Identifying and Nurturing Talent


Providing the Basis for Identifying and Nurturing Talent

In the current economic environment, it would be easy for Learning & Development professionals to focus on the short-term.  Yet talent management is, if anything, more important in a downturn. 
In the first article of this series on talent management, we pose some important questions about talent management. The next two articles explore some possible answers and organisational examples of different approaches to talent management.

Identifying Talent Management

This article looks at how best to go about identifying talent. In a changing business environment, an explicit and well-thought out approach to talent management is most responsive to identifying and nurturing necessary talent. Most organisations have developed some ad hoc approaches to talent management, though a recent survey suggests that the majority have not formalised this into a coherent talent strategy. This can lead to strategic gaps -not fully recognising potentially catastrophic future shortfalls and not taking action early enough. Indicators that your talent management process is under-developed include:
• Difficulty recruiting vital roles, from within the organisation
• The organisation becoming vulnerable to changes in the environment and having weak capability to respond
• Promotions taking place before people are ready

The first stage in any talent management process has got to be to understand what your organisation means by talent management, why it is such an important activity and who is to be selected for the talent pool. 

Allen & Overy: making better use of a neglected group

In order to benefit from the very talented and diverse workforce of some 5000 employees working worldwide, legal giant Allen & Overy sought to develop a talent management programme for a previously neglected group, the associates.  Not all Allen & Overy lawyers aspire to be partners, for a variety of reasons, yet wish to be fully recognised for their capabilities and achievements. A new approach to talent management was particularly intended to assist retention and offer enhanced career progression.  It devised the London associate award plan to improve performance and manage careers including setting out and extending a career path and promoting engagement.  It also developed a competency framework defining successful associate performance at each of the career levels.  It introduced an award plan linked to individual contribution and overall business performance.  Lastly it held a biannual senior associate conference to recommend ways to improve engagement. Since the start of the scheme, associate turnover is down by nine per cent. This is a reflection and just one measure of the increased value and contribution of associates
Most people agree that a talent pool is vital to move an organisation forward, to retain its competitive edge and to provide fresh perspectives.  This presupposes that the mindset of the organisation is that talent is to be encouraged in the company.  In other words, right through the organisation from its leadership downwards, the organisation should be ready, willing and able to nurture it is talent. 
Managers need to see talent management as part of their role, and actively undertake talent identification and development. It also should form an integral part of a strategy and business planning process. Whilst some people see talent management as encompassing the whole of the organisation, the majority narrow down their selection and pick the key areas of greatest impact on the organisation, with a focus on the future.

Some essentials for establishing an effective talent identification process

Here are some tips to develop an understanding of how to go about defining talent:
• Be clear on the drivers for talent as they apply to your organisation
• Understand how you are to determine indicators of potential
• Clarify the link between current and potential performance
• Set up means to monitor and develop individuals
• Draw up solid systems to meet these needs

Talent management as part of strategy

To ensure talent management is integrated into the organisation’s business processes and strategies, individuals, teams and groups need to agree what this means and how it will be achieved. The process of discussion allows buy-in and develops commitment to undertake the necessary responsibilities.

Talent management needs to be defined in terms that the organisation understands. This means ensuring that the supply of talent lines up the right people in the right positions to move the company forward.  It is a business process, not merely an HR one.  Here are some pertinent questions which need to be asked before you define who is to be included in the talent management pool:

• Are you making your talent management processes uniform across the organisation or modified to fit local circumstances?

• Are your talented to be pathfinders to lead a change, or maintain a steady state?

• Are you looking for “star players”, or a close fit
for your organisation?

• Is the talent pool a changing one, where each year people are entering and leaving?

• How are identified talented performers to be differentiated, given feedback and development action taken appropriately?

• How will this be communicated throughout the organisation?

It is important that you have a clearly defined talent management framework which everybody buys into, at leadership level, at line management level, at the level of a specialist and HR, and for the participants themselves.  There is not a standard template for this: organisations must be managed according to their history, culture and environment.  A talent management process must be firmly embedded into the organisation, rather than it being a bought-in HR package. 

MacIntyre Care Homes: enhancing a development culture

MacIntyre provide care homes for those with disabilities.  It sought to strengthen the company as a basis for expansion.  It started with mapping its culture, where it was and where it needed to be in five years time in the future.  It then worked with external consultants to reduce the attrition rate amongst support workers.  It examined the personalities and performance of identified high performers.  Then it used the data for recruitment and overall support worker development. There is a strong commitment to staff to develop a learning culture in MacIntyre.  This includes accrediting all staff learning in line with best practice, offering a path for personal development and continuously assessing the effectiveness of its Learning & Development programme.


