We’ve cringed about fairness before on this blog, mostly as it seems to have become a word our political leaders eagerly want to use but not to engage in debate about. While it’s possible to admire someone who knowingly embraces a challenging strategy, part of the problem of fairness is that it’s not only measured, it’s felt. (It’s also not the most easily measured abstract concept in the world either, prone as it is to conflicting readings of equally conflicting statistics.) These inherent difficulties do, however, need to be acknowledged: feeling that we are being treated fairly is a widespread human desire, and integrally linked with such important aspects of a harmonious, productive and successful organisation as trust and respect. It may be difficult to measure quite how the presence of these fluffy components turns into cold, hard cash, but their absence can cost an organisation dear in many ways.

As an HR discipline, Talent Management emphasises the first of its two words as strongly as Human Resources can sometimes emphasise its second: in both instances, at least one f-word tends to get banded around as a result. Nor is it the only unfortunate word that might arise: for all that you are their boss, those who feel unfairly managed or unduly overlooked will – regardless of your gender – think of other words for you that begin with ‘b’. (These might not be brave, benign, bountiful or benevolent.) People tend to join organisations in hope, or in the belief that the opportunity they feel they are being offered might be forthcoming. People – including talented people – quite often leave organisations because they no longer feel so hopeful: sit in judgement of a human being, and they might just return the compliment.

For a talent manager, this is a logical conundrum. A large part of the role is the identification of potential, and the development of that potential into future key roles: talent management is a filtering process. But while most of us accept that we can’t all get the top jobs – we all get older and possibly wiser, but there aren’t enough top jobs to go round – most people place at least some value on their own self-esteem. While developing self-awareness and understanding of impact on others is seen as a crucial skill in leaders, Talent Managers should not blind themselves to the irony that those who are implicitly or explicitly labelled as latter-day ‘cannon fodder’ by this filtering process are often all too aware that they carry this stigma in the eyes of their HR colleagues. (Just as most parents want their offspring to be in the top stream of schooling, we want our metaphorical offspring – our future working lives – to clear at least some of the hurdles in the selection process.)

Bending over to retain emerging top talent (HiPos, in the TM jargon) can leave Talent Managers exposed to all sorts of accusation, no matter which direction they bend in. The Talent Managers first hurdle is assessing potential – a task that resembles weather forecasting, but with a higher number of external variables. Past performance is not a guarantee of future growth, especially given that roles, requirements and operating environments can all change; even if ability alone were a good predictor, engagement and ambition play equally important roles. It isn’t just that a rising star may have already peaked; the star in question might be quietly heading for a different constellation, or wondering if soaring in such a thin atmosphere is all it’s cracked up to be. (Interestingly, a May 2010 article in Harvard Business Review, How to Keep Your Top Talent, identified those who lack aspiration as more likely to succeed at the next level than those who lack either ability or engagement. It seems that Oscar Wilde actually was right, and that some of us really do have greatness thrust upon us.)

Equally importantly, the development of rising talents needs to be linked to the organisation’s own direction: not only is it hard to contribute to an organisational future if you are unclear why it might lie, but development per se is not the objective. An organisation’s talent development initiatives should be focused on the organisation’s own future – an organisation that cannot survive has very few talent requirements. (Administrators and bailiffs are exclusively outsourced services.)

Anita Roddick once memorably said that “the leadership of a company should encourage the next generation not just to follow, but to overtake”. Even the most lackadaisical leadership would surely not encourage its successor to perform the manoeuvre on a blind bend or the brow of a hill. Talent pools are a form of pension plan, into which organisations invest to safeguard their futures and ‘save’ to ensure scarce assets don’t become yet more scarce. The idea is, after all, to save for a sunny day, not a rainy one.

Talent Managent is a far more complex discipline than simply skimming the cream from the milk – good use has to be made of the skimmed milk, and care has to be taken to prevent the cream from curdling. Simple pampering of the ‘winners’ is not the answer, although an element of it will be required – those with the ambition to rise tend also to expect perhaps more than a modicum of special treatment to keep them onside. (That HBR article identified 1 in 4 HiPos as expecting to be working elsewhere within a year.)

Nor is simply writing off the unselected totally wise: giving the difficulty of identifying future potential and the possibility that talents may not be receiving the opportunities they require to demonstrate themselves, single bites as the development cherry should be seen as a meagre diet. Give a single opportunity and you should not expect to receive too many in return. Even The Apprentice gives all bar one contestant more than one chance to shine.

Putting all your retention efforts into a single basket can lead you straight back to another dairy product metaphor: churn. The point of a churn is to create butter, not sludge. A continuous high turnover where the reliable but unambitious feel unwanted or unrewarded is destabilising, and distracts current and future top talent into repeated rounds of recruitment, induction and team-building. The costs of doing this are more than just those of printing job ads, as Marc Lephere’s blog articles explaining the Chartered Institute of Management Account’s COLT (Cost of Losing Talent) and CORT (Cost of Replacing Talent) models detail.

There are some blunt home truths to be mined here. An operational staff member may take 18 weeks to reach full effectiveness, compared to a senior manager’s 29.5, but the former are more plentiful: losing two of them is more costly than losing one senior manager. As CIMA are no doubt aware, it’s also entirely probable that a higher percentage of the operational member of staff’s time can be invoiced. A company whose outstanding leaders can define strategies, carve out market share and win orders will not survive long if it cannot deliver its good or services. “All chiefs and no Indians” is not necessarily an improvement on a shortage of chiefs.

While HiPos deserve – and will probably demand – star treatment, providing it is not the only game in town. For one thing, a lesson that this star treatment must continue to be earned (by demonstrating increasing performance and realising the potential seen in them) is not unreasonable: Talent Management should produce talent, not prima donnas. For another, intelligent exploration of motivation (and barriers to it), mentoring or coaching styles of line management, recognition of valued contributions already being made, broadening or modifying roles and specific developmental assignments are just some of the strategies that can improve performance wherever an employee sites within the 9-Block Talent Map model. Expending all of an organisation’s energies on those who have made it into the top-right box and are now exploring the Talent Pool in their aspirational water wings is to ignore the remaining eight boxes: unless they are all to be recruited externally, the next flow into the Talent Pool needs to come from somewhere.

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