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The Weak Bench Strength Checklist…and Remedies

Authored by: Managing Partners Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

Here are some “givens”:

Endless and annual CEO, C-Suite and Board surveys confirm that everyone is concerned about the strength of the talent bench. They state that the quality of Talent Management is among their top concerns.  Everyone agrees that the quality of talent, especially at the top, is a key to flourishing now and into the future.  It is oft said that “people are our most important asset”.

There has been a function created somewhat recently, called Talent Management, that is in charge of assuring the adequate flow of talent from the point of hire to a seat in the C-Suite.  The good news is that we (the TM Profession) know how to allay the organization’s concerns.  There are best practices many agree with, settled talent management science, specialized vendors, how-to webcasts, books (Leadership Pipeline and The Leadership Machine are in wide circulation) and conferences to attend and access. You can major in Talent Management at many universities and colleges.

The TM function and its Professionals are generally in charge of recruiting, onboarding, deploying, engaging, developing, and retaining talent…especially High Potential talent who, if developed properly, could reach the C-suite and help the organization flourish.

TM variously reports to the CHRO, the CEO or even the Board (in rare cases). Previously, Talent Management was done by HR, Employee Relations, and Internal Relations.  More recently it has become an entity of its own and coordinates closely with the other HR professionals.

TM’s charter is to provide a constant flow of great candidates for key, open jobs by installing a science-backed, experienced tested set of best practices.

With the above “givens” all wrapped up in a bow, now everyone can relax and get a good night’s sleep!  Right? Well, maybe not.

Despite all of the above being true, top management (collectively) doesn’t think we are doing a good job at it.  Many surveys of CHROs say the same thing: We know what the challenge is. We know how to address it. It’s not being done well (enough).

Why not?

9 Reasons and Remedies

  1. The organization has not created a TM function and therefore is less likely to have a science-backed, experienced-tested and well-running set of TM best practices to acquire and manage talent. These include integrated recruiting and interviewing, engagement, talent review, succession planning, coaching, and assignmentology systems.  

Remedy:  The CHRO needs to create, charter and staff the TM function.

  1. The TM function does not report high enough in the organization to have the strength to influence line managers to play their roles.  

Remedy:  TM should report to the CEO, or the CHRO at a minimum.

3. The TM Professionals are not up to the three tasks. There are three tasks.

  • Find the set of research-supported, experienced-tested best practices that align with the specific needs of the organization. For this, they have to be knowledgeable. They have to know and accept the science and best practices. They have to stay away from fads, fashions, and bright shiny objects. They have to be confident that what they are using works.
  • They have to create and install an integrated system. That takes change management knowledge and skills and they have to have the ability to strongly influence a set of line managers who are very busy and don’t have much time for the “soft” stuff. They have to be able to present the ROI of intelligent talent management.
  • They have to be actively engaged in the process. At a minimum, they have to be able to inform and facilitate the process. Even better that they become an expert player.

Remedy:  Make sure TM is staffed with people and process experts who are credible to the line.

  1. The Board, CEO and/or the C-Suite isn’t interested. Hey, it happens, and the associated research is solid. When the top of the house isn’t interested in playing the future talent game, having top talent isn’t likely to happen. It takes 30 career years to hire, onboard, engage, deploy, develop and place a talented C-Suite member. You can’t start two years before members of the C-Suite are going to retire.  

Remedy:  Bring in heavy (and expensive) TM thought leaders and credible vendors to help position and implement.

  1. The collective of Line Managers resist participating. They won’t do protocol interviewing, don’t like doing honest performance appraisals, don’t like identifying High Potentials, are not good coaches, resist putting High Potentials in their open roles and probably don’t like the Annual Talent Review. They can hoard talent. 

Remedy:  See numbers 3 and 4.

