What Talent Development is and Why Most Companies Get it Wrong

Talent development blog cover

In most companies, trying to improve talent development feels like trying to get a birthday present for your niece or nephew: you have the best intentions, but you end up buying a Lego set when the kid wants a guitar. 

According to 2017 research from Deloitte, companies spend over $100 billion annually on training and development activities, yet these efforts often fall flat. That’s because companies design talent management initiatives without the full buy-in of managers and team members. 

As a result of this disconnect, companies struggle to identify and promote high-potential workers, and their workforce becomes disengaged. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Talent development can deliver huge rewards, as indicated by a LinkedIn survey in which “94% of employees say they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their learning and development.“ 

Making talent development programs work requires greater collaboration between HR, managers, and team members. It starts with having a shared definition of what talent development really means, to ensure that it supports both individual and business needs.

What Is Talent Development?

Talent development is the area of talent management focused on teaching workers new skills and positioning them for career advancement. AIHR Digital defines talent management as “the full scope of HR processes to attract, onboard, develop, engage, and retain high-performing employees.” But talent development is inextricably related to each of these other areas. After all, development opportunities are integral to recruiting top talent, fostering employee engagement, and retaining them.

An important caveat is that companies shouldn’t confuse talent with skills when identifying potential. While you may have hired someone because they’re a spreadsheet ninja, talent development is all about finding people’s aptitude and then teaching them skills. 

Companies shouldn’t confuse talent with skills when identifying potential.

Talent Development Programs

A talent development program is a set of processes companies use to identify an employee’s potential and steer them to growth opportunities, according to their skill and the company’s needs. These development opportunities run the gamut, from formal training programs to mentorship to on-the-job experiences.

There are three basic steps to creating a talent development program.

Step one: Identify company goals and needs.

When you know your company’s goals, you can tailor your definition of a “high-potential employee” to meet them. 

For instance, if your goal is to design and maintain more of your own applications, then your team needs more technical expertise. Therefore, you’re looking for a fast learner who is interested in acquiring new computer skills. If you have a rapidly growing workforce that needs more structure, you’re looking for a future manager. In that case, you want someone with excellent organizational skills and emotional intelligence.

Step two: Find learning opportunities.

Once you’ve identified your company’s needs and the qualities you’re looking for, find training opportunities to develop the necessary skills. The team member who wants to level up their technical skills can shadow with IT, take online courses, or even go to a coding bootcamp. Meanwhile, the future manager can attend a leadership seminar and be given on-the-job opportunities to lead.

Step three: Design a roadmap for progress.

When you’ve identified growth opportunities, lay them out in a road map that will take employees from their current positions to their next promotions. At a certain point, a team member needs to be considered to have sufficient expertise to move up in the company, and the roadmap defines the benchmarks of progress.

Let’s say the goal is to train more salespeople. The learning opportunities are shadowing the salespeople, studying sales materials, and interacting with customers. 

The roadmap lays out each individual step in order. So in month one, the team member studies the sales materials. If they show a mastery of that knowledge, they move onto offering support on a sales call and doing customer research. Finally, they lead a sales call themselves. Provided all goes well, this person is now eligible for promotion as a junior salesperson, and can start working up the roadmap for their next promotion.

Setting these incremental goals is essential for employees to feel they’re moving ahead, not just running on the hamster wheel. The roadmap creates opportunities to celebrate progress, and reflect on setbacks, and makes development goals concrete, rather than vague.

Step four: Follow up (and then follow up again).

You can get steps 1-3 of a talent development program right, but without a structure to keep track of development, it’s all for nothing. If you hand an employee a roadmap for development and then just let them go, they’re likely to get lost. That’s where it becomes essential to involve managers, and the powerful tool of the one-on-one meeting.

What Most Companies Get Wrong About Talent Development

Companies pour enormous resources into talent development, yet many employees feel decidedly underdeveloped.

According to a 2019 Deloitte study of millennials, 49% reported they’d leave their job within two years, if they could. Among that 49%, 35% blamed a lack of opportunities for advancement, while 28% cited a lack of learning and development opportunities. 

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Managers Are Out of the Loop

When companies make talent development an HR issue, they effectively ice-out managers. Pouring more resources onto the problem often ends up alienating managers more. As Harvard Business Review has written, some companies even hire full-time talent management professionals, but “[this] has led to overly complicated talent processes that are difficult to understand, at best, and confusing to managers, at worst.”

This situation leads to frustration for all parties. Per LinkedIn’s research: “69% of talent developers proactively leverage managers to encourage learning, yet getting managers involved in learning remains a top challenge.” As a result, HR is left trying to identify top performers from performance reviews alone, and managers are locked out of the development process.

