In sessions that we conduct on Talent management with both those who lead talent and those who are considered talent everything goes brilliantly until the end of the day when we ask: “So, what are you going to do now?” At this point there is generally a throwing up of hands into the air and a frustrated whining sessions begins. What it basically boils down is the passing of the talent ‘hot potato’ from one person or group to the next. Executives say HR has strategies in place, HR says it is the role of line management, line management says that they are disempowered by top-down processes or too busy with operational delivery to do anything differently…
As we facilitate these sessions we come in first hand contact with the frustrations that sit in this space. This article briefly deals with the conversations and frustrations most commonly raised. It will then propose options and actions that should be considered by the various stakeholders in this dynamic, from executives and other leaders right down to the talent themselves.

In we spend a lot of our time in workshop and discussion sessions dealing with the dynamics around talent. The day’s generally have high energy and engaging discussion as young and old talent debate and interact with the various components of the talent management frameworks we present. We run these sessions with all levels of the business from executive management all the way down to graduate recruits. One thing is common to all discussion groups – while we are talking in hypotheticals and concepts there is great debate and engagement, but as soon as we get to the last session of the day when we deal with the “So What?� and application perspectives the day grinds to a halt.

The general tone expressed in these application sessions is one of frustration, despair, and disempowerment. Executives say that they need to focus on managing the business so this is the responsibility of HR. HR says that they have multiple programmes running in the business to achieve this, but what it basically boils down to is that the responsibility has been delegated to line management. Line management in turn reflect their frustrations that they have so many operational deliverables that they have little time for effective talent management activity. Consequently, they rely on the processes defined as ‘check box’ exercises by HR – that are part of their KPA’s anyway – and nothing more. These processes are seen as too restrictive and formulaic to deal with the specific talent requirements of their business unit. Graduate recruits and talent themselves express their frustration by saying that there is nothing they can do to change their lot because they are at the ‘mercy’ of management & HR.

So by the end of a day of great discussion and interaction the delegates often leave with generic application points that are quite high-level, and if the truth be told, they will achieve very little success with them as application points. There are two drivers behind this discussion dynamic:

  1. Delegates think too broadly when they get to application.

  2. Corporate culture passes the hot potato…it rarely supports holding onto it and dealing with it.

In these application sessions delegates need to constantly be reminded to focus their attention in their teams or business units rather than looking at the company as a whole. There is an automatic tendency to look at the broader business and what they should be doing rather than at the individual’s own team and what is possible there. Consequently, the discussion is very quickly overwhelmed by structural and political dynamics that are beyond the scope and influence of the session. Delegates get frustrated by things that are out of their control and beyond their influence, rather than picking up those things that are within their control and influence and working on them. We need to constantly remind them to forget about what they can do nothing about and direct their energy toward what they can. This is the first step to creating an environment that it attractive for talent – everyone need to work on the things that are in their control and make them better. Things outside of your control are in the control of others, leave those things up to them to sort out.

Modern corporate culture has mastered the art of playing ‘pass the parcel’ – key issues like talent management are always someone else’s problem or responsibility. The implication for the organisation is that effective talent management will never take place because nobody is taking responsibility for it. The reality is that talent management is not the responsibility of executive management, nor HR, line management can’t do talent management AND their day jobs, and talent themselves need to plug into an organizationally relevant programme. The reality is that a multi-disciplinary team that shares responsibility for effective talent management will run an effective talent management programme. So when it comes to the application part of a talent management session nobody should be able to pass the ‘hot potato’ on to anyone else because the requirements of each part of the business are understood. So what should each of these stakeholders be contributing to the “So what� discussion?


The first thing executive managers need to realize is that they can’t delegate all of the responsibility for this away from themselves. The key to a brilliant talent management programme lies in the sponsor. We recently ran a customer service programme for an organisation that was sponsored at the highest level. We managed to get it accepted in many areas of the business based on this sponsorship. Shortly after the programme began to roll out the executive sponsor was moved to another area and sponsorship was handed to a junior member of his old team…the programme lost all momentum and petered out within 4 months. The key was sponsorship. The same dynamic will play out in an effective talent management programme. The frustrations expressed by executives are because they are looking at the wrong areas in their discussion.

The key value that executives bring to the talent management discussion is the political weight their sponsorship contributes to the programme. They needn’t be involved in the detailed design or the daily roll out. In fact, they will be counter-productive in those situations. A talent management programme that isn’t sponsored and anchored at the highest levels of the business will never achieve anything because it will lack the influence and authority it needs to make the type of organizational culture changes needed to attract, retain, and nurture talent.

