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The Way I See It …The War for Talent


Management Consultant John Pope explains how to identify and retain top talent in an organisation.

They looked promising when you recruited them, they joined with high hopes; you don’t think you are a bad employer; they just aren’t the people you need now as they don’t have the talents needed to drive your business forward. What have you done with them?

What have you done to them? This is an awkward question as there are unpleasant implications. Some of it is not your, or the business’s fault. However, it is your and the business’s responsibility. I am convinced that there is much under used talent in most organisations. It is possible to use it better, to develop it better, and to avoid the so-called ‘War for Talent’.

Talents waste if they are not used; talents do not develop unless people’s abilities are stretched; managers do not become well-rounded high-performance business leaders unless they have a wide range of experience. Some who are ambitious and determined do get to the top, most need some help at some stage in their careers.

So what is this thing called ‘talent’? It is just a natural aptitude for a skill. With aptitude a skill can be taught, exercised and developed to a high degree. Without natural aptitude the skill can sometimes be developed to a level where it can be useful though its application is unreliable and not to a high standard.

But a talent for what? Music, mathematics, art, imagining spatial relationships; perhaps for dealing with people; leadership. Some people are multi talented; many have some talents, some of which are of obvious use in business, and our first job is to discover what natural talents our people have.

So find out what you have got. Research: find out more about staff capabilities inside and outside work – external interests and activities are often a clue. Go through your skills and qualifications inventory and get some surprises. If you don’t have such an inventory, you don’t deserve to have good people.

But natural aptitude, however high, is only the basis for developing skill to a high degree. Some talents become evident by chance, and some are often applied and developed only outside the workplace.

Much talent is undeveloped because the individual does not realise it is there; those dealing with the individual never thought about it; it has never been drawn on; its importance was not recognised.

Some talent is deliberately hidden for fear of ridicule, some to avoid being ‘landed’ with extra work and some obscured because individual busy on other tasks.

Discover individuals’ likes and dislikes about their existing work and how they would change it; what they believe they are good at, what more they feel they could contribute.

See what you’ve got: try out individuals on different tasks or in different roles. Use the opportunity of temporary absences to see how they handle new work. Look for display of initiative, leadership qualities in unusual situations, especially emergencies. Involve individuals in different work-groupings, project teams.

Yes you will have to provide help and support to minimise risk of failure - and there will inevitably be some. Follow up your research and observations with action.

Does your organisation deserve to have talented people? Talent acquisition, development and retention are influenced by culture of your organisation, reflected by attitudes and behaviours of those in positions pf influence. Important functions are: allowance and encouragement of initiative; tolerance of rule-breakers; degree of stereotyping (the ‘company’ man); degree of delegation and control exercised; formality of career structures; promotion criteria and rules; attitude to mistakes or failures.

In recruitment and selection: talent generally becomes evident when the interviewers look beyond job specification and personal profile, Stereotyping, formality of career structures, promotion criteria tend to rule out the talented unconventional people.

In staff development, intolerance of mistakes or failures or rule-breakers, lead to suppression of initiative; hierarchical structures and formalism reduce opportunities for exposure of juniors to seniors on working parties. Intolerance of rule-breakers tends to suppress initiative, use of talents, and diverts staff to outside interests.

In retention, formality of career structure, intolerance of mistakes or rule-breakers, strong promotion criteria tends to lead to those who face a career block leaving when they can (or staying and disheartening others).

Positive cultures oriented to experimentation, learning from successes, openness, learning from honest mistakes, giving second and third chances, bending the organisation to suit the ‘human material’, all tend to bring latent talent to the service and give opportunities for it to flourish and be useful.

And now you’ve got and developed talented people you’ll want to keep them. Retaining them is a result of continuous satisfaction of needs, and realistic management of expectations. It is essential to know what keeps ‘the Talent’ productive and happy with you, rather than elsewhere. Though important, money and advancement are not everything;. there is always an employer with more money. But be realistic, the grass is greener on the other side; you will lose some of your best people – but thankfully it will make the opportunity for others to move up.


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