Strategic HR leaders understand the importance of integrating their company’s talent strategy with the business strategy, but many struggle to fully embed the talent strategy within the organization. This is not a criticism—the reality is that to embed the strategy effectively, one must change or shift the operating culture. Let’s look at the difference between integrating talent strategy and embedding talent strategy and what can be done to enhance the impact of a solid talent strategy within an organization.
What does it mean to integrate talent strategy? Quite simply, integration by definition requires consistency and coordination across all of the different talent-related levers inside an organization. Identifying the leadership competencies, skills and behaviors needed to execute the business strategy, and making them the centerpiece of all talent-related initiatives is the starting point. Recruiting for these competencies, skills, and behaviors; building them through training and development programs; and slotting leaders with these competencies into critical roles are some of the desired outcomes associated with effective integration. The common language around the competencies also become a part of and influence succession planning, assessment strategies, success profiles for roles, and various performance-management initiatives.
Having a common language integrated into all of these important organizational capabilities does not guarantee impact on the business. I’ve encountered many HR leaders who become frustrated when line leaders promote individuals who are not in the coveted “succession box” in the succession plan. Similarly, I’ve heard many line executives tell me that they never received coaching on their company’s so-called critical competencies and behaviors—and wish they had recognized their gaps and worked on developing new behaviors much earlier in their career.
“Identifying the leadership competencies, skills and behaviors needed to execute the business strategy, and making them the centerpiece of all talent-related initiatives is the starting point.”
Why the disconnect? It comes down to the fact that integrated talent strategies are not the same as embedded talent strategies. Only when business leaders and functional leaders “own” the talent strategy and leverage it on a day-to-day basis will you see the impact on the business that you desire. Creating this type of adoption and impact is a critical change management endeavor. The key is to understand how to influence and change aspects of the operating culture that will get leaders, frontline managers, and employees aligned and using the different levers of the talent strategy on a consistent basis. While each organization’s operating culture is different, here are some keys to embedding talent strategy:
1. Feedback, feedback, feedback. CEOs and senior teams are typically the final arbiters of new leadership competencies linked to the business strategy. They need to buy into the language and be the role models for the rest of the organization. Ultimately, however, they have to live the competencies consistently on a day-to-day basis. While HR often will introduce formal mechanisms for leaders (and/or peers or direct reports) to provide feedback on leadership competencies and behaviors, the truth is that without informal use of the language in the competencies and behaviors there is little traction that is made. CEOs need to call out their direct reports when they see behaviors inconsistent with leadership expectations, and senior team members need to do the same with their direct reports, and so on and so on.
Creating a feedback-rich culture isn’t just a leader-led game. Aside from formal mechanisms for feedback (e.g., 360s), HR can enable all employees to provide both positive and constructive feedback related to the leadership competencies and behaviors. Establishing creative avenues to spark informal feedback conversations helps. For example, project teams can dedicate five minutes at the end of every meeting to participate in a team-oriented self-assessment of where they have successfully demonstrated key competencies and where they have room for improvement. The bottom line is that getting everyone in the organization to be more open with feedback on the desired behaviors will eventually shift the operating culture to be more transparent and feedback rich.
2. Take risks on talent. Nothing embeds—and energizes—a talent strategy more than hiring someone into a critical leadership role who may not possess all of the requisite experience, but who embodies all of the desired leadership competencies. (On the flip side, watch for the lukewarm reaction for the tenured, experienced hire who displays some but not all of the leadership requirements.) The symbolic nature associated with a well-thought plan for promoting or hiring a new kind of leader can signal that the organization is serious about the shifting leadership requirements. More importantly, this type of decision motivates high potentials with the desired competencies that there is room to professionally grow and develop and eventually have a shot at broader leadership roles in the future. Encouraging calculated risk-taking at all levels over time can shift the operating culture such that people want to learn how to improve on or develop the leadership competencies and behaviors that they see in the managerial or leadership roles across the company.
3. Get out of the room. Finally, the human resources function is often too associated with talent management initiatives or processes. How many times do we see HR leaders (or consultants) facilitating talent-review sessions as part of succession planning initiatives? Similarly, while it is commonly recognized that business leaders need to play a significant role in the delivery leadership development programs, how many are involved in the design and planning? We (both consultants and HR leaders) need to get out of the room more frequently and force business leaders to lead talent management endeavors. This doesn’t mean that we can’t help educate them and help them prepare for this type of leadership. We simply need to be more cognizant of the subtle ways that we can involve leaders across the company in the efforts to grow people capabilities. By doing so, we can further shift the operating culture such that the importance of the talent strategy and talent-related initiatives is a shared value and just “how we do things around here….”