[First posted on Leaderonomics.com on 17 June 2012] [Updated: 23 June 2015]
A few years ago, when I first joined Johnson & Johnson, whenever I passed someone my business card, there were bound to be questions posed on what exactly I did for a living. My title at Johnson & Johnson was Director, Global Talent Management.
As there was little understanding of talent management, especially here in Asia, many asked if I was a talent agent for celebrities. Back then, that was the understanding of talent management – only celebrities were talents and needed to be managed!
But as the years went by, more and more people started using the term talent management, till the point it started to become rather sexy business word to describe everything from hiring people to retaining them to succession planning to performance management to training programmes.
Everything was soon referred to as talent management when dealing with people in businesses. And yet again, there arose a new confusion regarding the meaning of talent management. So what is talent management?
In reality, talent management is essentially a business process that enables your talent to achieve their full potential over the course of their employment. It is really a process that aligns all your talent hiring, talent development, talent retention programmes with your key people processes like performance management, succession planning, learning & development into a strategic framework that enables your business to build competitive advantage and win in the marketplace. And its not a one-off event, it’s a long-term process.
At a Leaderonomics Talent Management conference some years back, I was asked a question by one of the participants. He asked if I could change one thing about talent management, what would it be.
My answer was simple:
“If I could change one thing about the talent management space, it would be to change the focus from one-off talent events or programmes to true career-based talent development efforts.”
There seems to be a strong emphasis in discussions of talent management or in talent management circles on the attraction and recruiting of talent, yet still too little emphasis is showered on long-term talent development. The process of talent management is much more than successful training programmes or matching people with job descriptions.
Great companies with great leadership engines invest also in career development, leadership development, internal career pathing and ensuring their employees fulfill their potential. To do so, a talent management ecosystem has to be built.
The key to building a successful long-term talent management ecosystem is not only built on having multiple talent management programmes but also on a number of other key elements. Each of these elements needs to addressed and put into place if your organization is serious about building talent management as a business process.
Talent Programmes, Leadership Engagement, Systems & Structure, and Culture are four equal components that need equal attention and focus in ensuring an ecosystem is built. Most of the time, leaders only focus on talent programmes, and thereby end up wasting time and resources and achieve little gain for their efforts.
1. Leadership engagement
I spent more than 12 years in General Electric (GE) working in a number of roles. What amazed me in my time with GE was not how strong the leaders were, or how great the products were, or how exciting the R&D pipeline was.
What was amazing in GE was the number of hours in a day and the number of days in a year that seniors leaders spent on talent management. The role modeling in GE ensured that as leaders spent time developing their direct reports, the next level would likewise role-model that behavior.
And it was a contagious thing – and developing leaders became part and parcel of the leadership role requirement. I know Jack Welch spent at least 15-20 days a year teaching at Crotonville (Crontonville was GE’s training institute).
On top of that, he spent at least 20+ days on Session C, which was GE’s version of the succession planning and performance management process. In addition to that, he hosted numerous round-tables and other employee development programmes.
If you ask any key CEO or business leader in Asia if they spent 35+ days in a year dedicated to talent management, the most likely response would be a friendly stare.
How could a busy CEO spend so much time on talent management – there are deals to close and operations to run! But in GE, even after Jack left and when Jeff Immelt took over as CEO, the one part of GE he did not strip or sell off was its talent management and leadership development processes and programmes.
He himself continued to teach in Crotonville and I benefited from attended a number of his teaching sessions and employee roundtables and discussions. Talent management can only be successful if the leaders in the organisation embrace it and role model it to the fullest. Developing leaders begins at the top with their engagement in the process. Without your leaders engagement, don’t waste your time on talent management.
2. Systems & structure
Even if you have your leaders rallying behind your initiatives and your talent programmes, without proper systems and structures, these programmes just won’t fly. I remember in my early years in GE, Jack Welch commanded everyone to drive Six Sigma into every part of the organisation. At that point, sometime in the mid-90s, I was working at NBC, GE’s media arm, when Six Sigma was launched across GE.
Jack yelled and swore by Six Sigma. And insisted that every organisation implement Six Sigma. But at NBC, Six Sigma meant nothing. The media folks at NBCs looked at Six Sigma as a manufacturing process that had no relevance in the media space.
