Jun 2010

Talent mismanagement

If one searches for “talent management” on the internet, the results that come back are typically dominated by recruiting-oriented or human resource management search results. This probably reflects current prevalent practices in many organisations around the globe. However it seems to obfuscate one critical factor in any talent management i.e. the proactive involvement of senior leadership and anybody who manages employees. Anything less than proactive talent management can end up being talent mismanagement.

Corporate hallways are rife with stories where talented employees leave to the despair of their managers. Sometimes, team performance may suffer (sometimes significantly) for a prolonged period after the departure of a talented staff. And managers are often befuddled when this happens. They will give various reasons and many will fall into some predictable patterns.

I did not see it coming

In some very specific situations, this can indeed be the case, but it is very rare. For example when mandatory resignation notice period is very short and an employee literally out of the blue is compelled to quit, be it due to positive or negative reason. Aside from such rare cases, more often than not a manager should have sensed something.

When this does not happen, this can be a symptom that no real dialogue is happening between the manager and the staff, or not frequently enough. If there is no real dialogue in between annual performance reviews, then a manager will not sense anything coming, even when the staff has given hints or clues to his/her dissatisfaction. (This is no excuse either for virtual teams, because just like in a face-to-face meeting, a manager need to be as effective in maintaining open dialogue and in sensing subtle messages from the employees.)

I knew but there was nothing I could do

Why? What is meant by “could do”? There is usually several ways to address an issue; zero (“nothing”) that can be done could be a symptom of ignorance, incompetence, laziness, or structural organisational dysfunction. Ignorance, incompetence or laziness may mean that the manager is not that good, so it is possible that the talented employee will quit anyway someday. This is an issue that the manager's manager must address. Structural organisational dysfunction, on the other hand, may mean that the manager's manager, or even higher up, is dysfunctional (could be due to ignorance, incompetence, or laziness also). For example refusing to hire an extra headcount when the workload justifies the need or refusing to invest in better tools to make the team more efficient, etc, etc.

There is always something that someone can do. If it is important enough, then the manager needs to either do it or find that someone who can do it.

He/she is irreplaceable

Every staff is unique in what he/she brings to the organisation, but every job comes with job specification and competency requirements that an employee must meet. Any extra performance beyond that is bonus, whereby the employee deserves the recognition that he/she merits. But when the manager or the team relies on this “bonus” above and beyond the job specification and competency requirements, then something is wrong with the organisation. Maybe everybody is expected to give something extra so an extra headcount is not needed. (And the manager wonders why the star employee is not happy.) Maybe this causes the lazy team members (or manager) to not give their 100% and the manager neglects to address it. Et cetera, et cetera.

It is the manager's job to build the entire team and to help everyone improve so someone else can step in to perform the job. Even when resignation is not involved, this is a common situation, such as long vacation, maternity / paternity leave, etc.

I do not have time to recruit someone new

Everybody is working at their maximum capacity these days, so an additional effort to recruit a replacement is usually unplanned burden. This is a symptom that separates those companies with solid human resources business processes and those without. HR processes need to be transparent, smooth and fast. And there needs to be solid integration between operations and HR. For example, is the detailed job specification and competency requirements up-to-date all the time? Does HR know what questions to ask potential recruits for the job? Et cetera.

When HR processes are solid all the way through and HR department is properly staffed, the additional burden would center around interviewing promising candidates – internal or external – and not much more. Hiring managers usually complains about recruiting effort because the prerequisites above do not happen. Obviously, HR needs to step up, but managers should also cooperate with HR even when they do not have any urgent need for HR services, i.e. do not wait until a staff quits.


Talent mismanagement is easy to do and, in organisations or teams that let this happen, talented employees would not want to stay. And without capable employees, execution does not happen well, no matter how good the company strategy is.

Talent management is only one side of the coin, where on the other side is succession planning.

Contrary to common perceptions, succession planning ought to be understood literally just that, when any employee moves on, what is the succession plan to replace that employee – no matter what his/her seniority in the organisation is. No organisation should under-estimate the challenges and impact when “lower pay-grade” or “less talented” employee leaves; it may not be high-profile but the impact can be surprisingly high nonetheless. As the saying goes, “a chain is only as strong as the weakest link”.

It is imperative that every organisation strengthens every link in its chains, i.e. its teams. The following list provides some proactive actionable recommendations.

Talent management (in combination with succession planning), arguably, is the most important job of a CEO and every managers in the organisation. It has strategic importance and it should not be relegated to a low priority HR initiative. Do not wait until key talents leave the organisation to act on it.

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