Executive Issues: Half-Truths About Talent Management

June 14, 2017

Originally published by NonProfit PRO on June 14, 2017

In this period of fake news and alternative facts, we might feel a bit weary of hearing a term such as “half-truths.” But there is an anonymous quote that approximates what I mean by a half-truth: “Beware of the half-truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half.” The now far-reaching interest in talent management has reached the social sector and for good reason—effective, mission-aligned talent management at all levels is key to organizational impact. It is troubling, however, that often the focus on talent management comes to the surface when a problem or an emergency arises: a key staff resignation, a less than acceptable program audit due to lackluster staff performance, an unexpected leadership transition or a harassment lawsuit.

At Community Resource Exchange (CRE), we’ve been fortunate enough to work with many clients on the somewhat elusive goals of attracting, keeping and developing talent. Over the years, we’ve seen the need to move from problem-focused talent management Band-aids to forward-looking strategies. We have come to recognize the “half-truths” that beleaguer the organizations we work with. They come in expressions of either frustration or cautious optimism framed as follows:

  • If only we had the funding to hire more staff, we would be in a good place with our talent management.
  • We plan to improve our recruitment process, so we can find the right people for the right positions. That’s the key to our talent management plan.
  • Our salaries are not competitive enough and that’s a real block to developing our talent management strategy.
  • Once we provide the necessary training for our staff, we’ll be in excellent shape.
  • Talent management simply means upgrading our human resources function.

The assertions in these statements are, for the most part, true.
Appropriate staffing levels, a strategic and targeted recruiting process, competitive salaries, staff training and an improved human resource function are all critical to talent management. However, the “whole truth” is that these strategies are simply pieces of a bigger talent management picture. Unless we tackle the full picture, the impact we expect from these individual actions will not last long. It is not unlike a plan to achieve an ideal body weight—exercising without focusing on nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits isn’t enough. And healthy eating without exercising and without enough sleep won’t do it, either.

Framework for Talent Management
At CRE, we have developed a framework that provides a cohesive perspective on talent management. Our Integrated Talent Management framework consists of four pillars that encompass 11 talent management factors.

We believe that these four pillars—talent sourcing, talent enhancement, talent retention and developing a leadership pipeline—together serve as the engine that fuels an integrated approach to talent management. These four pillars and the 11 factors across the four pillars are inextricably interwoven. This means when you address only one or two factors—instead of all of them together—the results will fall short of the mark.
So you ask, “How can we address all of these factors when we have restricted funding, minimal or no human resources capacity in the organization, and a myriad of competing priorities?”

Working with hundreds of nonprofits each year, we found seven fundamental steps that help achieve talent management success.

7 Steps to Talent Management Success

  1. Agree on what talent means in your organization. Clarifying and reaching agreement on what it means to be successful in your organization is your “North Star” for talent management. It guides
    talent sourcing, talent enhancement and retention, and the development of a leadership pipeline. It informs talent management decisions and results in branding your organization, making it attractive to
    potential candidates.
  2. Be intentional about creating a culture that values talent. Making the commitment to put talent management front-and-center is the first critical step. This means that everyone in the organization wears the talent management hat and sees the world in “talent-colored glasses.” It means that “upgrading” the HR function is not enough. A paradigm shift in the way we think about managing talent is required—a shift that positions talent management as a mission-critical and strategic responsibility at the highest levels of the organization. When everyone is on the same page about managing talent, a culture emerges where organizational activities, from onboarding to departure, are suffused with mission-aligned talent management practices.
  3. Base your priorities on assets that already exist. Start by understanding your current talent management assets and challenges, then build on your assets to set your talent management priorities for the next year or two. For example, if you have an excellent recruiting strategy, use the elements that attract candidates to your organization as the basis for retaining them. If you are clear about your promotion criteria and have applied them successfully, then that could be the nucleus for an intentional succession planning and talent pipeline strategy.
  4. Bite the budget bullet and set aside some funding for talent management initiatives. There will never be a moment when we have the kind of surplus or general operating funds to do everything—or even half of what we would like—for talent management. Therefore, we have to act on our commitment by setting aside specific funds for the talent management priorities we have identified. I have worked with organizations that intentionally set aside a percentage of their general operating funds for developing a top-notch onboarding program, a competitive salary for a key position or a high-quality training program across the organization.
  5. Appreciate the value that diversity, inclusion and equity can bring for talent management. By expanding an organization’s talent pool, a diverse workforce brings multiple perspectives to the table, boosting the quality and creativity of decision-making. In promoting inclusion and prioritizing input from all staff, we deepen our opportunity to benefit from the talent treasures in the organization.
  6. Take some risks in thinking outside the box. Let’s free ourselves from the usual strategies for attracting, retaining and developing talent. A good number of nonprofits we work with are hamstrung in their ability to provide performance-based increases because salary increases are tied to funding contracts. And the notion of giving out bonuses may feel too “for profit-like” for some organizations. Yet merit-based bonuses could be highly motivating without increasing the organization’s salary liability. Recognizing what employees value is key to innovating on rewards and recognition strategies.
  7. Keep the whole picture in mind. We understand the reality that we cannot address all talent management goals in one fell swoop. But while working on current talent management priorities, let’s remain faithful to the paramount worth of creating an integrated talent management strategy, albeit one pillar at a time. We would be shortchanging ourselves if we lose sight of the full picture because it would mean that the efforts we have made to-date may not stay the course if the other elements of talent management are not in good shape. In other words, stay away from the half-truths that make us comfortable for the moment.

The social sector has witnessed a rise in executive transitions, a hunger for leadership and professional development, high staff turnovers averaging 17 to 20 percent annually, and leaders’ assessment that human resources is the most depleting and the least energizing aspect of their work. The shifting demographics in the communities we serve accelerated by the influx of immigrants, the need for a diverse and culturally-competent workforce to respond to these trends, the larger numbers of Millennials in the workforce, more leaders approaching retirement, the challenge of talent-sourcing, given the limited scope for financial rewards in resource-constrained nonprofits—all of these factors require deeply intentional and highly innovative approaches to service delivery and, therefore, talent management, while navigating a more competitive philanthropic landscape.

The significance of managing talent successfully cannot be ignored. We say that people are our best asset. Let’s show that we mean it.

By Chief Program Officer Jean Lobell

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