Talent liberation

Dr Maggi Evans on a way to tackle the ‘Great Resignation’ and record vacancies.

Having worked as an Occupational Psychologist for over 20 years, I am excited (and somewhat daunted) by the changing landscape of work. Alongside worries about getting hybrid working to work, overcoming systemic bias and taking a more sustainable approach to business, many of my clients are pre-occupied by concerns of the ‘Great Resignation’ (a term coined by American Psychologist Anthony Klotz), and a UK labour market with more live vacancies than ever before. They worry that perhaps this is the start of the apocalyptic warnings of the 2030 scenario described by Korn Ferry in a 2018 report as ‘the Global Talent Crunch’. HR functions that 18 months ago were making redundancies and putting people on furlough, are now desperately trying to fill vacancies. They need to find better ways to attract and retain people to do the tasks and roles that need to be done in the short and long term. As one HR Director told me recently, ‘this is serious. If I don’t get these people in place quickly, we can’t serve our clients.If we can’t serve our clients, we go out of business’.  

So, the stakes are high. Unfortunately however, the talent tools that many HR people rely on are not fit for purpose. Many of the commonly applied approaches were developed in the 1950s (see Capelli & Keller, 2017), designed for stable, predictable environments; they are not suited to the turbulence, ambiguity and uncertainty that we are faced with. 

So, how can organisations respond? How can they rethink their approach?

For the past 10 years this is the problem I have been exploring. I’ve been looking at it through both an academic and practitioner lens – trying to translate academic insight into pragmatic business solutions. With the support of my clients, my network and my co-authors (Professor John Arnold and Dr Andrew Rothwell), ‘Talent Liberation’ has evolved as a way to help organisations rethink their approach to talent. 

A new metaphor for our times

Talent Liberation offers a new metaphor, a shift in thinking from the traditional ‘talent management’, opening new possibilities for understanding the core problems and developing appropriate solutions. The thinking was resonating with people before the pandemic hit, and is now even more relevant to help organisations to navigate the ‘Great Resignation’ and other challenges they face.

Underpinning Talent Liberation are five premises that help people to reframe their approach to talent, moving from trying to manage and control it, to find ways to harness and set it free. We have developed these premises based on addressing five commonly held assumptions about talent – unhelpful assumptions that have been raised by writers in psychology, leadership, talent and business (such as Jeffery Pfeffer, Malcolm Gladwell, Rob Briner, Bob Sutton, Amy Edmondson, Paul Sparrow and David Collings). Taking an approach similar to that taken by the ‘agile’ movement in software development (developed on a ski trip to Utah in 2001), the intention of the Talent Liberation premises is to point to new ways of looking at a problem and thereby open up new possible solutions.

Mindset of scarcity

The first premise challenges the mindset of scarcity, suggesting instead that ‘talent is not as scarce as we think’. This responds to research that indicates how such a mindset drives behaviour which can be counterproductive (just think of the recent toilet roll and petrol ‘shortages’, and see Mullainathan and Shafir’s 2013 book Scarcity: Why having too little means so much). 

Within organisations, the mindset of scarcity drives behaviours such as salary inflation, poaching from competitors and keeping hold of capable people within teams (thereby limiting their opportunities to grow). Rather than colluding with the narrative of limited talent, we suggest that ‘talent is not as scarce as we think’. This clearly invites the question, ‘what is talent?’ Recognising that the term ‘talent’ is socially constructed with multiple possible meanings, we illustrate four common descriptions (see Figure 1, above). 

Within Talent Liberation, organisations are encouraged to reflect on what talent scope makes sense for them – is it releasing the talent of the ‘vital few’ (high potential)? Is it about enabling everyone to perform better (personal best)? Is it about matching roles to existing traits (personal strengths)? Or is it a combination? The chosen scope is likely to depend on an organisation’s strategic direction and evaluation of the risks and opportunities that they need to address through their talent strategy. (In the book, we share a methodology for developing a talent strategy based on exploring the risks and opportunities of various business scenarios. The approach is called the Talent Compass.) 

The premise ‘talent isn’t as scarce as we think’ is backed up by evidence of historical untapped talent and draws a distinction between ‘ready now’ talent and ‘ready in the future’ talent. Taking gender as an example, we illustrate that ‘ready now’ talent may be scarce because of lack of opportunity and lack of training, rather than an underlying lack of talented people. For example, in 1865 Elizabeth Garett Anderson became the first qualified woman doctor in the UK. By 1911, there were 495 women on the medical register and now, within the 30-34 age group, 57 per cent of doctors identify as female. This is surely a reflection of opportunity (social, education and employment), rather than a reflection of a change in underlying ‘talent’. 

Applied to the workplace, this change of emphasis has significant impact, highlighting the opportunity to spot talented people who may be hidden from view through lack of opportunity (often linked to a lack of effective inclusion of under-represented groups). The shift in mindset also helps organisations to focus on the value of increasing ‘personal best’ performance across the organisation and investing more in developing the skills they may need for the future. Furthermore, it encourages the exploration of new sources of talented people. For example, I am working with a social care provider who are considering how they can address the publicised shortages through a concerted effort to design roles that will be attractive for older workers, tapping into fresh sources of talent who may find purpose in a role within the sector. This broader view of talent may be critical to finding new solutions in the light of the Great Resignation’.  

