Talking Talent & Potential at #HREvent14


I’ve just returned from an interesting 2 days in Birmingham at the HR Directors summit. It was well run – fast paced, varied and lively with a strong stream of case studies and masterclasses topped and tailed with keynote speakers who were largely from outside the traditional HR sphere. Kudos to Clare Dewhirst, Nicole Dominguez and the rest of the WTG team for organising.

There was some excellent live blogging from Ian Pettigrew and Gemma Reucroft whilst the hashtag #HREvent14 managed to reach number 1 in the trending list once or twice over the two days.

A few observations on some of the things that were talked about….

Talent is an asset

But what is talent? Quite a few sessions looked at this subject, both from the angles of finding it and identifying it, with a focus oh high potential programmes and thinking outside the box. Many key points across the two days:

  • Current top performers are not necessarily the same as your high potentials
  • The key attributes for potential are aspiration, ability and engagement
  • 46% of leaders moving in to new roles fail to meet business objectives through a mixture of wrong promotion criteria and unclear objective setting (CEB research)
  • Strengths based recruitment for those with little or no work experience significantly improves quality (Nestle case study)
  • Don’t just look outside for talent, create from within
  • A lot of talent gets wasted through a mix of poor management, disengagement and lack of proper workforce planning
  • Look beyond certificates and the CV, find people who have overcome obstacles and interference to achieve
  • Putting it another way, we overrate certificates and underrate attitude
  • Recruit for individuality and capability to innovate, don’t just focus on past experience
  • Companies need to transition mindset from owning the talent to the talent being with the individual

Recruitment woes

Much of the talent points arose from recruitment. Certainly many of the breakout discussions were around the folly of hiring to rigid specifications and failing to spot people with attitude and ability who may have been unable to fulfil their potential elsewhere or in difficult circumstances – a failure to assess skills or performance within context.

On the second morning Rasmus Ankersen (by far the most inspiring keynote speaker) produced a slide containing a quote from the CEO of Capital One Bank saying:

“Most companies spend 2% of their time recruiting and 98% of their time managing their recruitment mistakes”

This quote was well received by the auditorium (full of HR Directors and senior practitioners) but was met with dismay from recruiters following online. I don’t know where the figures came from, they may have been a CEO embellishment or just a personal view, but many attendees (the ones who inevitably do some of the 98%) felt a ring of truth, something that became apparent during a panel session later in the morning.

Tellingly the quote was also endorsed by Facebook (no slouches when it comes to finding talent) during their afternoon presentation.

I’m guessing that a lot of the 98% didn’t represent recruiters failing to do their jobs properly, but hiring managers poorly scoping the role or looking for the wrong characteristics and capabilities.

Leadership and the people agenda

We had a fair few CEOs amongst the speakers and panellists (pretty good for an HR conference) signalling a shift in the people agenda. Some of it was to do with social, though more was about leadership. Some nuggets:

  • If you want great things to happen don’t worry about getting the credit
  • Leadership isn’t about what we are now but about what we can be, what we can do and where we can go.
  • I need bad news. I don’t shoot the messenger but need to act on what I’m told to put it right.
  • If you deal with people for a living you have a much harder job than those who deal with predictable things. (HR isn’t easy!)
  • Leadership isn’t about a handful of people. It’s about everybody.

Question time!

In a first for an event of this type there was a daily panel to discuss the themes being talked about. Placed in the main exhibition hall, with capacity for 70 attendees, it was a mix of discussion and questions from the floor.

I’m proud to say that I was on the panel both days and really enjoyed it. The reception was good – standing room only on both days – and between myself, Perry Timms, Mark Ellis and Peter Reilly we got some quite lively debates going.

And in true ‘Question Time’ tradition we had a range of topics raised by the delegates to discuss, including Kevin Pietersen’s dropping by the England cricket team and the impending strike by Tax officials!

We got some great feedback and I hope this kind of participation becomes regular at similar events.

Generational myth making and myth busting

When I wrote my preview for the event I observed that this was one conference that seemed to avoid the usual generational stereotyping presentations. Unlike certain others, there had been little of the ‘why Gen Y are different‘ content and when the topic had been touched on it was from a different angle, using research that avoided the usual suspect cliches.

Anyone following my twitter feed over the 2 days will know that, sadly, this year was different. The cliched stereotyping of the attitudes, behaviours and aspirations of people under 30 cropped up in many presentations, culminating in a bullshit bingo full house during the Facebook presentation.

I’ve blogged on this before so will not go into depth on it here – I may deal with it another time. What I would say is that the Facebook session also included many supposed stereotyped traits of Gen X and Boomers and in closing, the speaker Stuart Crabb admitted to (and kind of apologised for) using stereotypes. He also observed that all generations are represented in the Facebook workforce, and all of them embrace the ‘Gen Y‘ culture that the company work so hard to create. Which does make you wonder why he didn’t just describe the culture and approach to work without having to resort to representing it as something designed to appeal to a certain age group.

And as I’ve written many times, the defining of a group of people by perceived personality and behavioural traits is not something that should have any place in HRs thinking. No-one in 2014 would host – or attend – a session entitled ‘How to get the best out of the over 60s‘ or ‘How to manage women‘ so I don’t know why it seems acceptable for consulting firms (it’s always consulting firms) to do this type of research and then present it as insight.

Maybe I should paraphrase (misquote) Mr Einstein – not everything that matters can be researched, and not everything that is researched matters.

The future’s bleak

Unusually for a conference, the opening keynote was a bit like the grim reaper coming for our global labour market. David Arkless, founder of the Future of Work consortium, had few moments of optimism or positivity for us with many global problems of a social, work and financial nature being aired. There was a strange passage in which he seemed to praise dictatorships as they tended to got their workforces productive and operating efficiently whilst democracies hindered talent management (cue blogs on 5 things HR can learn from Kim Jong-un) and then offered a stark visualisation of the world’s inequalities.

It was a downbeat and, frankly, quite worrying message for a conference opener, which may not be a bad thing as it did get people thinking, but overall seemed a bit incongruous with what followed.

HR in the headlines

The final conference session was a Q&A with Lucy Adams – still, just, HR Director at the BBC. Needless to say the questions, put by business TV presenter Juan Señor, were about the media storm that followed her appearance before the Commons select committee last year.

She handled herself well and spoke with humility and honesty, talking of the need for visible leadership when morale is low. The questions weren’t exactly probing (fairly standard TV business interview fare) but the audience did get the opportunity to ask questions. I wanted to ask her if she thought that the reaction she got was worse because she was a woman, and that a male HR Director at the BBC may have got an easier ride. I nearly put my hand up but have to say that after a couple of days of criticising the Gen Y stereotyping I though better of raising something that may have looked sexist.

I did manage to spend a couple of minutes with her at the end though so asked the question one to one. I got the impression that she wished I’d have asked it during the session, and had expected the question to come up at some stage. Next time I won’t be so timid. And yes, needless to say, she did seem to feel that gender played a part in her situation.

Overall messages from the two days? Talent and potential…recognise it and nurture it – use it don’t waste it. And people like to be treated with respect at work…whatever their year of birth…