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Stewarding talent white paper – why it matters and how the best senior leaders do it

Anthony Ball

Anthony Ball

Executive Summary

There is a strong business case for why organisations need to identify and nurture talent for the future — managing talent well helps improve outcomes for your organisation and the talented individuals themselves.

In a landscape characterised by a talent shortage — not to mention the Great Resignation and the Great Reshuffle — it has never been more important to retain these highly skilled and productive employees.

Talented people are those who your organisation can least afford to lose. Yet, they are also the most employable and attractive to competitors and the most difficult and expensive to replace. As a result, companies not at the top of their talent management game will soon find their prized employees are being lured away by those who are.

But effective talent management or “stewardship” goes well beyond defining the potential of individuals and identifying those that may become future leaders — in other words, talent assessment. The best leaders today don’t stop there; they actively engage in the ongoing nurturing of talent at an individual, team and organisational level. Stewardship literally means being a trusted caretaker by supervising or taking care of something or someone of important value to the organisation now and into the future.

Invest in your best people or lose them. The best leaders today don’t stop there; they actively engage in the ongoing nurturing of talent at an individual, team and organisational level.

So how do you best steward talented individuals so they want to stay with and contribute their developing skills to your organisation?

It has been well established that your people’s relationship with their managers is key to the engagement and retention of talented people. Even more potent is their relationship with senior leaders in the organisation 1-2 levels above their manager.

The best organisations ensure supportive management and senior leaders that take an active interest in stewarding the development of their best people. Providing constructive feedback, role modelling an attitude of lifelong learning, and mentoring rather than merely sponsoring talent can positively impact organisational culture and engagement. And there are some very practical approaches that the best talent managers leverage to significant effect. Talent management is not a task to be solely delegated to Human Resources or assumed to be happening organically across an organisation. Instead, it requires a developmental approach, where senior leaders have an active role to play across all aspects of developing talented people. This can, in turn, help enhance organisational performance now and into the future.

Why talented people are a flight risk

Some studies have shown that high performers are 100 – 400 percent more productive than average ones. But, of course, this astounding statistic varies according to the type of role, the industry and the quality and reliability of performance data. It also varies according to the complexity of the individual’s role. Surprisingly, some high performers perform at up to eight times the level of their average co-workers in more complex roles.

Clearly, talented people can turbocharge your organisation’s performance, so what can you do to ensure they are not at risk of leaving you and taking their skills and knowledge of your organisation to your competitors or to greener pastures?

At People Measures, we work closely with talented people across the full spectrum of NFP, government and private sectors, both as coaches and in talent and leadership development programs. We consistently observe that such “overachievers” often feel that they work harder than average performers, particularly in less senior roles.

The issue is the phenomenon of “performance punishment”, where those demonstrating high levels of competence and repeat successes are selected by their supervisors to do more work than their peers because they are considered a safe pair of hands. As a result, their manager feels confident in their ability to deliver and usually makes the top performer feel valued for their efforts.

However, not every top performer relishes the burden of performance punishment just because they get more recognition. On the contrary, they are often privately resentful and open to opportunities elsewhere that meet their other needs for flexibility, work-life balance, mental health and well-being or earning capacity.

Some are happy to take on more but are also explicit in their desire for career advancement as a trade-off. Others simply burn out under the pressure to consistently perform at the highest level.

Suppose these high performers — who can contribute so much to your organisation’s outcomes — are not carefully managed and nurtured. In that case, there is every chance they will take flight for more balanced or otherwise rewarding pastures.

How the best senior leaders and organisations do it

First, do no harm

The first rule is, do no harm. It means ensuring that whatever your talent processes and initiatives are, they feel like something is being done with people, not to people. User experience principles should apply to talent management just as it applies to so many other elements of good design. For instance, how will the “user” of your talent experiences feel is one of the most important questions you can ask.

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