  1. Line Management cannot make good estimates of long-term performance. The long-term health of the talent system depends upon identifying the High Potentials. Why?  Because you have to make special investments to help them grow and prosper. Most of the Line Managers making and presenting the assessments in the Annual Review or Succession Planning process are not themselves High Potentials!  Can a non-High Potential evaluate others who are?  That’s an unknown and would present as a very challenging research study.  Would a talent scout for a major league team who needs pitching prospects be able to watch high school and college players and be able to pick them out if they themselves have never pitched? It’s unlikely.

Remedy:  We (the TM Profession) know what it takes to be a High Potential. We (collectively) inform and train Line Managers to make their annual assessments. There are now more scientific ways to make those annual estimates, in the form of surveys, questionnaires, and tests. Science-assisted estimates would be better. At the extreme, TM Professionals ought to be very active in the assessment process. If the TM Professionals cannot tell you who the High Potentials are, it is unlikely that the line can.  TM needs to be the “people experts”, especially when it comes to understanding the concept of Potential. Also, see numbers 1, 2, and 3.

  1. There is a cultural rejection of elitism. We hear that “everyone can be a leader”, “there is no such thing as being a High Potential”, and that “everyone should have the same opportunity to get to the top”. Well, the research is clear and says that if you believe in equal opportunity, you have to offer differential treatment and opportunity. People are different and therefore what they need to grow and prosper will be different. Treating people equitably is not served by thinking people are all the same. Let that sink in for a minute.

Remedy:  See number 3.

  1. Collective Line Management hoards talent. Long-serving Line Managers understand the game. If I present my best person as a High Potential in the Annual Talent Review, “they” will take them away from me. And, that is how it works. Verified, vetted, and validated High Potentials are a valuable asset and need to be moved around more often and more intentionally and strategically to get to the top. It’s called assignmentology. For a Line Manager who is struggling to meet quarterly and annual goals, giving up talent for the good of the organization doesn’t sit well.  

Remedy:  See numbers 3 and 4.

  1. There are three customers for TM. 

Today: Getting great things done today by having talented people in key spots for the organization to flourish. 

Tomorrow. Getting ready for the agreed-upon, near-term future, where new products and services are already in the planning stage, new geography and markets are being eyed, acquisitions are being evaluated and new regulations are being accounted for.  

Less known future. Few know what the long-term future is going to require. It will be bigger, faster and more complex. There will be many Black Swans to shoot and VUCAs to work through. 

TM, top management and the line have to work together to address all three simultaneously.

Horizon Time Frame Outcome Certainty Making The Sale Getting Cooperation
Today Year Highest Doable Doable
Tomorrow 5-7 years Middle Stretch Stretch
Future 10-30 years Lowest Near Impossible Near Impossible

The stakeholders for Today are all employees and managers, shareholders, customers, suppliers, regulators, the community, and the global markets all doing great things and doing a lot of Talent Management work with and for people you can talk with right now.

The stakeholders for Tomorrow are less certain. Some employees and managers will have moved on. Top management might be somewhat different. Shareholders may not be the same.  Regulators may have different objectives. There will be some people around that remember the TM work that was done in the past to get to a successful Tomorrow, but for many others that doesn’t matter. The TM work was done because it was right and necessary. The Board knew.  Top management knew. Shareholders hoped. All others may have wondered why.

Many stakeholders for the Longer-term future are not yet born, do not own any stock, or are already retired. The one horizon that takes the most work has no present stakeholders!  The Board will have turned over. The C-Suite will be new. Many employees will not have witnessed the leadership development and preparation. The catch-22 is that the present Board, C-Suite, and TM have to do the work without ”today” rewards and without knowing if any of it ultimately worked! Everyone needs to trust the science and the best practice processes.

A coach working on fundamental skills with a high school athlete is not likely to be around for the Hall of Fame ceremony. They put in the work anyway. They studied the film. They trusted the process.

Remedy: Follow the science. See numbers 3 and 4.

If you think your organization is short on the talent bench, what are the reasons?

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