Talent Management: A Surprisingly Simple Strategy for Success

August 6, 2012 Darcy Jacobsen

Professor Colin Coulson-ThomasReady? Here it is: Pay attention.

That’s it, that’s the strategy. Pay attention.

At least that’s what Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas tells us. I wrote about this recent study by the Greenwich University’s professor, who has conducted an extensive five-year investigation of corporate practices.  The conclusion Coulson-Thomas came to is that we should direct our efforts not at hiring new high-flying talent to increase our capabilities, but to finding the outliers–the people in our organization that are doing the right things in the right way–and using their expertise to build on. In other words: managing, enabling and retaining the talent we have.

Here are a few highlights from Professor Coulson-Thomas’ press release:

  • Talent wars to attract ‘the best people’ can push up salary costs, be distracting and involve collateral damage.
  • It may be cheaper to work with the people one has and put the right support environment in place to enable them to succeed.
  • Large amounts are spent on expensive people who are not engaged, effectively used, or appropriately supported. Views of what represents ‘top talent’ can also quickly become outdated.
  • We need more flexible ways of making it easier for affordable people to understand complex issues, and helping them to do important, difficult and stressful jobs.

As part of our ongoing series of interviews with HR thought-leaders and authors, we were recently able to sit down with Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas to ask more about his research and recommendations.

Thank you for joining us today, Professor Coulson-Thomas. We very much enjoyed reading about your Talent Management 2 paper. Is this the third in a series?

Thank you for having me. Yes, that’s right. We had done a five year investigation of corporate practices and found that we were sitting on this huge database of findings. My thought was that I need to look at particular areas of concern, and rather than producing one book, produce a series of reports in book length. So the first was our Winning Companies; Winning People book. And the second one was on transforming public services because that’s an issue for governments around the world.

All that started the process for this book, because I kept on looking at market sectors where virtually all the organizations had similar products and services and access to the same sort of technologies – they recruit the same sort of people from similar universities or business schools and are advised by the same professional forms—and they fall for all the prevailing management fads. Yet I found that some of these organizations have been much more successful than others.

When you try to sort out why, and you look closely, you suddenly realize that a whole range of things that these companies are doing actually doesn’t make much in the way of difference. Some people are just massively better at the key jobs than others, and that was making all the difference.

And of course the key to getting that success is not in finding better people, but in finding ways of enabling ordinary average people to do one of these key jobs as one of those high-performers would, and also in the process making it easy for them to get the help and support they need. That’s the genesis of this Talent Management 2 book.

How do you identify these people—your high performers?

My research shows that organizations are hugely bad at that—at identifying people who really make a contribution. If you look at the typical organization—let’s say a University—all the rewards and recognition might go to a handful of professors, and they may be good at bringing in research grants, but a large amount of money may well come in from students and is earned by people who are often completely overlooked, like the junior and senior lecturers that are out in front of the undergraduates.

And if you’ve got a way to improve on what they do, it massively impacts upon students and the rankings of your university. And I see that in organization after organization. They aren’t finding and supporting the people who really make the difference.

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