Maybe we're wrong

Simon Bird

Did you know that despite several well-intentioned and reasonably funded attempts, the largest employing organisation in the UK remains without any national, effective, established and transparent talent management programme of work?

Publication:  Talent Management Review
Reference:  Talent Management Review, Sept 2008, pp. 5

The organisation is rated as one of the most publically valued institutions, has a turnover of over £90bn and employs 1.2 million people. Through numerous reorganisations it has lost people and organisational memory at a startling rate and successive attempts to 'bring on' talent have faltered.

If I tell you this organisation is the National Health Service (NHS), more cynical sideline commentators might roll their eyes, muttering words like waste, inefficiency and incompetence. This would be unfair. Indeed, around the country there are some excellent examples of NHS talent management. However, my observations at close quarters of seeing initiatives focusing on talent spotting and hearing first-hand from participants at the most senior levels, suggest to me there are some fundamental assumptions made in the development of talent management which should be critically reviewed regardless of industry – and are not only issues faced by the NHS.

The first assumption and design principle of talent spotters – a term I use to define anyone who may have a role in developing the career of others – is that people want to rise through the organisation and continue to aspire for the top jobs in the traditional way. What if this is not the case and, in fact, a significant proportion of people no longer want these jobs? There has been tangible evidence of this in the NHS in recent years. It is well-rehearsed that the average tenure of a chief executive in the NHS is now around three years. It has been even more tumultuous in the NHS in recent years and complex, exciting healthcare organisations are struggling to compile credible shortlists for chief executive roles. This struggle is despite offering the chance to lead vital and exciting organisations, and to enjoy salaries that are becoming increasingly competitive. But the step up to CEO from a director's perspective carries all the risk with limited additional reward and just is not attractive now – presenting a critical issue to the NHS.

The second area that is related is the change in people’s expectations of their careers. The evidence suggests that people do not expect to remain with a single employer for life, nor do they want to, according to much written about Generation Y. So, if that is the case, how much time and investment should be spent on the ‘retention’ part of talent management? This is a difficult balance for organisations to achieve: to develop a meaningful relationship with individuals who are not that interested in staying around for the long term but without becoming dependent on them.

A difficult case of unreciprocated love perhaps; one side wanting what it can get and which serves them well at the time, with the other side desperately trying to create the perfect conditions for long term commitment. Perhaps this is assumption and actually plenty of those considered Generation Y would like a long term employment relationship – if only (they think) people would stop calling them Generation Y and assuming they do not want to be around for long.

Both of these assumptions – that people want the top jobs, and that people no longer want to stay long term in the organisation, need testing. There is no shortcut to testing these assumptions on an individual one-to-one basis – it requires a skilled, open, truthful series of conversations. The organisation needs to develop a range of options so that it can come to a mutually beneficial agreement with the individual which is transparent and achievable – on both sides.

These two points are applicable across industries and I should round off with a final nod to the NHS. There are significant moves taking places across the country now with well-funded and systematic programmes being developed. Most importantly of all, they have sponsorship from some of the most senior leaders in the NHS. It is too early to tell if the conversations that need to underpin this programmatic approach will emerge. If the commitment that most staff in the NHS bring to their roles can be extrapolated to some of the thornier talent management points, the outlook is good.

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