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Can we afford (not) to manage talent amid COVID-19?

Busie Mjimba - Friday, June 12, 2020



With the world in lock-down and big organisations paying their undivided attention to business continuity, it is easy to forget all about people management truisms like “managing talent is important”. The Internet is now full of great guides on what organisations and their leaders should do to keep running (and stay safe). 

But what about the role of talent management amid COVID-19 and beyond? 

Right now (and tomorrow) – is talent management unimportant in the face of keeping the lights on – or is it more important than ever? 

Here are seven points to consider from Senior Talent Management Specialist at Absa, Dr Daniel Burger:

1. Succession management

“Never waste a good crisis”, is what one of my colleagues said a few days ago, while driving her leadership team to relook their succession planning. When doing research on succession planning, you’ll note this is one of those areas that every leader knows is crucial, yet many organisations don’t get right. With COVID-19, sourcing external candidates will be extremely difficult. Even internal recruitment may be challenging. 

Question: Should we need to replace someone now, for whatever reason – are we able to do that effectively? Are our pipelines “full” with ready successors?

2. Critical roles 

Some organisations are very good at identifying their critical roles and focusing their talent management processes (like succession management) on ensuring these roles ‘are taken care of’. However, in other organisations, defining critical roles sometimes become a political process because having many of these in your team is seen as a sign of importance. In others still, the definition is narrowly restricted to, for example, the Exco, while some haven’t really spent enough time on this key priority. 

Question: Given where the world is right now – do we know which of our roles (people) are absolutely key to keep the lights on, and how to ensure that those roles are filled, the employees motivated (and supported amid additional pressures!), and put contingency plans in place? Perhaps a second question here – what if these critical roles also require scarce skills?

3. Talent identification

Talent identification in many organisations focuses on future leaders. The 9-box matrix, for example, is generally used to identify future leaders. Some organisations have realised the importance of including their specialists in these identification processes, especially those in critical roles. 

Talent is generally identified by line managers, sometimes using psychometric instruments or other assessments, and then vetted through the annual talent review or calibration process. Talent reviews are often limited to senior populations. 

Conducting the traditional talent identification process today will be difficult – social distancing being a primary reason. However, online collaboration tools can greatly assist in overcoming this barrier. Moreover, talent systems with real-time data and drag-and-drop calibration capabilities will further assist in making talent reviews a definite possibility – especially when faced with questions like whether once a year calibrations of only senior talent is really sufficient in the fast-moving world today.  

Question: Can we afford NOT to identify talent right now, given the challenges we face, and will face in the post COVID-19 world? Are we able to, given the challenges we face? 

4. Talent development

When talk of lockdowns started, and social distancing became essential, many organisations responded by cancelling all training events. Further, when financial crunch sets in, we know training budgets often get cut first. But, we know development is not restricted to face-to-face instruction. The 70/20/10 principle aside, the internet offers a plethora of online learning possibilities, not to mention the social learning possibilities opened up by collaboration tools.   

Question: What will happen if we DON’Y develop our talent to be ready for the future – whatever that future may look like? Can we afford to leave it until later while we focus on running our business right now?

5. Mobility

Over the past few years, we have increasingly realised what many organisations already knew: Employees develop best in different experiences (see 70/20/10!). So, organisations started implementing mobility programmes, the most popular being cross-border assignments. In the current landscape, however, it is difficult to fathom “talent mobility” as we automatically think that one cannot physically “move jobs”. However, thinking a bit wider, again in the context of social collaboration tools, surely it is possible to still transfer, assign, promote, second, move? Especially as organisational systems evolve beyond focusing only on internal recruitment?

Question: Do we give up on mobility now that we cannot “physically move” people around? How do we rethink mobility given its power – what is plan B?

6. Leadership readiness and commitment

The effectiveness of talent management – in whatever level of formality it assumes – has always varied widely across organisations. Some organisations have all the systems and processes in place with very little to show for it by way of talent management outputs, while others are effective with minimal formal processes and talent management technologies. Within large organisations, this variability in talent management effectiveness is also observable between divisions and teams. 

The reasons behind the above usually boil down to “adoption” – or differently put, the extent to which line managers 1) know how to and 2) actively manage their talent. 

Question: Are our leaders ready and able to identify, develop and manage talent in the new world? 

7. Talent strategy

This point could (should) have been the first one, as being effective amid all of this would have meant that we relooked our talent strategy in the current landscape before anything else, and then planned and actioned accordingly. However, for many organisations, COVID-19 happened so quickly that the response was much more reactive than proactive. 

Looking beyond right now, when the world returns to “normal”, things will be different for most (if not all) organisations. For example, where ‘digital’ was a wishlist item or long-term strategy for many organisations as recently as 6 months ago, it became an overnight necessity for most, clearly visible in the booming success of Zoom and Microsoft Teams. It is critical to understand what this different means for our business – and how we will ensure we have the right talent, in the right roles, at the right time, to be effective. 

Question: Is our talent strategy ready for whatever normal will be going forward? 

Bottom line:

Amidst crisis, it is easy to postpone or flatly dismiss a number of organisational processes and practices as “nice to haves”, and claim that we have to focus on what is important right now: ensuring business continuity. However, COVID-19 will not change the fact that we cannot be successful in any organisations without our people/talent. Perhaps one can argue that ensuring business continuity for today does not need to involve effective talent management – there are more important things to think about. However, can we afford to say the same about tomorrow? 

On 22 and 23 July we will be hosting a two-day online Talent Management Conference. Featuring speakers from leading local and international organisations such as LinkedIn, CISCO, Microsoft, Sun International, Deloitte, DHL, Anglo American, Old Mutual and Vodacom, this online event will unpack some of the burning issues around talent management during COVID-19, such as: 
  • The new role of the talent manager
  • Virtual recruitment, assessment and onboarding 
  • Workforce planning – now and for the future
  • Remote performance management and employee disengagement
  • Global talent mobility during a pandemic
  • Managing remote work
  • Reskilling your workforce
  • And more!
Click here to view the complete programme for this virtual event!

Don't forget! If you're a member of our L&D Community,  HR Directors Community (for senior leaders) or HR Community (for HR executives of all levels), you qualify for a 20% discount on all KR webinars, online workshops and virtual conferences!




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