Talent development

I recently sat through yet another mangled explanation as to how a company (let’s call them ‘Company Y’), this time in the financial sector, was planning to attract and retain ‘talent’. It wasn’t the first but I hope it will be the last however I doubt it will be for it seems that lessons in this area are slow to be grasped.

But let me backtrack momentarily. I had been invited into a senior leadership programme by a prominent London based business school to spend a day with an international client with a global footprint in over 30 counties. The day was to focus on why and how the world is changing and what specific areas of business are being disrupted as a result of this unrelenting and ubiquitous change. After all, this is the exciting and challenging work we get to do in TomorrowToday Global.

The day went well. The participants were fully engaged and we enjoyed some robust conversation as we navigated our way through the ‘VUCA world’ and explored the ‘VUCA leadership response’ (VUCA is an acronym to describe the global context, one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The VUCA leadership response is an acronym for the needs to be leaders with vision, understanding, connection and adaptability).    

My work done, I took a seat at the back of the room for a final late afternoon presentation from a senior person within Company Y who had been tasked with formulating a global talent strategy and who was there to both ‘sell it’ to this particular group of leaders as well as solicit their input and suggestions.

It didn’t go well.

It wasn’t long into the presentation that was a mishmash of poor clip-art and slides so dense with words that made them all but unintelligible to anyone but those with eagle-like sight (and that certainly excluded me!), before the muttering became full-blown challenges. Most the challenges started with derivatives of, “We have just spent a day learning about a VUCA world and now we are hearing this…” / “The previous presenter said that….” and so on. You get the picture. I must say that the Target for these sustained attacks handled it very well. He refrained from being too defensive and it seemed that such robust feedback was part of Company Y’s culture.

What he was presenting was the typical ‘old world of work’ approach and solution to what is essentially a ‘new world of work’ challenge – attracting and retaining talent. During the day I had made the point that such talent initiatives very often, can’t even define what is actually meant by ‘talent’ (well they can but it takes a thesaurus and HR PhD to unravel). Of course the fallback safety clause is that ‘everyone is seen as talent’ then of course there is the added complication that if that isn’t your stance, what do you do with the ‘non-talent’ within your organisation? No one seems to have given much thought to that exclusion. There is also a simple question such as, ‘Can a 50 year old be on the talent management programme?’ that usually unleashes another verbal cluster of HR double-speak that serves to confuse and conquer. I knew we were heading into stormy waters from my vantage point at the back of the room when five minutes into the slide jungle a hand shot up and first salvo was fired cased in the question, “So can you please tell us what you mean by ‘talent’?”

The heart of the problem is that the approach to this very real challenge (of attracting and retaining talent) has been shaped by employing the traditional consultancy frameworks, processes and methodologies. In fact the very framing of the challenge itself was something that is attributed to a McKinsey’s white paper. Company Y had borrowed extensively from McKinsey in shaping their own strategy and it showed. (It was also something not lost on the participants who howled with derision at every mention of the ‘M’ word).

Now let me be clear, McKinsey’s has done fine work over the years and is a consultancy that many aspire to emulate. However, like all the big consultancies they are riddled with clutter when it comes to both their approach to a problem and when articulating whatever process they may suggest as a solution. Clients have come to accept – well expect, this nonsense and have been fooled into thinking it is value for money. The more they pay, the more the PowerPoint’s are delivered, each with the incomprehensible graphs, flow charts, unreadable text and finally the triumphant conclusions. I recently spent a day with a leading consultancy in London where there must have been (and I am not exaggerating here) about 100 slides shown throughout the day of which 3 were legible and somewhat engaging. I was told that within this leading global firm, not to have a PowerPoint means you simply haven’t done your work. It is more than a consultancy and business malaise…it is a sickness that masks what we really need to see and hides from view what is really important.

But I digress, let’s go back to Company Y. Thirty minutes in and there was mutiny at hand. This is where I thought the poor fellow up front did exceptionally well by inviting the baying mob’s suggestions. What he got was a VUCA 101 with the obvious conclusion that what he had presented should be consigned to the scrapheap and a fresh start made. That is not going to happen and it is a pity. The point was made that it shouldn’t be a pathway to McKinsey’s door that is worn, but rather, to companies such as Alibaba, Google, Facebook and Amazon where paths should be forged in order to observe, learn and then ‘copy right’ what might work for Company Y. You could tell they had been listening to me! In fact at one point the business school director sidled up to me and whispered in my ear, “Now look at the fu*k@ing trouble you have caused”. As he slid away as unobtrusively as he had arrived, I silently hoped that he had been joking. I’m sure he was, at least that is what I tell myself.

This traditional, consultancy dominated approach – promulgated by most business schools, is dead. It does not work and it cannot work. It lacks imagination and cannot be sold (well, it can and that is the saddest things about it). I wanted to scream from the back of the room, “have you thought to simply ask those you want to retain, what it is you can do to make them want to stay?”. It is the obvious staring point and yet never is the starting point. The only point that really ‘stuck’ and gained any form of traction was a story told and image created through the telling of the story. I wanted to scream for more stories, more images to capture, to define and to articulate the approach to talent. It shouldn’t be a ‘talent strategy’ it should be a ‘talent story’. Story will always outsell strategy at the market! It is a journey not a process and ‘talent’ needs another name! Why can’t smart people see this? Why do we persist in formulating answers for others without understanding that it is not them that need to change or be moulded; it is us that needs to change and be reshaped.

The company needs to be reinvented and when it is, ‘talent’ – attraction and retention is a non-issue.

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