Talent: how to put it to good use

Talent doesn’t magically improve business. Simon Brittain explains how to manage this vital asset

Ever since two McKinsey consultants talked about the “war for talent” in the 1990s, the term ‘talent’ has been thrown around HR, and latterly business, communities.

But what is it? What it is not is simply pinpointing future partners. Talent management when properly deployed is a system that provides the means to forecast demand for above-average people. It also facilitates the deployment, measurement and assessment of the impact of these individuals in relation to running and changing businesses.

In a law firm, talent is often synonymous with high-flyers. This usually means those who will make partner quickly. However, there are other definitions, including black letter law skill, ability to run a business, ambition and resilience, managing teams and winning new work.

The increasing expectation placed on partners to be commercial and people managers drives much of the legal sector’s current investment in talent management. Many firms are struggling to get to grips with the expectations of a new generation of young lawyers for whom work-life balance is a significant driver. Talent management offers a number of routes to answering these problems: it can identify what the business is going to need, where to get the right people, what they might look like, and less traditional career routes for key people who do not want to make partner.

For example, Eversheds has implemented a process that goes far beyond partner selection. Caroline Wilson, the HR director at Eversheds, says: “We realised the importance of supporting our people through the partnership election process. We put in place an approach that gives people clear guidance on where they need to develop or gain further experience at least two years out from their final interviews. This has also allowed us to be clear with those people who we do not believe will make it as a partner, but on whom the business places a great deal of value – and offer them another career track.”

Firms can spend huge amounts of money identifying key talent and making sure that it gets to the top, but unless they show the partnership the value a talent programme offers, it is likely to fail. Some organisations are developing talent scorecards to help them consider issues such as the impact of the talent group on others in the business, forecasting the demand for talent in the future and how to develop talented people.

When firms first look at talent they may be overawed by the potential complexity of any programme and how it interacts with existing systems and policies. There are, however, a number of steps to get the ball rolling:

First define the type of talent suited to your firm. The debate between talent being excellence in black letter law or the ability to run a business is a difficult one for most firms to manage – and therefore one that is often avoided.

How do you identify talent? This needs to be seen to be done fairly and objectively at local, regional, national and international levels.

What do you do with talent to both maximise its impact on your business and to fully realise individual potential?

How do you link it to other processes in the firm, particularly partner elections, appraisals, pay reviews and training?

How do you know if you are managing your talent effectively?

Where do you start, and how can you build on the existing processes within the firm?

The answers help to define talent strategy, design a talent management system and set the firm on the path to making the most of scarce and expensive legal and commercial talent.

Simon Brittain is a partner at business psychologists Kiddy & Partners