What are the business drivers for talent management?

As one of the foundation elements, everybody should understand why their organisation must invest in a talent management strategy.  Listed below are the most common reasons.  It is vital that you check out which of the priorities your organisation holds most dear and what they mean in practice:

• Keeping the most talented individuals through offering challenges to ensure motivation and progressive development

• Careful targeting of selected groups of people, based on consensus on what skills and positions are needed to take the business forward

• The need for commercial reasons to target development on essential talent

• Keeping a data bank of individual strengths to allow development of those individuals in the most appropriate way

Once you have defined your organisational drivers for talent, you can take steps to agree whether you wish to identify talent in such categories as high performers and younger high potentials; whether it is organisation-wide, and specific to management levels or specialists. 

No talent management process is likely to be successful unless the organisation recognises the value of talent identification and development, and makes it a part and parcel of every manager's job. This will allow an organisation to have a widely understood and accepted business case to develop talent with expected outcomes, and to nominate senior sponsors who endorse the process. The next must-have are well-understood common threads to the whole talent identification and development process, and people will know who qualifies for entry to any talent process and how they join. There will also be agreed levels of transparency and disclosure, with thought-through methods of assessment of future potential, including the links with current performance

Putting the talent identification process to work

There needs then to be a clearly understood and working methodology in relation to spotting and nurturing talent in your organisation. An effective talent strategy needs to be considered as part of business strategy. This implies that whilst the talent process may be managed day to day by HR specialists, discussions and decisions need to be fully owned by those who manage the business and its future.

A fully formed talent management process will need to address the ways and means of doing the following:
• Highlighting talent: integrating talent into strategic processes and competency frameworks
• Pinpointing the talented: use of targeted recruitment strategies and development and assessment centres
• Managing and developing talent:  using tools such as development centres, and the use of psychometric tests
• Matching talent to where it is needed: active succession and career planning processes

Airbus: taking a wider approach to talent gaps

Airbus, European aircraft maker, saw the need to fill two critical first-tier executive positions as an opportunity to take a wider systematic approach to talent.  The talent management process provided data on key potential candidates with executive senior level potential.  It was the basis for valuable feedback and development planning for key individuals.  It called in external consultants to design an assessment centre, using defined competencies, and carried out structured interviews against those competencies with 19 individuals.  The process filled an immediate need, but importantly set a platform for better understanding of talent strengths and gaps, with a database for future use at the senior level.

Competency Frameworks

Whilst competency frameworks are commonplace, to help identify talent they need careful definition, with a focus on the future. They can then offer a clearly defined set of expectations to measure performance against, based on linking individual and organisational performance. In the NHS, an initiative called Breaking Through is aimed at black and minority ethnicity employees in the NHS to improve diversity at director levels. Resource is given to support the assessment of candidates for some of the more senior initiatives. A development centre tests skills against a leadership qualities framework of competencies.


Even with a largely “grow your own” philosophy, external recruitment and selection of the right people is a vital step in maintaining a high quality talent pool.  The starting point is to have a good understanding of strategic gaps. Care needs to be taken to pick the right external candidates- unsuccessful hires can lead to high attrition rates, poor morale and particularly a failure to meet future growth needs.  In order to ensure that the recruitment process is effective, best practice organisations develop holistic recruitment criteria which are focused on bringing in fresh blood. Equally important is how the organisation markets itself and the appeal to a scarce resource. In the NHS, Gateway identifies individuals from outside the NHS who can undertake director level roles and gives development and support to find a role.

Assessment and development centres

Assessment and development centres play an increasingly important role in providing for the organisation and each participant a comprehensive, specific and detailed analysis of performance and future potential.  When assessing whether an employee has potential, important considerations are indicators that the individual has the skills and expertise to move into a new role. These include not just ability, but creativity, drive and motivation.
Decisions need to be taken carefully at each stage of the process, from the design of the assessment process to decision making and feedback.  To ensure that individuals are assessed correctly, clear criteria should be agreed beforehand based on insights on required roles both now and in the future.
The development centre may well replicate the pressures that participants may face in the future.  This allows for detailed assessment and feedback based on specific criteria. In the NHS, over one and a half days for some programmes, candidates undertake a one to one discussion, followed by a group discussion and written exercise as well as a paired discussion, couples with a simulated 'Hospital Board' presentation exercise. Successful candidates participate in a top talent programme over  18 months, with development modules and a senior job opportunity within a part of the NHS.

