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How can we engage leaders in talent management?

Are partners and senior leaders losing interest in developing and mentoring high performers? A lack of time and confidence may be the issues, as we report.

You would struggle to find a senior leader or partner in a law firm that does not regard talent management, succession planning and helping high performers reach their potential as key to meeting business needs. But as some HR professionals in the legal sector have found, it can be difficult to engage partners in the process – particularly during a year that has altered so many aspects of work.

While what constitutes “talent management” differs between organisations, the annual appraisal is usually the most basic form of tracking individuals’ achievements and monitoring their development. However, there is a view from some in HR that line managers, partners and senior leaders are losing interest in even this most fundamental of processes and are finding it difficult to engage in what some may consider a “box-ticking” exercise.

Roz Trimmer, head of HR at Gowling WLG, puts it quite plainly: “Too often, these activities are seen as ‘HR processes’ that are done once or twice a year.

“As people managers, these activities are the cornerstone of how someone should manage their team – the manager, along with the team member, holds the ultimate control over how someone is developed in their role.”

Indifference is a myth

While their reluctance to engage in talent management may be perceived as indifference, this is largely a myth says John Rice, director at consultancy and software provider Bowland Solutions.

“They are in fact very invested in talent management and developing the next generation of lawyers and partners,” he says. “For the most part many feel guilty about not getting to it as much as they’d like. Time is the issue; they want to do things properly.”

He says it is rare to find a business leader that sees performance management as a tick box exercise. Many will realise that it is an important part of enabling individuals to learn and grow. It will also help them with succession planning and meeting organisational goals.

He says: “They know what their business needs are and so it’s important for them to ensure that the talent management plans reflect those needs and what their people need.

“They’re the ones who are observing those individuals within their practice areas most closely, so it makes sense that they’re the ones holding those conversations about their ambitions, their plans and potential, framed around what the business needs.”

Tess Harris, HR business partner at DAC Beachcroft, says it is in everybody’s interest for leaders and managers to engage in talent management. “However, most managers have conflicting priorities; it’s therefore important that the central management team lead by example and give the message that people should be a priority.”

Under pressure

Many partners and senior leaders are facing pressures that are impeding on their ability to check in with their team.

The lack of time to focus on talent management hasn’t been helped by the challenges the pandemic has brought, including the lack of face-to-face contact and the disappearance of many informal, ad-hoc development experiences that come with office working.

Trimmer says: “The way we have worked over the past year is different – there are more meetings and they generally take longer, and work volumes have increased, making time to think about your team a scarce resource.

“Secondly, the fact that you can’t visibly see your team as often means it’s easy to not talk to someone as much as you might have done before. We’ve shared ideas of how to reduce the impact of all of this and how to be a more mindful people manager, but having the time to think and plan is more difficult than it was, and having discussions over future growth and development is harder when it isn’t face to face.”

Some elements of talent management can’t be replicated over Zoom, she says. “Often the very nature of face-to-face time brings ideas, a better understanding of each other and a more open conversation about development.”

Harris adds: “Active people management is more important now, as any problems arising may be less apparent. The challenges colleagues face may have also increased.”

People management isn’t easy

Managing people, especially being a “good” manager, can be difficult and time consuming and for some senior staff people management doesn’t come naturally. Many people often become managers by virtue of their experience in their role, and the skills needed to manage people are sometimes very different to the skills needed for their profession.

Trimmer says: “As a people manager myself, it’s easy to have something else to do, that takes your time away from managing your team. And people management isn’t easy – you need time to think, to reflect, to assess, to give feedback, to talk to others about what options are available.”

Trimmer says that managers should be given the opportunity to learn management skills as soon as they are promoted or hired into a firm, but firms need to go further and ensure that these skills are embedded and monitored.

Rice suggests that partners and managers may also be worried about promising promotions or projects that they may not be able to deliver on later.

“Sometimes partners are a bit reticent to opening up about career conversations – they might not know about what career progression opportunities are for that person because they might be limited at the moment, so they can sometimes lean away from them,” he explains.

“They may feel that they want to be better at this but they need some development of their own to do it justice.”

Embedding talent management

Enabling managers and partners to get more involved in talent management requires embedding it into their daily working practices. This is something that HR can take the lead on.

Harris suggests that HR teams should demonstrate the benefits talent management can bring in terms of retention, engagement, satisfaction and wellbeing; and make sure that managers understand the potential negative consequences of not engaging in the process.

They will also need to show the tangible benefits of talent management, and why it is a “win-win” for managers and colleagues alike, she adds.

Trimmer agrees that HR teams could be doing more to promote the benefits of talent management among senior staff and how it can be approached as part of day-to-day work among senior staff.

She says: “Ultimately, the power is in the result. If we can show how someone was retained or promoted because their development was approached in a thoughtful, continuous way, with opportunities identified throughout their day to day work – for example, working with a particular client, or running a business development event – as well as through formal training, we can show that talent management is an ongoing part of a people manager’s job. They will see the results through happier and more productive teams and greater retention.”

A good starting point to better engaging senior staff in talent management would be to view it as a pyramid, says Rice. At the top of the pyramid – and the first step firms should take – is embedding talent management into the leadership culture. The second layer involves facilitating developing managers’ skills in this area, perhaps driven by feedback from their reports. Finally, firms should introduce technology and processes that can facilitate talent management during their day-to-day responsibilities.

“You need to work down from the top of that pyramid,” he advises HR teams. “You need to be having those conversations with leadership so they do see the value in talent management and recognise that it should be interwoven into their culture, rather than something that sits separately as an HR activity.”

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