It’s not that managers don’t care about their team’s success. But managers face three problems that prevent them from supporting talent development initiatives:

  1. Managers weren’t involved in designing the program. Because of that, they struggle to understand it or don’t feel it reflects the reality of their team.
  2. Managers aren’t officially responsible for their team’s development, so they have little incentive to prioritize it.
  3. Managers don’t feel they have the time or tools to focus on development goals in the midst of regular work.

Team Members Are Left On Their Own

Top-down learning and development programs often ignore the very people they’re designed to help: team members. This neglect is the direct consequence of failing to involve managers in talent development. Without manager buy-in, employees have no one to support them and hold them accountable. 

If a manager doesn’t regularly follow up with team members about their progress, development goals will fall by the wayside and be forgotten. If managers aren’t involved with identifying high-potential employees, HR can flag the wrong people for the wrong paths. And if a team member isn’t able to talk candidly with their manager about their goals, development can feel less like an exciting opportunity and more like being shoved into an ill-fitting box.

How to Do Talent Development Right

For a talent development strategy to work, it has to get involvement from managers and feedback from team members. In fact, the relationship between managers and teams is the cornerstone of an effective talent development program.

The relationship between managers and teams is the cornerstone of an effective talent development program.

Get Manager Input from Day One

Have HR collaborate with managers on creating development road maps and setting incremental goals. Managers can determine realistic time frames for employees to hit milestones and tailor them to each individual. Even more importantly, managers can identify organic development opportunities, so development feels natural, instead of rigid. 

As expert consultant Margaret Rogers attests in HBR: “[T]he most impactful development happens not through formal programs, but smaller moments that occur within the workplace: on-the-job learning opportunities that are wholeheartedly catered to the worker’s unique needs and challenges.”

“[T]he most impactful development happens not through formal programs, but smaller moments that occur within the workplace: on-the-job learning opportunities that are wholeheartedly catered to the worker’s unique needs and challenges.”

Margaret Rogers

If you already have a talent development program in place that was created without much manager input, it’s never too late to course-correct. Open a dialogue with managers about what’s working and what isn’t. When you’ve made the appropriate changes, let managers lead the rollout of the new system.

Focus on One-on-Ones

Create opportunities where managers and their team members can set goals and follow up on progress. Thankfully, those opportunities already exist: one-on-one meetings.

One-on-ones are where the bulk of talent development should take place. Unfortunately, many managers don’t know how to include these conversations in one-on-ones and often miss the opportunity to take those meetings to a higher level than status updates.

HR professionals who want to change this should provide managers with professional development templates for one-on-ones. Equip them with the appropriate questions, and remind them to follow up about progress. Just as importantly, senior management must hold mangers accountable for doing this work and encourage them to take ownership of their team’s career development.

 One-on-ones give employees a chance to talk with someone they trust. Without the insight that comes from closeness, it’s easy to make assumptions about an employee’s potential based solely on their past performance instead of their future goals. 

Managers should start asking team members about their aspirations during onboarding and continue throughout their relationship. This work has to go beyond the typical “where do you see yourself in five years” pleasantries. Instead, managers should dig into the specifics of how team members want to grow their skill sets and then tailor a training program to each individual.

Include questions like:

  • Are there any areas of the company you’re curious about exploring?
  • What new skills would you like to acquire by this time next year?
  • What are your strengths and where do you think you have room to grow?
  • I have some ideas about how your career could advance here. Do they interest you or is there something else you want to try?

Adapt Development Plans as You Go

Accountability and follow-through are important to talent development, but so is flexibility. If a talent development plan is too rigid, it can end up burning out employees (which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid). 

You might not be able to promote someone to management, but you can still give them leadership development opportunities.

That’s why team members need space to share their perspective during one-on-ones, so they can adjust their goals as needed. Likewise, managers should report to HR about whether the road maps they designed are realistic. Develop an open dialogue about whether team members have the time and resources to focus on talent development, and build learning time into the workweek. 

Small or new companies might not have fully developed road maps for career advancement. But managers can still create employee development opportunities for their team. For example, you might not be able to promote someone to management, but you can still give them leadership development opportunities. That way, when the day comes that you do need new leaders, your succession planning is already done.

Talent Development Is a Team Sport

HR professionals can and do have a valuable role to play in coordinating talent development strategies. But in order for these initiatives to work, they have to be integrated into workplace relationships and the regular flow of work, not treated as a separate set of tasks. When managers and team members share a commitment to growth, your company’s investment in talent development can finally pay off.

For more about how one-on-one meetings can help grow your team, download our ultimate guide to one-on-ones