April 17, 2015 | By Steve King | Back to blog

Recently, I was asked to join the board retreat of a very successful non-profit to talk about talent management. The organization has grown a good deal in the last few years and now faces what many growing enterprises face–how to successfully manage larger numbers of employees.

Steve King
Steve King, Executive Director of the Center for Professional and Executive Development for the UW-Madison Wisconsin School of Business.

The organizers sent me information to review before the meeting, which included a single-page document of talent-related processes they might design and implement. The list included things like an orientation checklist for new employees, a salary survey, and a coaching arrangement in the form of a buddy system. All perfectly reasonable ideas.

On the day of the retreat, however, I took the group in a different direction. First, I asked how many folks in their organization were actually people managers. It turned out to be about a dozen. I suggested that they set aside their thoughts about checklists, surveys, and buddy systems for just a little while and consider a different first step on their talent management journey. What if the board simply focused on teaching the twelve managers how to have good conversations with their employees about issues that mattered to them? These conversations could address employee questions such as what’s expected of me, how am I doing, and how will I be rewarded.

We explored this alternative first step to build a culture of talent management with a simple truth–effective talent management starts and ends with the competency of managers. Organizations can have the most elegant human resource processes, but if a manager can’t articulate clear performance goals, provide feedback well, or deliver a pay message accurately, then the processes have marginal value.

Talent management starts with good conversations between a manager and an employee. That’s why I suggested the group first focus on training their managers to have good conversations. Once those conversations begin, the processes necessary to further improve performance and support a healthy culture of talent will become evident. In fact, the managers and employees will be able to identify which new processes may help and which might not.

Moral of the story: Conversations first, processes second if you want to manage your talent well.

For simple guides to foster critical conversations with employees, see Steve King’s books:


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