Talent Development and Firing Yourself


The typical talent development approach we see adopted in the business world makes our hearts sink just a little.

We know it’s all done with the best of intent but in terms of talent development, creating and nurturing a high performance culture and crucially – fulfilling the talent that has been so expensive to identify and acquire, it’s just a bit rubbish.

Let’s get some fundamentals established first. As ever in these position papers, we’re looking at the world through a high performance lens and so the standards are high. If you’re looking for your talent development to be just OK or not bad, you probably won’t get much out of this paper.

If you want your talent development programme to reflect how serious you are about human performance, then read on.

Answering a few questions might help you decide whether your talent development approach is well meaning but a little misguided and a bit average or  whether it’s got all the ingredients to give you confidence that you’re serious about talent.Do you have well thought through talent ID tools like a 9 or 12 box grid that you use to decide where to focus your talent development resources?

1.  Do you have well thought through talent ID tools like a 9 or 12 box grid that you use to decide where to focus your talent development resources?

2.  Do you have a programme for your top talent that’s aimed at making sure they fulfill their talent?

3.  Are you clear about how much high flying talent you currently have and how much you need, with plans in place to make that happen?

If you answered “yes” to those three then you can rest easy knowing that your current approach might just be a bit rubbish. Really? Hang on in there, we’ll explain.

In the world of high performance, the job of leaders (including Board Members, HR, L&D as well as functional and team leaders etc.) is to:

  • Identify the talent they want and need and then acquire it
  • Create an environment where that talent can flourish and the qualities required to make the most of that talent are acquired and applied
  • Do all they can to encourage talent to work hard so that it doesn’t get beaten by those with less talent but with a better plan and a more focused work ethic

And there lies the heart of the problem with the typical business or corporate approach, typified by the “yes” answers to the three questions above, all of which seem to be founded on the beliefs that:

  • There’s only a small proportion of people here who are talented
  • Those who are not talented should not have to burden themselves with a focused talent development plan and so long as they’re just about good enough, we can forget about them
  • Leaders are best off spending countless hours debating which person goes in which box so they can see what they’ve got and shouldn’t do anything silly like planning what talent they need and where they need it with a plan in place to identify, acquire and develop it
  • It feels better knowing that a “tough” conversation is happening because someone got put in the “naughty” box one Thursday afternoon, instead of having continued performance conversations that mean exits or opportunities are a surprise to no-one

We’ve lost count of the hours we’ve witnessed well meaning leaders decide into which box different team members belong so they can decide who to have “tough” conversations with and where the “real talent lies” so they can do special things for them.

In the world of high performance, leaders are obsessed (in a healthy way) with making sure that everyone’s talent is developed to the fullest possible extent, not just those in the top right hand boxes. Everyone is on a talent development programme because everyone has the responsibility to make the most of their talent. In high performance cultures, people make sure they are developing their talent fully, even if they’re not on a special programme. Talent development is a behaviour, not an event.

You can be a “key performer” (we think that’s one of the usual terms in the “let’s put people in a box” game that refers to those in the “we need lots of them, not everyone can be a star” category) and still have loads of talent that could be fulfilled to a far greater extent. You can be a world-class key performer or a mediocre one and high performance is about making sure that all the talent is fully developed and realised. You can be world-class talent and not have “learning agility” where such agility refers to the ability to do different jobs for the organisation. We suspect few would think that Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t have talent worth developing because he wanted to stay in the same job for 20 years. And if they did think that a) they were wrong and b) they wouldn’t have told him anyway.

What about people who don’t have any talent you want? Well they shouldn’t be working for you any more and if you’re a leader who has a long track record of having lots of people who don’t have the talent your organisation needs then you should probably fire yourself along with whoever is doing your recruiting.

And tough conversations? In the world of high performance, coaches have conversations that are focused on helping people get better at doing their jobs – so often the toughest conversations are with the most talented people, not just the problem children.

Naturally, in times of scarce resources (recession) or particular focus (Olympic Games) you might choose to apply a disproportionate amount of your resources on those in the team who are going to play a key part in winning.

However, it’s done explicitly and with a clear understanding that it remains everyone’s responsibility to be developing their talent in everyway they can. Everyone’s on a talent development programme and if you’re not then put one together for yourself or fire yourself. Again.