Home Human Resources News Graeme Yell: Loyalty is dead, long live loyalty

Graeme Yell: Loyalty is dead, long live loyalty

by LLB Editor
20th Nov 13 3:20 pm

Graeme Yell, director, Hay Group, on what employers can do to retain talent

My eldest son Cameron has just been on a selection weekend for the World Scout Jamboree, in Japan next year. We don’t know yet whether he has been successful, but he is hugely excited about the opportunity and mindful that he will have to wash a vast number of cars to pay for it, should he be picked. It’s a talent programme, just in a different context to the more mundane world that most of us are used to; ‘talent with woggles’ you might say.

I read in The Times’ recent talent supplement that 75% of people identified as talent do not perceive significant opportunity for career progression. Certainly my experience backs up this kind of figure: I’ve worked with many people who have been ‘annointed’ as talent and this scepticism is all too common. Paradoxically, being labelled as talent often creates raised expectation for the employees, alongside the dawning realisation that the expectation is unlikely to be delivered.  

And yet, talent is a massive area of focus for many organisations. Building and running processes for identifying, developing and moving talented individuals is major priority, but one which is clearly not delivering the benefits it should in many cases.

The organisational response here is a familiar one, driven by the all-too-common drive to ‘do something’ without necessarily stopping to think about the underlying problems. So we see the rush to create more and more complex talent processes and more detailed management information – neither of which will address the two underlying issues: 

1) Supply and demand: the vast majority of organisations identify more talented people than they can provide ‘talent’ careers for. This arises through unclear, inconsistent or excessively egalitarian definitions of talent, or through a lack of realism about the amount of opportunities which exist (particularly in a low-growth economy).  

2) They don’t consider their employees’ expectations about their careers. Employees increasingly want careers which span functions, firms, geographies and sectors. It is stretching the point to say that career loyalty is dead, but it has certainly undergone a ‘Doctor Who-style’ regeneration to something which looks quite different and which organisations have yet to address.

The result is an unhappy talent ‘protectionism’ which fails to deliver for either party. Employee expectations are raised, and then slowly and painfully dissipated by lack of appropriate opportunity. Employers try to cling on to their talent – and end up paying a premium through increased compensation as well as costly talent and development processes, for increasingly jaded and disloyal employees. Overall, a lot of costly infrastructure and process is failing to mask the fact that many companies have not updated their approach to talent and careers to reflect the way the world is changing.

Organisations – and more specifically their talent functions and processes – must think more broadly to solve this issue. What’s really going on here? Talented employees want varied careers which many organisations cannot deliver; but the uncertainty of having to change organisations constantly to achieve this is unsettling. Employers want access to talent with a breadth of perspective and experience – yet jealously hoard their talent like an over-protective parent.  

Here’s an idea for you: non-competitor organisations could collaborate to create talent networks – or even more broadly for career networks (think of airline networks but for employees rather than travellers). Up-front you could create partner agreements, rules of engagement (for example, to prevent poaching), and ideally some harmonisation particularly around benefits and pension provision (this could also provide significant savings through economies of scale and would deliver huge incentives for longer term ‘network loyalty’). For the employee, there is suddenly a massively widened field of potential employment options to consider, alongside the removal of some of the instability and risk associated with navigating yourself from one firm to another.  

In the short term, I hope that Cameron has significant work ahead to fund what would be an incredible trip if the opportunity arises. Longer term, I hope that by the time he enters the ‘real world’ of employment we have seen an evolution towards some more progressive ideas around the way organisations and their talent work together to deliver truly rewarding careers.

Graeme is a director at global management consultancy, Hay Group, specialising in leadership and talent management. He is a passionate advocate for the role leaders can (and should) play in business and society, and likes to spend his spare time socialising, cycling, and thinking.

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