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  • Writer's pictureRich Littledale

What does “best in class” talent management/development look like?


Numbered lift buttons - one, two, three

One of the most interesting and useful WhatsApp groups I’m in is a group of ex-colleagues from my days at YSC. The YSC diaspora are now in a variety of interesting places, whether that be working independently (like me), consulting, or leading talent or leadership development teams in house.


A week or so ago one of my ex-colleagues posed a question that got me thinking: What does “best in class” talent management/development look like?


The following is my - fairly opinionated - answer to this question. I’d love to hear what other people think. Best in class talent management/development to me means:


  1. Capable and confident line managers. The best designed process will fall down if line managers don’t have the skills to execute it: to support their team members, evaluate performance and make informed decisions. Conversely, a skilled set of managers will have the motivation and sophistication to make the most of a poorly designed process. This is something we care a lot about at Atypic and have talked about elsewhere.

  2. Alignment with strategy and culture. Alignment with strategy means having a clear sense of what the talent development programme is for, and how that aligns with current and future organisational goals. In other words, the pain points to address or opportunities to exploit. For instance, if company A is most worried about “cost and failure rate of senior leadership hires” and other is most worried about “a narrow leadership pool that doesn’t represent the customer base”, the two companies will develop different approaches to leadership development. Alignment with culture means that best in class talent development is informed by a sophisticated understanding of the culture in which it takes place. One way that culture shows us is in the underlying assumptions about what “talent” means, an idea articulated well in this paper from the Journal of World Business, which offers an interesting framework for this, asking two questions about how the organisation sees talent: - Is talent rare (exclusive) or universal (inclusive)? - Is talent stable or developable? If you are a talent specialist who is struggling to get leaders on board with what you are suggesting, this framework can help unpick where the resistance may come from. You’ll need good luck - and even better data - if you are pitching a high potential programme to a leadership team who don’t really believe that talent can be developed, or suggesting a “talent for all” approach to a CEO who only wants to invest in A-players.

  3. A decentralised/collaborative/iterative approach to design. This means building processes in partnership with the same confident and capable managers, and more likely than not borrowing from Agile approaches in how you think about the needs of internal customers (user stories or jobs to be done), organise your work (MVPs/multidisciplinary teams working in sprints), and evaluate success (data and retrospectives). My perspective is that the (now) traditional Ulrich model of “talent” being led by a centre of expertise will - and perhaps should - shift to something that puts the centre of gravity closer to the customer. Applying Agile to HR is something I explore more here.

  4. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion under the microscope. Best in class talent development has DEI baked in, both in terms of intended outcomes and unintended consequences. Talent development is a real opportunity to challenge views of what “leadership” looks like, and to access potential in places you haven’t looked before. But it is also a place where the opposite can be true**. Best in class talent development is constantly vigilant about the DEI impact - and this is particularly true if the underlying philosophy is that talent is rare.


* My friend and collaborator Sharon Peake recently drew attention to research showing that performance and potential ratings (the dreaded 9 box grid) can be a place that draws on bias and perpetuates inequality.

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