And so, to calm Jack down, the NBC team launched Six Sigma by having a big grand all-employee party. Jay Leno talked about quality and cracked jokes about Six Sigma, and we were all given Six Sigma T-shirts and a nice cap with the word “QNBC” denoting Quality & Six Sigma. We all had a jolly good “six sigma party” and two hours later, it was all done. Not many at NBC signed up for Green Belt training nor was there much mention of Six Sigma for the rest of the year.
Six Sigma failed to take off at NBC initially because there was no process or structure for that initiative to be successful. Even when a CEO like Jack tried to drive Six Sigma and was engaged in driving it, it did not work. Which comes to the second important element in driving talent management – systems and structures. Jack quickly learnt his lesson and a few months later, he announced a new process change in GE. Jack announced that “NOBODY in GE could be promoted unless they had a minimum Green Belt certification”.
I immediately signed up for Green Belt training the day after his announcement. Suddenly I had an important need. In fact, after Green Belt, I signed up for Black Belt training and certification too!
Initially, I wasn’t remotely interested in signing up for Six Sigma classes even when Jack was talking all about it. But when ‘six sigma’ was incorporated as part of the system and structure of the GE reward system, I was the first to sign up. So did the rest of NBC. Ensuring the systems and structures are revised to support talent initiatives is the only way to ensure its success.
The hardest part of ensuring talent management does not become a “flavour of the month” or a fad only but a sustainable process that enables the organisation to win is to ensure that it becomes part of the DNA of the organisation.
Ensuring that these talent initiatives becomes a part of the culture of the organisation is key. But the million dollar question has always been, “how do we change culture?” And it is never easy.
In Johnson & Johnson, which has a strong culture of decentralisation, my role was to try to build convergent activities between sectors. And so, I tried driving cross-sector talent development activities and placements to ensure J&J employees have a rich experience base to accelerate their growth.
But implementation of such a talent programme had to overcome cultural resistance, especially in a decentralised culture that had existed for years. And so, it required pulling together a strategy and implementation plan to ensure cultural obstacles were removed prior to driving such programmes. Ultimately, the fruits of first launching a cultural strategy and implementing it before launching the actual talent programmes, worked to ensure long-term success in our talent programmes there.
I learnt the important of driving culture before driving programmes while I was at GE. I once implemented a $20 million IT system integration in one of the GE subsidiaries. After getting buy-in from everyone, we implemented one of the best systems in the world. Unfortunately, once the system was launched, no one used the system. A year later, the system was abandoned.
As I looked back at my “failure” at this system implementation, I realised that it was the failure to understand the need to incorporate a ‘culture’ for this new system before even implementing the system.
Finally, programmes. This is the easy stuff. Having the best programmes or systems in the world does not necessarily mean you will have the best result, as my previous example illustrated. Programmes which yield the best results are programmes that have leadership engagement, have adequate systems and structures in place and have cultural initiatives to support it.
In addition to that, we have to ensure that the programmes we drive in our organisation are aligned to the business’ goals and strategic direction.
At GE and at Johnson & Johnson, most of the talent and development programmes we developed were all aligned to business strategy. Programmes were also aligned to the values of the organisation. We did this by ensuring that HR people were given a prominent place in the boardroom so that they could incorporate the direction of the business into the talent management agenda.
Another issue with programmes in many organisations is the “copy syndrome”. Just copying programmes from other organisations never guarantees success. Just because GE implemented WorkOut or CAP does not mean you will get the same results as GE did.
However, if it aligns with your business growth and strategic plans, there is a much higher likelihood that it will work. Also, be careful what you take from other organisations. Make sure it fits with your culture, systems and leadership expectations.
All in all, talent management needs to be embraced by all. Especially businesses in Asia who seek to become competitive in the global marketplace. Talent management will be a key game changer and differentiator in the 21st century. Not investing in it today will mean a big missed opportunity to be competitive in this new world.
Click play to listen to the corresponding podcast when Roshan was still the director of global talent management of Johnson & Johnson:
Roshan Thiran has spent many years developing leaders in the US, Europe and in Asia. He is also a well-known speaker on Talent Management across Asia and Europe. He spent the past 15 years working with General Electric and Johnson & Johnson on helping people grow to their potential. He is now CEO of Leaderonomics, a social enterprise and one of the fastest growing learning firms in Asia. For more HR Talk articles, click here.
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