The “So What� discussion for executives should deal with the impact they can have by putting their name & influence behind the talent process.


Traditionally this is where the talent programme is left. HR deals with people, HR will do talent. When the talent management workshop with HR gets to the last session of the day HR express their frustration that nobody else in the business is prepared to take on the responsibility for people management & development. HR see themselves as a support function i.e. they support others in the effective management of THEIR people & talent. HR’s role is create processes and structures that facilitate this function. HR isn’t responsible for talent management they help those who are.

This frustration is bedded in the fact that HR actually has very little contact with people in the business. When they do have contact it is fleeting and has very little relational presence. HR basically builds people processes. In this light how can HR remove the frustration and ineffectiveness from the talent management conversation? They need to focus on what they do and stop worrying about what they don’t. This effectively means that HR needs to be asking the process questions and trying to understand the macro framework within which effective talent management will be possible. The challenge for HR is in the sourcing of their information and perspectives.

The traditional way in which HR will do this is to bring in best of breed consultants who have insight into global best practice. The consultants will come in a spend time understanding the business from HR’s perspective. They will then pull this insight together with their knowledge of global best practice and industry benchmarks and design a programme that will sit alongside the best in the world…and will be totally irrelevant to the people who actually spend time with the talent in the business.

HR needs to design processes that are rooted in the worlds of those who need to run them. So in this discussion HR should forget about what they can’t do [manage people] but spend most of their energy discussing how they can design better processes and structures to make effective talent management and the corresponding culture change possible.

Line Management

This is generally the most frustrated group we have in these sessions. Their frustration has two sources. Firstly, they look at the talent management conversation and love the dynamics it elicits, but they feel they don’t have enough capacity to do anything about it because they are swamped with operational expectations. Secondly, they are frustrated with the policies that come through from HR because nobody on HR ever spoke to them in the design of the policies & processes so they are effectively useless.

Of all the groups who are part of the talent management discussion it is this group who generally battle most with ‘tunnel vision’. They get so locked in the dynamics of their own environment that they can’t raise their heads and see the big picture. Consequently, they also see most of the problems and issues in the space sitting with others rather themselves. The reality is actually the exact opposite. The most influential group of people in the business are those in line management positions, because they hold most sway over the real culture of the business. It isn’t executive management or HR that most affect the way the organisation is experienced by those who work for it, it is line management.

Line managers need to realize what they can and can’t do anything about. They can’t change the macro organizational strategy. They can’t change the expected deliverables from their team. They can’t change the broader organizational processes. BUT, they can change the daily experience of their team. In talent management it is this experience more than any other that will attract, retain, and nurture the organisation’s stars.

The “So What?� discussion for line managers needs to deal with how they will best harness the real influence they have. It must avoid discussing the process & strategy dynamics that they have no control over.


Of all the groups involved in the talent management discussion it is this group who are most active in the debates and discussions of the day, they are also the group who grind to a halt most obviously in the application session. This is a virtual stopping because they generally still have a lot of conversation to contribute, but the value of the contribution is low because it is all deflected to others with no ownership taken of a space that affects them the most.

Talent’s sphere of actual influence in the business is probably the smallest but they hold the most power. This paradox is driven by the fact that they are the least consulted in the design and management of a talent programme so their design and management influence is minimal. But, when they are dissatisfied they vote with their feet and leave the organisation, making them effectively the most influential group in this discussion.

Talent need to grasp the nettle and take ownership of the programme that is developing them for success in their future careers. This effectively means that they need to avoid conversation that moans about what HR, line, and executive management aren’t doing properly in the talent management space, and rather engage with how they will take ownership of the programme so that it offers the type of development opportunities they need. It is not the fault of the other stakeholders if the talent programme doesn’t meet the requirements and expectations of the talent. That responsibility sits firmly at the door of talent themselves.

The “So What?� conversation amongst talent should ask: “So what can we do to make this the type of programme we benefit most from?�


The reality is that none of the groups dealt with above is actually responsible for the delivery of a talent management programme that overcomes the frustrations expressed in the final application session in our workshops. They are all collectively responsible.

We rarely have all of the stakeholder groups present in one session when we run these workshops. But, increasingly, companies who have effective talent management programmes will be those who bring all of these stakeholders into one place and pass the collective responsibility back to a multi-disciplinary team representing all of them.


Raymond de Villiers heads up the Talent offering at, and can be contacted at .

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