Knowing how to nurture and retain talent is perhaps more crucial to a company’s success than short-term financial success and market share. In The Talent Masters, authors Bill Conaty, former senior vice-president, General Electric, and Ram Charan, adviser to companies worldwide, combine their insights on how to create a blueprint for talent development. Edited excerpts from a chapter that highlights the principles which guide ideal “talent masters":

An enlightened leadership team, starting with the CEO

The Talent Masters: Bill Conaty and Ram Charan, Random House Business Books, 320 pages, Rs699.

Meritocracy through differentiation

This is the mother’s milk of helping talent reach its potential. Memorize this slogan: Differentiation breeds meritocracy; sameness (the failure to differentiate people) breeds mediocrity. The latter happens all too often in companies that automatically equate high performance with achieving or exceeding agreed-upon financial goals. Without exception, talent masters dig into the many causes underlying performance so that they can recognize and reward leaders according to their talents, behaviours, and values.

Working values

All companies have values, stated or unstated. Some are meaningful, many are boilerplate. What we call working values have a real impact on how well results are delivered, because they govern how people work and behave. They’re the values people live by, because they are absolutely expected of both leaders and employees. For example, one value we see among talent masters is the obligation of leaders to develop other leaders. Values aren’t always labelled as such. Hindustan Unilever distinguishes the what and the how of the leadership, the “what" referring to getting things done and the “how" to the values component, “acting in a way others will admire and want to follow." At Procter and Gamble, says CEO Bob MacDonald, “We talk a lot about character, which I define as putting the needs of the organization above your own needs." By whatever name, masters repeat and repeat and repeat their values, and reinforce them by linking recognition and rewards with them.

A culture of trust and candour

A company can develop its people only if it has accurate information about their strengths and development needs, and it can only get that information if people can talk candidly—that is, honestly and openly. Candour gets the truth out. It enables keener observations, greater insight, and better descriptions. It’s easy to cite a leader’s strengths but edgier to pinpoint their development needs and expect them to accept and address them. As we will see throughout this book, creating a culture of candour is the hardest part of becoming a talent master. People can talk candidly only if they trust the system to respect honesty and confidentiality. Talent masters work strenuously to ensure trust by insisting on candour in all of the company’s dialogues, whether one-on-one, in group settings, or in appraisals.

Rigorous talent assessment

Talent masters have the same goal and results orientation in their people processes as they do in their financial systems. They set explicit time-based people development goals and discuss the why and how of these goals. They review people as thoroughly and regularly as they review operations, business performance, strategy, and budgets. Crucially, they integrate the people reviews with each of the others, gathering and updating the information as the system progresses. Like the financial systems, the people systems have rhythms and rigour, and evolve over time as new needs arise.

A business partnership with human resources

Talent masters use human resource leaders as active and effective business partners, raising them to the same, if not higher, level as the chief financial officer. The HR function will only be as strong as the CEO wants it to be, and if the CEO doesn’t have high expectations for it, HR will remain second tier. Just as the CFO is the trustee of the financial system, the chief human resources officer is the trustee of the people system.

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