There seems to be a real sense of urgency in the marketplace around holding onto key talent.  After the bloody and painful exercise most organisations have gone through (or are bracing themselves to confront) in making staff redundant, senior management are keen to keep the talent that is left. The first challenge is to make sure you know how to identify key talent, an activity filled with perils and pitfalls for those who do not know what they are doing, but a vitally important one.  As far back as the Romans, Cicero had drawn a conclusion that still possibly merits a place on the pinboards of HR departments:

Natural ability without education has more often attained to glory and virtue than education without natural ability.”

Gone are the days when large parts of most HR budgets could be spent on development centres to identify and confirm key talent and competencies. That does not mean that HR has no role to play. On the contrary, this it actually a time for HR to ride to the rescue and to demonstrate real problem-solving skills. The critical contribution is to work diligently to understand how to identify and apply the criteria that mark out key talent either in action or in embryonic form. Wherever natural ability lurks, a detective’s nose to sleuth it out is required – as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle commented:

Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognises genius.”

In the current crisis, talent retention can’t fall back on sales incentive trips to the Caribbean, golf outings in Southern Europe and partner away weekends for top performing staff. There is no funding, nor any time to think.  The second challenge is therefore to motivate and develop these individuals once they have been appropriately identified, to make them feel valued, and – most importantly – to make sure they don’t leave!

Linguistically neat as it might be, “crisis” doesn’t have to lead to “crisis management” – but it all too frequently does. What typically happens is that HR receives a phone call from a Chair or CEO who has just lost a top executive and is now loudly and urgently declaring that “something must be done!”.  So HR manages to scrape together a small budget, and “tries something”.

There’s an old joke about painkillers that picks up on an advertiser’s (presumably unintentional) ambiguity and points out that if “nothing acts faster” then … well, doing nothing is the better option. But – less wittily – because our hypothetical (but all too plausible) HR department has acted in a hurry without proper expertise, the funding is spent to no effect, other key talents still leave, and the organisation is worse off. Far from failing to cure one headache, it has created a second one.

This is a simple case of trying to run before you can walk. Running is a great response to immediate danger: fires, explosions, collapsing buildings and the like. But when what is really needed is a clear perspective that allows a coherent strategy to be formulated, you need only move briskly to a suitable vantage point. A key talent problem in a recession is like quicksand: panic and flail around and you may well find yourself sucked in deeper.

Organisations need to step back and take time to properly assess key talent, think, and make plans. HR departments will – and certainly should – relish the opportunity to focus on something other than cuts and redundancies (even a blogger who styles herself Evil HR Lady points out that firing is no fun for anyone.) A crisis can become an opportunity, but it has be to treated as one.

Plan properly, take things slowly, let your HR staff learn, and you will end up with a good, strong talent retention strategy and action plan to keep key staff: you may even have some budget left to do something about it. And when you get to that stage – start running!

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