What is talent development and how to make the most of it

No company’s leadership can last forever. Yes, Warren Buffett still manages Berkshire Hathaway despite doing so for an eternity, but even he will one day hand over the reins to someone else. At least, according to science he will.

The future of every company depends on its ability to find and train the right personnel so they can steer the ship in the years ahead. It’s a kind of planning that requires forecasting and predictions into the future, which might explain why so many companies are caught off guard when executives or high-ranking managers leave unexpectedly.

While those companies fail to address succession planning, others get their HR teams cracking on a talent development strategy within a first interview or during onboarding. Foresight of this degree is commendable and ideal, but tends to be unrealistic for most companies. That’s okay.

In this blog, we’re talking about what talent acquisition and development looks like for companies of all sizes and means. Yes, there’s a primo deluxe model for training your company’s future leaders, but an economical approach also works just fine.

What is talent development?

Workforce planning is fundamental to keeping a company functioning. Having the right staff in place improves the employee experience so that each worker has a chance to develop competency and build a career. Talent development takes that a step further by plotting out the career paths of team members who show promise.

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What works for one company might be disastrous somewhere else. Tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft hire managers from talent pipelines that reach the ivy leagues, while In-N-Out only promotes from within to prevent skill gaps from disrupting business. To them, it’s more important to know how to run a restaurant than it is to quickly calculate an EBITDA.

Decisions about future leadership require imagination. Where will the company be 20 years from now? What is likely to change over time? Which personalities best fit the current culture?

There’s no way to predict the future, but a good talent management strategy can mitigate the consequences of the unexpected. How? By delegating foresight of future decades to younger generations. This is why picking the right personalities is so important.

Traits of top talent

The first step in planning the professional development of your employees is knowing what high-performance leadership looks like. Some baseline requirements include soft skills like good communication, time management, and output quality, but the best talent will have more.

Great leaders also possess:

  • Critical thinking skills

  • A positive mindset

  • Willingness to speak up when no one else will

  • Loyalty to their team

  • Problem-solving skills

  • Ability to prioritize

Catalogue the skills you value most in a leader. This will tell you as much about their ability to grow as it will about your organizational goals.

Leadership for managers vs. specialists

Leadership can look like formal management positions as well as seasoned veterans who have answers to tough questions. Your talent development plan should empower top performers to find their groove and feel comfortable leading a team of coworkers.

There’s a risk in extending growth opportunities to people without management experience. They might mistake bossiness for leadership, or try to be best friends with all their team members.

This is why your talent development initiatives should focus on developing a vision and narrowing the work of their teams to achieve that vision. Help your employees settle into their role as contributors to the company’s overall goals.

Developing strategy & vision

It’s easy to take for granted how every brand we engage with is the result of endless strategy and teamwork. Netflix may be one of the world’s biggest media companies today, but they were once nearly acquired by Blockbuster. Netflix’s choices, goals, and opportunities since then have yielded huge results.

On the other end of the spectrum, Yahoo!—the internet’s biggest search engine at one time—was in talks to acquire Netflix in 2013 before declining and buying Tumblr instead. Before that, they declined an offer from two young nerds to buy a new search engine called Google for $1 million. Because Yahoo!’s vision was on short-term gains rather than long-term profitability, they lost.

Would Yahoo! have cultivated either of these companies into the behemoths they are today? Maybe not, but it’s hard to feel like they had a vision for success. Today, Yahoo! is mostly forgotten (except in fantasy sports circles).

Companies can learn from Yahoo! on how to teach leaders to assess priorities and work toward relevant goals. Future leaders must be able to align business strategy with long-term goals. They should understand their customer base and how to help them.

For example, Google’s aim to be the world’s go-to search engine has led to free search engine tools that help small businesses get on the map without paying a cent in advertising fees.

The creativity needed to think big is critical for all future leaders.

Learning to make tough decisions

It’d be nice if every company could grow without hiccups. People get to keep their jobs, customers enjoy a reliable product, and leaders feel good about their management strategy.

Unfortunately, this is not reality.

When times get tough, leaders have tough decisions to make. Part of upskilling is teaching young leaders how to evaluate difficult choices while valuing the integrity of their company. These are things like long-term profitability over short-term gains, salary cuts over layoffs, community well-being over a bigger office, etc.

The thing about tough decisions is that they are tough. They require mulling over and, if hurried, can lead to serious problems. Young leaders need learning opportunities to wade through the process of facing tough decisions and arriving at an answer.

If navigating tough ethical dilemmas is a skill set you want to explore, here are some exercises you can try.

Avenues for developing talent

It’s one thing to build an approach to train new leaders, but it’s a whole ‘nother to actually implement it.

Some companies rely on hiring practices to filter out candidates who don’t meet data requirements for good leadership. Others start individual employees down a mentoring pipeline from day one. Training software and learning management systems are also popular these days. Let’s talk about the pros and cons of each approach.

