Talent Spotting

14 April 2008

Business leaders can find themselves struggling to find the talented individuals needed to fill key business roles. Patricia Wheatley Burt offers some advice on finding and retaining the brightest talent.

Even Superman couldn’t live up to some employers’ expectations. Reading some job advertisements, you realise that many businesses are now asking for the impossible. We need to be more realistic, challenge our assumptions and look for new sources of talented staff.

Businesses the world over are, quite rightly, focusing on ways to identify staff with the qualities to contribute to the growth and profitability of their companies.

However, the pool of talent in which organisations can fish is shrinking – certainly if you are only looking for younger talent. World demographics mean that there are fewer young people entering the job market. Employers and employees must accept this.


In Singapore recently, I met HR managers from large organisations who described to me their programmes to support staff who wished to move around the world or career swap. This is all very well, but it is not focussed talent management directed by the employer. The tail is wagging the dog. Instead, businesses should focus on determining how many people they need, when and where they need them, and how they can identify, attract and retain talented people.

When I use the term ‘talent’ I refer to exceptional and rare qualities that very few individuals have. Talent management is about managing those with an ‘X’ factor, and it is an important area to address, if these recent statistics are to be believed:

  • 77% of companies do not have enough successors to replace their senior managers.
  • 43% of companies cite skills shortages as a top concern. Their main concerns are developing potential leaders, selecting and retaining talent and creating an engaged workforce.


Recently, in Jakarta, at a conference on talent management, it became clear to me that none of the businesses attending did much in the way of people planning. Little work was being done on succession planning for key roles, identifying career paths and fast-tracking, or on developing mechanisms for identifying talent or allowing talented people to reveal themselves. These organisations are not alone. What seems clear is that those organisations that are most successful at talent management at the planning phase are those that:

  • are clear about their business strategy and objectives for five to ten years ahead
  • have organisational structures that support the delivery of these objectives and are clear about the roles and talent needed to fill these roles
  • have mechanisms for identifying existing and prospective staff to fill these roles to balance natural staff turnover
  • establish the skills, experience and attitudes that make post-holders exceptional, and in the process, confirm the qualities the organisation is looking for in each role.

Organisations often begin their planning by looking at their track record against objectives and strategies. They establish how success was achieved and who contributed to it. They assess the ability of individuals, find out what makes them successful, check how they are rewarded and, importantly, note how long they stay with the organisation. This analysis must be balanced by a return on time invested if talent management is to be effective.

Some companies also use employee satisfaction, attitude and exit interview surveys, while others use externally run surveys to gather staff views. The culture and attitude of senior executives is key, so management competence needs to be checked through feedback processes or customer satisfaction surveys.


To attract people to your company, you must understand and be able to express your culture and unique selling point, and try to match this to what talented people are looking for.

"The culture and attitude of senior executives is key, so management competence needs to be checked through feedback processes."

Some organisations rely on their name, others on their brand values. Many CEOs believe this is a risky strategy. However, I have found that an organisation that ensures its external brand values correspond with its internal values is more likely to attract the right staff. Some CEOs have a preference for developing networks for ‘prospecting’, mentoring programmes or ‘poaching’.

Being prepared to take a risk when promoting an individual is another way to find talent. In doing so, a business demonstrates that, if you show the right skills and attitudes, you can go far.

In an organisation with this kind of approach, performance and talent management process firmly in place, while failures and successes are openly explored. If a company is to be attractive it has to have an open-minded attitude to executive management, role allocation, reward and performance.


If an organisation has worked out what skills and attitudes it wants, it can find evidence of these skills in existing staff or it can define what it wants well enough to advertise, it is well on its way to successful talent management.

However, plotting how talented people are currently identified and how they are developed and fast-tracked can take talent management a step further, by creating an audit trail to be validated and reviewed. This helps inform development programmes, people management systems and people planning.

Successful organisations need to bring in staff from other organisations, otherwise they become too narrow minded. Graduate and trainee programmes help with this, but lateral hires can also bring in new life higher up the organisation.


Successful organisations develop highly flexible strategies to retain key people once they have found them. These strategies include: comprehensive leadership and personal development programmes; flexible and competitive compensation that includes some form of performance-related bonus; and the use of sabbaticals, secondments and reassignments to refresh or challenge individuals.

One third of organisations cite leadership training as their first or second training priority. However, just 39% of companies feel their leadership development programmes are on a par with their competitors, while 35% feel their programmes needed updating. Alarmingly, 10% of companies have no proper programmes at all.


Effective talent management needs careful analysis and a clear understanding of what an organisation needs. It requires a consistent culture that allows people to demonstrate their skills and an understanding that talent management is a long-term process.

Talent doesn’t grow on trees, but there is a crop of talent if you know where to look. However, effective talent management strategies must include a genuine investment in people, because, in case you have forgotten, Superman and Superwoman don’t actually exist.