Cult of individual heroes

The second premise draws on research to indicate that a group of high performing individuals does not necessarily guarantee organisational success, and suggests that ‘high performance is a result of teams as well as individuals’. Much of the cult of individual heroes is predicated on the idea that talent is a fixed trait and people who possess this can work miracles. A bit like the star striker, brought in to rescue a failing football team, they can be set a near impossible task, and it often does not end well. For example, Adrian 

Furnham has highlighted that 38 per cent of the highest paid CEOs failed to perform. Many senior leaders I have spoken with describe talent (especially leadership talent) as an attribute that is transferable between different situations, not considering that the requirements may be significantly different (for example, a ‘turnaround leader’ is rarely successful or motivated in a ‘slow growth’ scenario). It is important for these leaders to reflect, considering the important question of ‘talent for what?’, a question ignored in many leadership deployment decisions. 

In addition to these concerns, there is a risk that the focus on individuals encourages behaviours of being self-promoting and using social capital to personal advantage. These may not be the behaviours that will drive sustainable organisational success. Yes, individuals have a role to play, but a talented individual could be poached by a competitor, and thus the perceived competitive advantage is lost. A more sustainable competitive advantage may arise from a focus on the team and the context, as in the ‘Resource Based View’ of strategy (e.g. see Barney, 2001; Bowman & Hird, 2014). The case for this was well made by Jeffery Pfeffer back in 2001 when he was challenging the emerging focus on talent management with his paper ‘Fighting the war for talent is hazardous to your organisation’s health’. 

The inclusion of teams as well as individuals has a significant impact on talent strategy. In particular, it raises additional questions such as, ‘what is the contribution of teams to our success’, ‘how do we help teams to develop and perform well together?’, and ‘how are teams encouraged to collaborate and share learning across boundaries?’. For one of my clients, these questions have highlighted the importance of collaboration across business units in order to provide better customer solutions. As a result, the onboarding programme has been broadened to include introductions to other business areas, and regular networking events are held to help build relationships and support broader team working. Research around the Great Resignation indicates that a sense of belonging and strong team relationships are important to retention – and more important than employers tend to recognise (see ‘Exhibit 5’ in a recent McKinsey report, via tinyurl.com/eadf92dc).

Lack of strategic clarity

The third premise addresses the assumption that we can predict future talent needs. As I’ve said, many of the talent tools were developed for a relatively stable context and are designed to help organisations predict future needs and take action to ensure that they have access to the talented people they need to be successful. Indeed, most of the talent models suggest starting with business strategy, sometimes looking ahead by as much as 15 years. Effective Talent Management: Aligning strategy, people and performance, a 2016 book by Mark Wilcox, devotes a whole chapter to exploring ‘what sort of talent do we need?’. In many businesses this translates into succession plans – showing who can move into which roles, within what timeframe. 

There is a significant challenge with this approach. Business strategy is not a single, clear, stable direction. Indeed, the value of ‘fast adaptation’ over ‘perfect prediction’ is increasingly considered to be the way forward (e.g. see www.bain.com). Thus, the identified successors may not meet the needs of the next iteration of the role, and the skills that were highly valued one year, might not be the most critical in the next year. We balance this historic focus on strategic clarity with our third premise, ‘we need to be responsive to changing talent needs’. This is not intended to suggest that we cannot predict and therefore should not engage in planning long term. Rather, the intention is to prepare for a range of possible scenarios, understanding the talent implications, risks and opportunities of the most likely needs. Adopting this approach, organisations aim to have access to a diverse group of people with a range of skills and ensure rapid feedback loops on current needs and possible future needs. This type of emergent and responsive approach is what CEOs I talk with are asking for.

There is a challenge taking this type of flexible approach as there is little evidence or research to draw on. However, using ‘best available evidence’, four approaches are likely to help. These include understanding and focusing on core future skills, securing access to diverse talent pools, developing speedy feedback loops and ensuring responsive recruitment and development. For clients, this thinking has helped them to focus on a range of ways of accessing the talented people they need, moving beyond a focus on people who are employed, and considering a range of approaches, supplementing the traditional ‘build and buy’ with borrow, partnership, crowdsourcing, collaboration and technological solutions. If, as some predict, the Great Resignation continues or accelerates, a flexible approach to finding people seems an appropriate way to manage the risk of uncertainty. 

Dominance of formal process

In my research asking HR leaders about their talent management, the typical response is to simply describe the processes they engage in (such as competency frameworks, appraisal, succession planning, leadership development, apprenticeship programmes). Often these processes become huge undertakings and HR leaders complain that they end up chasing and policing… frustrated that the process is not delivering value to the organisation. Meanwhile, other leaders are playing the game, ticking the boxes and wondering why they waste time on this. One HR Director summed it up as ‘we’ve got so wrapped up in the process, we’ve forgotten about the purpose’. Our fourth premise, ‘formal processes are only part of the answer’ aims to draw attention to the importance of wider, cultural and behavioural practices which impact on how talented people are managed, supported, developed, inspired and retained. Indeed, some writers (e.g. Kegan & Lahey, 2016) advocate focusing almost entirely on creating a positive organisational learning culture, with learning and feedback integrated into everyday activities rather than part of separate processes.

