Do you know those conversations where someone asks you a question, but you only find a good answer a few hours or days later? I had such a conversation last week. Someone asked me ‘So, what makes a talent programme a talent programme’? I realised I could not give a snappy answer straight away. Quite embarrassing, considering I have worked on talent programmes for years!

Let’s start at the beginning. To answer this question, you first need to be clear on what you actually mean by talent. According to the CIPD, ‘talent consists of those individuals who can make a difference to organisational performance either through their immediate contribution or, in the longer-term, by demonstrating the highest levels of potential’. So there is a lot of room for interpretation. You need to decide if you are looking for immediate or future talent. If you are looking for immediate talent, current performance is key. But if you go for the longer-term definition, you have to look at potential as well. Don’t shy away from that concept just because some people don’t get it! If your aim is to make sure you have people with great leadership skills in 5 years time, it is not enough to just look at those who already display those skills today. You need to find those who have the potential to develop those skills within 5 years.
But how do you know what talent your organisation needs? You need to start with your organisation’s strategy and then build your workforce plan for it. Workforce planning, another one of those things that HR folks sometimes shy away from because it is so complicated and involves data. But if you don’t do it, how do you know what people your organisation needs now, let alone in 5 years time, and how many?

Once you understand that, you can start to build your talent strategy and think about how much you should buy, build, borrow, bound, bounce, and bind talent. Talent programmes are one way to build talent, typically by recruiting young people into graduate programmes and more recently apprenticeship programmes. Designing such programmes is a lot of fun once you know what you are trying to achieve! You define what competencies you need and then you align your attraction, selection, development, engagement, retention and deployment to those needs. I would say the parts that are most difficult to get right in reality are retention and deployment. Everything else is done very well by many organisations. I suspect that might be because you can do attraction, selection, development and even engagement properly and win fancy awards even if you did not go through the painful exercise of aligning your talent programme to your organisation’s needs.

With retention and deployment it is a different story, here you will see how thought through the talent programme really is. Put yourself in a graduate’s shoes. At university you were told organisations will be fighting for someone as bright as you. You join an organisation because they have promised a world class graduate programme. You get lots of support and training to develop those leadership skills that seem to be so important according to your mentor. You are told you are performing great and will have a thrilling career in this organisation. You do everything that is expected of you and more. And by the end of the programme you are told there is no leadership role in sight for you for the next few years, but that had been so good at what you were doing why don’t you just continue to do that? Or even worse, there is no role at all. Would you really want to stay in this organisation? Would you potentially consider not buying their products or services anymore, and maybe writing some nasty comments on twitter or facebook about your experience? Had your organisation planned your talent programme properly, this would not have happened.

So my answer to that question should have been: A good talent programme is deeply anchored in your organisation’s strategy through longer-term workforce planning, and every part of it needs to be aligned to your organisation’s needs.