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Comment: Unlocking talent: Does Gordon Brown hold the key?

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UnlockingIs it possible to unlock all of the talents of all of the people, as Gordon Brown aspires to? They're great sentiments, says Nigel Paine, but it's everyone's future actions that will speak louder than his words.









How often have you talked to friends in the pub who regale you with stories about how awful the company they work for is. "Don't buy from them, they are rubbish!" This from paid employees. And for an employee to reach that level of disillusionment and bitterness reveals a whole catalogue of failure and mismanagement as well as a profound lack of engagement. No one starts work on day one bitter and contemptuous of the organisation they work for. It takes a concerted effort to reach the point in the pub when you run down your employer with a glee and enthusiasm that should have been reserved for doing great work! Something needs to be fixed in countless organisations and for millions of their staff.

It was good, therefore, to listen to Gordon Brown's keynote speech at the Labour Party Spring Conference in Birmingham. It had one remarkable paragraph that is buried somewhere in the middle of his remarks. It says:

"The old way was just to provide a safety net below which nobody could fall. The new way, in this new age of rising ambition, is to provide a platform, from which each individual can rise. And this is a new common purpose that our generation can forge together, a new meritocracy, a new wave of upward social mobility, that instead of unlocking just some of the talent of some of the people, must in this generation unlock all of the talents, of all of the people."

Photo of Migel Paine"It is true that more people, including Gordon Brown, are listening now, but it might well take another five years for action to be felt generally in the education system or the workplace."

The same message is being echoed in companies, government departments and organisations right across the developed world: it is no longer acceptable to run those on a small percentage of the talent available. What would be the impact if most people in most companies were allowed to develop to their full ability and felt empowered and stretched at work? What if most staff loved their job and loved the place they worked for? What difference would that make to efficiency and productivity? The power unleashed would be spectacular and give the employer that is so blessed an unchallengeable, competitive advantage.

There is, however, a massive gulf between the words of inspiration and exhortation and the reality of work or social aspiration in most countries, including this one. There is a burning platform - the unique combination of falling birth rates, mass exodus of the baby boomer generation and competition on a global scale for the best talent. But is anyone doing anything? The McKinsey Quarterly hit the nail squarely on the head in a recent edition:

"A two% economic growth rate for 15 years would increase the demand for executives by about a third. Meanwhile, supply is moving in the opposite direction: the number of US 35- to 44-year-olds will decline by 15% from 2000 to 2015. Companies must therefore make talent management a top priority, create and perpetually refine their employee value proposition, and source and, above all, develop talent systematically while removing underperformers."

At last, you might well feel, McKinsey is bringing out its big guns to argue for a bigger focus on talent. Timely and appropriate. Actually this was written and published in 1998 and reprinted on its 10th anniversary, not to draw attention to how far we had moved in those 10 years, but exactly the opposite!

The words strike one as fresh and relevant and it is sad to reflect on what has actually taken place in that period since it was first published. It is true that more people, including Gordon Brown, are listening now, but it might well take another five years for action to be felt generally in the education system or the workplace and then only if a concerted effort is made now.

"There is some recognition now that winning the war to recruit, retain and get the best out of people will be a considerable making or breaking factor for the success or otherwise of future organisations. But there is still a huge gap between the theory and the practice."

There is some recognition now that winning the war to recruit, retain and get the best out of people will be a considerable making or breaking factor for the success or otherwise of future organisations. But there is still a huge gap between the theory (we should be doing something) and the practice (but we can't/won't/don't know where to start).

Although 61% of organisations surveyed recently by CIPD claimed that talent management was integral to their survival, only 25% considered that their current practices would deliver the leaders they needed to ensure success in the future.

There is a long way to go but the signs of change are emerging. Gary Hamel's new book The Future of Management makes some very bold statements:

"You can't win unless you are able to get the very best out of your people."

And he gives examples of companies, like Google, that are winning spectacularly through doing just that.

Will that speech by the prime minister, words from McKinsey and books by Gary Hamel make any kind of difference to the way most employers view their staff, review their progress and encourage their development?

The recognition that we have a problem is the first step. The more difficult move is to recognise that this is not a learning and development problem or an HR issue. It can't be put at the feet of those that recruit or those that performance manage. This is an issue that requires a focus on talent and development from pre-recruitment, through recruitment, induction, job competence, development and even retirement. In other words, the entire life cycle of an employee. That needs a single focus to deliver maximum impact. And a coherent, joined up approach that really delivers value back to the employee and therefore the employer. That is the real challenge and bold words are only the very first step.

Nigel Paine is a former head of training and development at the BBC and now runs his own company, Nigel Paine.Com which focuses on people, learning and technology. For more information visit his website at www.nigelpaine.com

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Would you like to comment on recent news of relevance to the training community as Nigel Paine has done here? We're looking for more people to comment on training issues: on evaluation, coaching, mentoring, NLP, learning and development and training issues in general. If you've got something to say then please get in touch. Email me at [email protected]

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