Digital HR Lab: Talent and high potential management

October 19, 2020

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A large number of middle-sized companies established in Europe are subsidiaries of large groups. Their needs and means are not the same as those of large companies. Talentia, which is at the origin of the creation of the Digital HR Lab, supports HR functions in their transformation. But it is itself an ETI and is faced with the same problems!

In this companies the place for managing talent is more limited than in large groups. The challenge is therefore to feed them, help them grow and support them in a privileged and innovative way. Because, in the background, the company’s attractiveness and competitiveness are at stake. Sharing best practices and feedback on a theme as vast as it is fascinating.

Talent management is a relatively recent issue, which emerged in the early 2000s. It is still not always well understood by management, who sometimes see it as a problem for large companies, and by managers, who are the pillars of any talent management policy. Some are sceptical, even resistant. The Digital HR Lab enlightens them on the subject.

An educational effort must be made to convince management and executives of the benefits of deploying a talent management policy, to remove the brakes and preconceived ideas. An interesting angle of attack can be the issue of replacing key positions. Anticipating this departures in succession plans requires the identification of the talents in the pipeline, which are essential points raised by the Digital HR Lab.

In some sectors, the main obstacles to implementing a talent management program may be the employees themselves! Wouldn’t such a policy be ineffective, unnecessary or at least limited if employees do not express a desire to be part of the organisation for the long term? For example, in the IT sector, where the population is young and particularly unfaithful, where the interest of the mission takes precedence over many things, where the job market is particularly tense… Or is it the absence or ineffectiveness of a talent management policy that means that talent does not stay in the company?

Key employee? Talent ? High Potential ? How do I know? 

In any case, it all starts with the notion of talent, because there are almost as many definitions of a potential employee as there are of managers. A talent is not necessarily an expert with 20 years of experience in the company.


Talents are often identified through a classification system. Categories need to be clear and well delineated for managers to take proper ownership of the tool. One of the participants had opted for a distinction according to three categories: leaders / experts / emerging talents. However, as this classification posed a problem for managers, the HR department turned to a tool frequently used by companies to categorize talent in an objective and factual manner: the “9 box matrix”, which is based on potential and performance.

The advantage of this matrix is that it is based on two easy-to-understand criteria. However, while performance can be rather well measured through assessments based on the achievement of objectives, business and behavioural goals, the notion of potential can be more complex to perceive.

Here again, it is therefore important to define this notion clearly. Potential can be assessed in terms of certain capacities and qualities, such as readiness to change or to share and transmit knowledge, openness, commitment, voluntarism, a sense of collective purpose, etc. An employee with potential can be a person who enriches the collective, who will help the company to transform itself and be different in the future. It is often soft skills that make the difference. For each position, it is also important to determine the key skills and associated soft skills.

Another HRDs believes that what differentiates a high potential from a high performing person is their ability to learn, their ability to adapt to a new situation. This is called learning ability and covers five dimensions :

Each talent profile has its own programme. For example, for high potentials (boxes 8 and 9), personal development actions (personalised training path based essentially on soft skills and leadership…), recognition (mentoring, lunch with a member of management…), empowerment (participation in cross-functional projects, work on a strategic project…) can be set up.

The Digital HR Lab’s ideas for nurturing and developing the talents of mid-size companies

Talent management is a complex task, especially when resources are limited. But even large groups, which usually have a dedicated department, spend a lot of energy for a result that doesn’t always match the investment.

Nevertheless, according to the participants, certain actions are particularly effective, such as mentoring. Mentoring has a virtuous side for both the mentor and the mentee. A HR Director from the community has set it up for the top 15 talents. The mentors are members of the management committee. The pair meets once a month for a one to two hour meeting. Discussions focus on the employee’s development path. Talent feels valued because it has privileged access to a member of the management. This proximity with top management is also an advantage of mid-size companies compared to large groups. Nevertheless, in the example given, the CEO is not part of the mentoring program but of a system known as the shadow board. The principle? 15 young talents have a monthly meeting with the CEO to discuss the company’s strategy and practices. Other companies rely on reverse mentoring to create a digital appetite among older talents and members of management. These two schemes also have the added advantage of creating proximity and privileged links, which are necessarily interesting and useful for the organisation.

Integrating talents into cross-functional projects is another avenue to be explored. The employee is selected according to the project and the skills required. He or she is then promoted and supported in his or her development through training. Caution must be taken not to always ask for the same people. The HR Director who has set up this system is very satisfied with it.

Remuneration often remains a sure value when it comes to retaining talent. There is a complementary way. Opening up the company’s capital to talent, taken in a more or less broad sense, is another way of creating a sense of belonging, of value and of loyalty. For those who do not benefit from it, it provides a dynamic, a motivation. More than the distribution of free shares, participants stress that it is the right to buy shares that is generally retained in their company.

What if your talents were to determine in part the talent management policy, or at least the actions to be taken to retain them? In any case, it makes sense to let them talk about their needs and expectations. For example, the issue of work-life balance may arise, with additional leave, adapted working hours, etc. Listening to them and taking their opinions into account is a way of valuing them and giving them consideration. Recognition is a key concept in retention. It can clearly make a difference.

But, in the end, all these actions would not be in vain without the involvement of local managers. Positioning them as employee developers is crucial. Middle managers must be at the heart of the talent management process: they will identify, formalise and develop employees’ strengths and support them in their areas of progress. In order to fulfil their missions, managers must be trained and be clear about common criteria, skills and softskills frameworks. As an additional benefit, the manager’s action is thus given credibility.

In the beginning…recruitment! 

Talent management has to start at the recruitment stage. This is the stage that is conducive to detecting the key skills sought by the company. In a concern for diversity, in a logic of diversification of profiles. Many HR managers recommend avoiding recruiting in their own image. You should not cut yourself off from atypical profiles which can enrich the organisation. Some draw up thematic sheets with precise and concrete questions to assess whether or not the candidate has mastered the subject, whether or not he or she has had to implement the skill.

Digital tools can facilitate this stage. For example, the analysis of CVs by an AI will enable the profiles to be sorted in a factual and impartial manner according to the position and the recruiter’s expectations. The analysis of soft skills is also a tool that is increasingly used by companies. The ‘interest? Determining which candidates will be in line with the corporate culture, limiting incompatibilities or encouraging support for the employee. More broadly, this analysis of soft skills serves HR objectives in many areas, whether it is to personalize training and coaching, to develop commitment or even to determine how often and for which assignments teleworking is suited to a profile. The advantage of the technology is that a multitude of data can be quickly compiled to analyse a profile.

What is the percentage of talent in an organisation?

This question does not call for a universal answer. Not all positions need to be filled by talented employees either. It’s all a matter of dosage. If we were to try to answer this question, however, let’s say that we can take a narrow view, and consider that high potentials represent no more than 5% of the workforce, and a broader view of talent that would encompass 30-40% of employees.