitment in universities and the first draft will be with Routledge by the end of the summer.