Experience always works

The most vital thing leaders need is a chance to grow. Companies with low employee retention and high turnover rarely see leaders promoted from within, and this is for two reasons: there’s not enough time to learn, and the lack of job security distracts from their ability to value the company’s long-term prospects.

The post-Covid job market is here to stay. Generations Z and Alpha built their careers on shaky ground, and any company that doesn’t bolster loyalty by providing safe, predictable working conditions won’t keep talent around long enough to see them move up.

Leaders need time to gain experience in their field as well as acclimate to the company culture before they can lead others. If a company can’t provide the conditions to grow and flourish, talent development will have to come from outside the organization, and at a far higher cost.

Use mentorships sparingly

People learn best on the job, but the second best place to learn is by shadowing experienced pros. In the internet age, information is everywhere—people can learn the fundamentals of just about any trade—but missing from all that information is the wisdom that comes with hands-on industry experience.

This is where mentorship programs can help. Periodic meet-ups are good for answering questions, sharing anecdotes, and keeping a topic fresh in a learner’s mind. Lessons can be applied afterward at work to cement them into long-term memory.

A good mentorship program will give mentees regular time to learn, but not too much time. Mentorships can and do get in the way of employee engagement when not structured properly.

Make sure each meeting accomplishes a specific goal and offers a way to measure the progress of employee development.

Taking advantage of virtual offerings

At this moment, your inbox is being flooded with spam mail from hundreds of scientifically proven talent development programs, none of which I’m qualified to comment on. I can say, however, that they are often used to cultivate leadership skills.

Like mentorships, the value of virtual training programs is more in the consistency they provide than the information they offer. But since there’s liability in new approaches, most programs opt for the safe route of focusing on methodology (rather than advancing the craft). It’s a problem I don’t have a solution for, except to say companies should be mindful of how they deploy virtual programs.

Virtual training programs should speak to your company’s organizational structure, offering tools that are relevant to your company goals.

Here are a few talent development resources that are free as of this writing:

  • Harvard ManageMentor (HMM): Offers a range of resources and courses focused on leadership and management development

  • MIT Sloan Management Review: Provides articles, case studies, and research papers on leadership and management while offering valuable insights and knowledge for leaders looking to stay informed on the latest management trends and strategies

  • IDEO U: Offers courses on design thinking, innovation, and leadership, most of which are paid but are occasionally free

  • Darden School of Business – Coursera Specializations: The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business offers leadership-focused specializations on Coursera

  • Center for Creative Leadership (CCL): CCL is known for its expertise in leadership development, and their online center offers free articles, whitepapers, and tools that can be valuable for leaders looking to enhance their skills

Being patient with the process

Developing talent is a long process that can’t be rushed. There’s simply no way to understand the true nature of a company’s vision without time and experience, so be patient.

Time is on your side. More importantly, rushing the process eliminates the chance to learn the lessons that come from experience, which is why companies that hire outside talent see more turnover than those that promote from within.

Progress for leaders and managers is hardly ever visible. Unbiased metrics don’t really exist to measure soft skills. Managers often get impatient and judge progress by an employee’s failure to lead people right now, which is totally counterproductive.

Patience means giving leaders the chances they need to fail safely as they learn new skills. The best thing a company can do is provide more opportunities to do so.

As they get more chances to lead projects and see what works well and what doesn’t, you’ll have better data to train them with.

Help everyone grow, not just leaders

Great talent development comes from a great company culture. People who feel valued and respected invest more in their careers and therefore more in their employer’s vision. On the other hand, people who develop their skills in hostile, unstable work environments are likely to take their newfound skills elsewhere.

The way to cultivate great leadership is through example, and that means building a company people can get behind so they want what’s right for the company’s future.

Keep your promises

The last point to cover is to be reliable. One of the biggest reasons people leave employers today is because of career stagnancy, a symptom of which is managers making empty promises.

Most of us have experienced (or know someone who has experienced) being promised a promotion only to see months pass by before anything happens—if anything happens at all. This is a serious problem. Dangling a carrot on a stick only works so long before it becomes a reason to leave.

Applauding someone’s management potential and letting them know you’re impressed is one thing. People like that. They feel valued, but it’s something else entirely to promise a position for them on conditions of finishing certain training or tenure. That is a commitment, and if you can’t make good on it, you devalue your word.

Nobody’s perfect

Dream candidates for leadership are (usually) a myth. Most likely your company will end up selecting from a pool of above-average candidates who merely have potential to develop. This is normal. It’s fine.

Just like those talented candidates, your company has to work with what’s available—not grow frustrated at the lack of perfection. Having high standards doesn’t mean strictly adhering to them, so value what you’ve got and keep looking for ways to improve.