Here's a tough question: If corporate policies and practices in talent management and succession planning work, how come the wrong people so often get to the top? After five years interviewing HR professionals and business leaders around the world and analyzing the academic literature, I find only one tenable conclusion—the weight of both empirical and anecdotal evidence show that most HR practice in this area is ineffectual, or worse, damaging to both employees and employers.
The problem with HR's standard approaches to talent management and succession planning is that they start from the false assumption that the relationship between employers and employees is relatively simple. Identifying talent is simply a matter of applying a set of measures, based on definable, fixed and generic leadership competences. Developing talent is about helping people to tick more of the boxes defined in those competency frameworks. Succession planning is about having people lined up to fit into key roles as they become vacant. This simple, linear systems approach has a lot of attractions, not least that it provides a sense of being in control of the talent process—a key element in earning HR a seat at the top table. Simplistic measures complete the illusion. If the people who have been identified as talented get promoted, this is not evidence that the selection process works—it is simply a reflection that they have had more development opportunities than "less talented" peers and that the line managers, who designated them as talented, have a greater emotional investment in ensuring their success.
If we examine the evidence for these simplistic assumptions, a distinct impression of the Emperor's New Clothes emerges. Take the identification of talent. Most processes rely heavily on line managers to start the process by identifying potential leaders from amongst their direct reports. Unfortunately, this assumes that every manager has one or two such talented people in their team, but statistically that's absurd. Forced ranking of employees tends to reinforce the problem—what manager wants to admit that the people working for him or her are below average in talent? So a high proportion of people put forward are actually mediocre. Moreover, research shows that managers are exceptionally poor on average at recognising leadership potential (unless the person is like them!), to the extent that it is negatively correlated with actuality. Whereas direct reports tend to have a fairly accurate perspective of a managers' leadership potential, but usually nobody asks them. This topdown myopia is a godsend for the organizational sociopath who invests heavily in creating a positive image for those above. For these reasons, relying on managers undermines attempts at increasing diversity.
The idea that it is possible to identify talent with any accuracy is itself suspect. Firstly, the qualities that make up an effective leader change over time—so by the time people get to a role, they may not be what's needed. One of the many reasons competency frameworks fail is that they are backwards looking (focused on the qualities of current incumbents). Secondly, the qualities that make people genuinely talented are often those that make them difficult to categorize, so competency frameworks tend again to reward mediocrity rather than brilliance. With a few exceptions, such as Jim Collins' identification of humility and will as the core characteristics of level 5 leaders, the only common qualities of great leaders is their uniqueness. It doesn't help that the competences identified for leaders at the top are not greatly valued at junior management—it's common, for example, for strategic thinkers to get weeded out at lower levels, because they don't tick all the other competency boxes. Moreover, recent studies show that some of the key competencies expected of top management get lost in the transition from middle management. When in a position of power, it's no longer so important to put on an act!
Similarly, processes for developing talent are deeply flawed. Even the language creates an expectation of mediocrity. Talent pools (think shallow, static and perhaps stagnant) allow HR and line managers to treat talent development as a once-a-year chore to be put aside in favour of more interesting tasks for the rest of the time. Moreover, people told they are in a talent pool tend either to slacken off their efforts, or reconnect with headhunters, or both, while people who haven't been included also start looking around. Leadership pipelines (think narrow, constricted and leaky) also reduce flexibility and focus attention only on upward moves.
Succession management processes are equally flawed. Here's a typical example. HR presented regularly to the Board a chart showing that they had four people lined up to step into every key role. Then a non-executive asked: how many of these people would take the role, if it were offered to them? And how many of these names are the same people? The ratio dropped to less than one per role. And are these roles genuinely key? A large Swiss bank reviews key roles annually, changing an average of one third of the designations each time.
Some of the practical steps HR can take to overcome these problems include:
- Start thinking of talent and succession as complex, adaptive systems. Stop trying to control them and focus instead on enabling talent to make itself visible. Think of talent as a wave: energy that needs to be pointed in the right direction.
- Instead of filling vacancies with people like the previous incumbent, encourage people to propose how they would transform those roles. Take more risks and don't panic when a few fail spectacularly—that's still better than a lot of mediocre performances!
- Open up a wider, more honest dialogue with employees about talent and put more effort into supporting them in managing their own career development.
- Look for talent in less obvious places. For example, in many organizations there is informal, often unrecognized leadership emerging every day in the intranet-based social networks. This leadership is distributed, has no respect for hierarchy, and can be the main source for innovation.
It helps the ambitious employee if they also take a complex, adaptive systems approach to their career. Some of the practical steps you can take are:
- Engage in a wide dialogue with people inside and outside the organization that gives you an extensive view of the opportunities open to you. Understand how the job landscape is evolving.
- Expect the landscape of those opportunities to shift constantly. Review your personal scenario planning frequently. Find a balance between focusing on just one or two opportunities and having so many options that you lose any sense of direction.
- Get to know yourself—your strengths and weaknesses, your values and priorities, and how you make a difference. Use that knowledge to recognize when you are going stale in a role and to identify new roles where you could contribute more.
- Choose new job roles not for whether you can do them but by what you can learn from them.
David Clutterbuck is visiting professor at Sheffield Hallam and Oxford Brookes Universities in the UK and Special Ambassador for the European Mentoring & Coaching Council. His latest book (his 54th) is The Talent Wave, published by Kogan Page.
[Image: Flickr user Elaine of Lotus Land]