360° feedback and performance management systems

Organisations are increasingly realising the value of strong and effective performance management systems to monitor performance, give feedback and draw up development plans.  Unfortunately, surveys indicate that many performance appraisals are often judged to be less than effective in defining and nurturing talent potential, particularly organisation-wide. Managers often do not have a complete picture of potential opportunities and can be reluctant to discuss the future. Given a clear understanding of what issues affect your organisation, the line management process can be strengthened through attention to strengths and deficiencies.

As part of the development process, feedback using multiple sources (360° feedback) can give useful data to establish a benchmark in terms of behaviours and skills.  It offers a strong basis to build on the strengths and remedy weaknesses.  The output can be used as part of development, not just in the current role but to ensure future development. Care should be taken to introduce multiple rater feedback in a way which is sensitive to the culture –for example, to allay fears and concerns about the use or misuse of such information.

Psychometric Tests

Soundly constructed psychometric tests and questionnaires, when used by competent and qualified people, give a realistic basis for making decisions on potential and capacity. However, there are well-known dangers of using poorly constructed tests, administered and interpreted poorly.

Succession planning

Some organisations set up and maintain a process of identifying and developing individuals to fill key positions. Linked to talent management it ensures that every role is “back filled” in order develop future leaders. The importance of such planning is illustrated by local government, where the next 10-15 years will see a third of its working population retire. In local government, as with many organisations, flatter organisations mean less early exposure to strategic level skills, vital at the top. Succession planning can help remedy this and other weaknesses in being ready to take leadership roles.

Talent development committees

To ensure senior management involvement in talent management, many organisations set up senior talent development committees. Their task is to be informed and participate in organisation wide talent processes, and they are frequently supported by HR and learning and development specialists.

Each organisation needs to match business need with an approach to talent identification and management which is right for the culture. 

Cambridgeshire County Council: filling key roles from within

The council was finding it difficult to fill key roles from inside the organisation, particularly in the important financial services area.  This had exposed the council to strategic risk. It led to an over-dependence on external appointments which caused some dissatisfaction within the organisation.  The Council took a positive stance to producing a stronger cadre of internal candidates for director and senior level posts.  It started the process of introducing succession planning by consulting with its employees with a view to developing long-term career prospects and staff development.  In particular it wanted to make a more coherent and consistent provision of services.  There was some concern that the scheme would not offer equal opportunities, and lead to preferential treatment of some candidates.  Therefore the council went out of its way to ensure the promotion of a fair and transparent process. The decision was made to have a wide talent pool, but recognise some professionals wanted a narrower career path.

The performance management process is the first step in succession planning. There is a succession planning committee to make final selections and provide a broader perspective.  The line director makes an assessment of the nominated staff against competencies.  They put a business case for each candidate using a standardised process. The succession planning board consists of members of the appointments committee, directors and the head of HR and they monitor the whole succession development process. More recently the process has been supplemented by development centres.

The results of the manager's assessment is added to their written statement and submitted to a succession planning board for endorsement. Those nominated have the choice to keep their status confidential to encourage involvement.  The line manager and the nominated individual agree a development plan based on assessed development areas. No one individual is guaranteed a place for life as succession is reviewed annually.  There is no inherently fixed number of potential candidates for the scheme.
Development includes use of deputising, planned stretching projects, secondments, mentoring, and job moves to gain experience.  In addition, there is a training programme and coaching.  The process has been a success:  since its introduction in 2003, 50% of senior roles have been filled with candidates from the succession pool.  There are currently 40 people on the succession planning scheme.  Concerns about equal opportunities have been allayed.  The process sends a powerful message about the importance of employee development.  There are high levels of transparency with the involvement not just of the line manager but of senior people throughout the organisation.  Therefore a fair process is generally agreed to have been founded.


Identifying and nurturing talent requires organisational buy-in, particularly from senior management. A structure to support the process needs to be tailored to fit the culture of the organisation.

Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay. Sarah Cook is Managing Director of the strategic leadership and customer management specialists, The Stairway Consultancy. Steve Macaulay is a Learning Development Consultant at Cranfield School of Management, Steve can be contacted by email   on;  tel.++(44) 01234 751122. Sarah can be contacted by email on; tel. ++ (44) 01628 526535.

© The Stairway Consultancy Ltd                                                             April 2011


image description

"Over the years The Stairway Consultancy has become a key partner to our business. Their services have proved an invaluable tool in taking individuals forward in their careers and thus developing the organisation. Their approach to working in partnership has certainly helped us to achieve our objectives, and we value the contribution Stairway makes to the business. I always look forward to working with their professional, open and warm consultants, and would highly recommend The Stairway Consultancy to any business that is seeking to grow, inspire and develop their teams."

Learning and Development Business Partner
- Southern Housing Group
Looking for high impact training material?

We have a wide range of Training Games, Activities, Toolkits, Books and DVDs.

Training Shop