Nurturing talent – and navigating the road to success.

A few weeks ago, I gave an interview in which I reflected on the importance of building talent across our company, the need for structures that facilitate career progression, and most of all, a supportive culture which allows talent to thrive by learning from our mistakes as well as our successes.  There are compelling reasons, I said, for investing in talent, and on that point, I guess few business leaders would disagree. But as with many organisational challenges, while the way ahead might be obvious, sticking to the path isn’t always so straight forward.

Let’s start with some guiding principles.

Talent is vital to making good decisions.  With talented people, and talented teams, we not only perform better today, but we enhance our strategic vision and tactical planning. The short-term advantage and the sustainability of that success go hand in hand.  Look at any successful sports team and you’ll see their stars on the field – with the occasional genius among them – but always on the bench are the next generation, pushing for places, eager to learn, encouraged by their mentors.

Talent thrives best in open and supportive cultures.  For colleagues to flourish they need to know that in taking the next step they’ll receive support, some space for learning, and the confidence to know they can be themselves.  That last point is important – because true talent management isn’t about the rote learning of skills and procedures, it’s about nurturing a diversity of unique and valuable contributions to the overall goal. 

And lastly, talent is a responsibility we all share.  Sure, the People Teams often take a lead in coordinating training and development programmes and the like – and rightly so.  But for talent to truly thrive, we need leaders at all levels to see that bringing on the next generation is part of what make for a  sustainably better business. Finding opportunities to give some trust, providing tools and resources, as well as spotting the talent gaps – and occasional blockages –  are just as vital a skill for managers as hitting their sales or cost targets.

But if that much is straightforward – what is it that gets in the way?

Fear of failure is perhaps the biggest constraint, especially if it leads to us avoiding risks.  For without some unpredictability – to ourselves as well as the organisation – progress isn’t possible. Effective leaders learn from mistakes and making them is a key part of a continuous improvement ethos.  So we need a culture that empowers us to make decisions, and an environment that helps enhance the quality of the choices we make. Inclusive, interactive teams help to grow talent by sharing perspectives and considering possibilities – in so doing.  While individuals can thrive, the outcomes can be shared by others too. Putting it another way, constructive risk taking isn’t about jumping blindly off cliffs – it’s about weighing up the options and then acting with focus and commitment.  

Resistance to change is an obstacle too.  Indeed, it is often the biggest blocker to talent, and one of the most cited reasons why ambitious people leave otherwise good organisations.  If ideas and ingenuity are stymied, then stagnation and attrition surely follow – and guess what, talented people can smell it a mile off! The result is a drain on knowledge and a creativity void that ends in a vicious circle of yet more fear and failure.  Like with risk, embracing change doesn’t mean an unquestioning drive to revolution; positive change blends evolution with bold decisions that move us forward at pace. By working this way, we nurture talent in tandem with the opportunities we pursue.   

And lastly, we need clear measures of success.  For without these it’s all too easy to misrepresent progress or excuse the lack of it. Of course, nurturing talent isn’t as objective as math, but neither is it some enigmatic quality that resists common sense assessment. That’s why we need talent driven KPIs throughout the organisation, working to agreed outcomes and focusing resolutely on their achievement.  

So how best do we navigate our way to success? 

In my own organisation today, we have core values that keep us on track. We’re creating a culture of diversity and inclusion, where colleagues can be themselves at work, and the opportunity to develop their careers is encouraged and celebrated.  Our values of trust, fairness, creativity and openness are a sort of compass, guiding our decisions to ensure we make the most of our individual and collective potential.

And we’re backing this up with investment in training and communications, despite a pressure for savings in tough markets. For me, this is part of our duty as leaders; we have a responsibility to all our stakeholders – be they colleagues, customers, shareholders or lenders –  to ensure the organisation is fit for the future, and that’s not something we can put on hold. Nurturing talent is fundamental to building a sustainably better business, and if at times it can feel like a complex jigsaw, we should remember that it’s when the parts come together that the bigger picture emerges. 

As the first measures of our progress I expect to see succession routes for all key roles, with training plans for our high potential colleagues, and a map of the talent gaps we need to fill. Alongside this should be a more empowered culture with broad levels of authority, sharing success but also learning from its mistakes through post mortem analysis based on a zero-blame approach.  In truth, there are many more indicators we should expect: cross functional working, creative thinking, reduced duplication… I could go on.

But isn’t it also true that genuine progress needs to be widespread and self-evident?  Just as we can all recognise talent in sport or science or the arts, so too we instinctively know when it’s present in the workplace.  The ultimate goal is therefore that nurturing talent becomes part of our DNA, a virtue we pass from one generation to another, with care for its continuity, and a sense of creating something bigger than ourselves.