Within the Talent Liberation approach, we recognise that formal processes may have a role to play. For example, good governance may require a succession plan, formal recruitment methods are a recognised way to overcome bias, and performance related pay should be underpinned by fair and consistent criteria. However, asking some questions can help ensure that processes are supporting the purpose, rather than becoming an end in themselves. 

A first question to consider is ‘what is the purpose of this process and the short/long-term benefits?’. This can then be evaluated against the effort/cost. A further question can explore ‘how does this process fit with the culture of the organisation?’. I recently worked with a client who was implementing a wonderful new system to support transparent giving and receiving of feedback. However, the culture was such that people did not feel safe to share such feedback, so it was unlikely to bring the hoped-for benefits. Further questions about the processes include ‘are there any informal or cultural practices which could support the aims?’ and ‘what are the potential unintended consequences of this process?’. 

These questions encourage a broader view of talent, which places value on creating an environment in which people can perform at their best, so the organisation can make best use of the talented people they have recruited, developed and deployed.

Missing half the story

The fifth and final premise of talent liberation turns attention to the observation that traditional talent approaches are ‘missing half the story’ with their focus on the organisation’s perspective and little attention to what the talented individuals want (Thunnissen, 2016). There has, over the years, been much talk of things such as employees as customers, servant leadership and employee value propositions. However, data consistently indicate that people often feel disengaged and unheard, that their opinions don’t matter, that they are not valued and that they don’t see opportunities to develop their career with their current employer. Indeed, these appear to be some of the themes behind the ‘Great Resignation’. The talent liberation premise is that ‘success depends on partnership between the organisation and the people’. 

When looking back at the career and talent literature it is interesting to see parallels between the situation now and the mid-1990s, as the Western world recovered from a recession. Herriot and Pemberton in 1995 described the breakdown of trust between employees and employers, and an opportunity to define a ‘career deal’ based on a partnership approach, with clear contracting about what is wanted and what is offered. Such an approach seems to offer merits in the current situation too. This is likely to be achieved through open career conversations and clarity about the roles and responsibilities of each party (in particular, the individual, the line manager and the ‘organisation’). Such contracting ensures clear expectations, and feedback mechanisms to check in on how well parties are fulfilling their role. 

To successfully deliver such an approach, organisations need to create opportunities for people to talk openly about what they really want. They also need to be able to respond to what they hear, potentially changing their employment model to enable far greater variety in working patterns, development opportunities and career paths. From an administrative perspective this is not going to be easy, but personalising employment, working in partnership with team members is likely to be an important strategy for attracting and retaining talented people and turning ‘the Great Attrition’ into the ‘Great Attraction’.

Brought together, the five premises of Talent Liberation encourage fresh perspectives, a different way of looking at the ‘wicked problem’ of how to attract, develop, motivate and retain people to do the tasks that organisations need to be done. Supported by a talent strategy tool, the Talent Compass, the premises can help leaders to ask some different questions, to see how different parts of the system interact, and to develop solutions that will help them and their colleagues to be successful together. This could be an important way to help organisations to address the challenges of the Great Resignation.

- Dr Maggi Evans is an Author, Psychologist, Talent Strategist, Consultant and Coach [email protected]

From Talent Management to Talent Liberation: A Practical Guide for Professionals, Managers and Leaders, by Maggi Evans, John Arnold and Andrew Rothwell, was shortlisted for the British Psychological Society’s Book Award.

Key sources

Barney, J.B. (2001). Resource-based theories of competitive advantage: A ten-year retrospective on the resource-based view. Journal of Management, 27(6), 643-650. 

Bowman, C. & Hird, M.A. (2014). Resource based view of talent management. In P. Sparrow, H. Scullion,  & I. Tarique (Eds.) Strategic talent management: Contemporary issues in international context. Cambridge University Press.

Capelli, P. & Keller, J. (2017). The Historical Context of Talent Management. In G. Collings, K. Mellahi, & W. Cascio (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Talent Management (pp. 23-40). Oxford University Press.

Herriot, P. & Pemberton, C. (1995). New deals: The revolution in managerial careers. John Wiley & Son Ltd.

Kegan, R. & Lahey, L. (2016). An everyone culture: Becoming a deliberately developmental organization. Harvard Business School Publishing.

Meyers, M.C. & Van Woerkom, M. (2014). The influence of underlying philosophies on talent management. Journal of World Business, 49(2), 192-203. 

Mullainathan, S. & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Macmillan.

Pfeffer, J. (2001). Fighting the war for talent is hazardous to your organization’s health.Organizational Dynamics, 29(4), 248–259.

Thunnissen, M. (2016). Talent management, for what, how and how well? Employee Relations, 38(1), 57-72.

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