Peruse articles about talent development and you'll find that many focus on the war for talent, engagement drivers, and the future of work. Talent development is often thought of as a strategic function, but serving whom? Given today's workforce and challenges, the time to advance our leadership and make a greater impact is now.
The days of talent development professionals being asked to exclusively focus on talent development is coming to an end, and it's something to be celebrated. For many companies, the boundary separating talent development and HR leaders in the C-suite is disappearing, and for some it never existed. As companies worldwide tighten budgets and flatten structure, the need to merge talent development and HR into a single strategic people function is becoming an imperative. Now is the time to fully integrate employee relations, compliance, risk, and human capital management interdependently with performance, leadership development, and talent development practices to more efficiently advance a company. As talent development leaders, we are positioned to be uniquely qualified for this role.
To lead an integrated people function, we must expand our strategic thinking and elevate our contributions to overtly align to overall business outcomes. Thinking beyond the classroom is a common approach for us, and now it's time to think beyond our function. The new people function should drive company strategy and serve as a strategic adviser to the CEO. We know how to grow people; now we must grow our companies through our people.
Beyond the silos
The leader of this newly integrated function—let's call it people strategy for the sake of this article—strategically represents the greatest asset and liability for any company: its people. On the executive team, this person creates and drives human capital strategies that deliver business success for the firm.
Traditionally, the leader of the people function has been the chief human resource officer, due to early professionalization of the HR role and more tactical people management practices. This alignment was driven by a few key factors: employee relations needs, emerging laws, and an evolution from the days of the personnel department—which existed to hire, pay, and exit staff. The leader of the function required expertise to help manage companies' commitment to regulation, compliance, and compensation management. But that need has shifted during the past decade.
Of course, it's still critical to have strong employee relations, to monitor and ensure compliance, and to mitigate risk. Advancing technologies, including artificial intelligence and automation, as well as long-established HR best practices, have made this work easier. (For example, does your company have a bot helping with basic employee-relations questions yet? If not, you will soon.)
However, this work does not strategically advance companies. Executives want to be assured the organization is doing the right things and staying out of trouble. But once that box is checked, the focus should shift to people strategy. And that shift is now more important than ever before.
Four transformations driving this integration
A people strategy function is driven by a few key factors, such as a changing workforce, competition for talent, advancing human capital strategy, and employee engagement and experience. Let's look more closely at each of these drivers.
New generations entering the workforce. Evolving talent demographics significantly change the way we work. Most employees in today's workforce seek meaningful development and growth opportunities and believe their value is not defined by the hours they work but by their productivity. The value they seek places new demands on employers, including access to information, work-life balance, a portable retirement, and career development and advancement. They expect their organization to create an experience for them that includes significant investment and loyalty, and they are willing to leave if a company does not meet those expectations.
The competition for talent. Record low unemployment rates make it an employee-centered job market. The war for talent is here. To recruit and retain the best talent, strategic talent practices that offer an innovative and differential experience will set companies apart. Talent development professionals have been playing this role for years, often just below the tree line—something I call guerilla talent development—with the fear that too much attention on development programs could equate to budget cuts when times get tough. We've all lived this. Now it's time to champion these strategies, spotlight our work, and push our talent development team to occupy a more strategic role in the company.
Advancing talent development strategies to align with business outcomes. The days of human capital management, effective issue resolution, and employee relations alone serving to advance a company are long gone. Now those practices become part of the overall employee experience. More important to today's workforce is career development and strong future skill building. The delicate balance of creating opportunities that make people feel invested in and support the company's growth is important. All programs must serve two purposes: Development opportunities must align with as well as drive the business.
Employee engagement and experience. Engagement isn't necessarily happiness. Engagement is someone's connection, motivation, and commitment to work and the company. It's the individual's differential effort. Engagement is an outcome of experience, and positive experience equals positive engagement. Experience is shaped by the day-to-day interactions people have with their employer.
Think about a restaurant that serves you a great meal but has lousy service and a dirty bathroom—you likely won't go back there. For employees, their experience on the job is similar. Do you create a place where they want to return? Do they feel like they belong? Talent development professionals work throughout organizations and gain, at times, vulnerable access and insight into how people experience their companies. We have been creating meaningful experiences in support of talent development programs for years. When the people function is elevated, we can help shape the employee experience—and thus engagement—throughout the company in a meaningful way.
Upskilling and reskilling for the future
With our rapidly changing workforce, skills-based training programs will continue to play a vital role in advancing the workforce. Talent development professionals with strong strategic alignment are already anticipating the next generation of skills needed for the future workforce. This requires analysis of the current needs and advancing trends, understanding company direction, and anticipating changes in the workplace to create proactive programs. Talent development professionals' ability to diagnose and innovate to support those changes in the workforce are a critical part of successful companies' competitive edge.
If you are developing future leaders for today's challenges, you are already behind. If you are training on today's technology, you'll never catch up. This need elevates the right skills-based training as a strategic imperative. A company's growth plan and its employees' abilities to execute that plan are interdependent. These differentiated talent strategies will propel companies past their competitors and help them engage and retain the best talent.
Finally, as companies shift away from traditional L&D (through innovations), talent development professionals' opportunity (through innovations) to become greater partners with other functions and advance organizational learning grows.
The work we have done for companies will serve us well in this transition. We've built the competency models; created the leadership pipeline to serve the strategic goals of our companies; trained, coached, and supported the people in the leadership pipeline; advanced our workforce's skills to stay competitive in the market; and innovated out of the classroom. And we've done all this through variable partnerships with our HR colleagues and senior leader peers. Some companies get this right, and some are still working on it.
Either way, the time when partnership with HR is nice to have is gone. We're in this together, and the functions require a more intentional integration. As a result, we'll begin to see more opportunity for talent development professionals to lead the people strategy function. It's time to think beyond HR and talent development and employ an integrated approach to advancing people strategy and performance.
The Role of the Talent Development Function in Succession Planning
One of the early opportunities for talent development to play a critical, strategic role was in developing leaders to support succession planning.
As the shifts in the workplace began to take place during the past decade, the need for boards to focus on C-suite development and succession planning introduced the first opportunity for talent development leaders to play a higher profile and more strategic role. To effectively fill leadership pipelines with fewer qualified people while advancing diversity in those ranks, companies tapped into their talent development professionals. I think of this as corporate chess—who needs to go where to do what for the company to thrive? These are questions fraught with bias.
The competence and experience that talent development leaders bring to identifying and building leaders create an opportunity for them to play chess at a more significant level. We make leaders. When they are successful, the perception of talent development shifts.
If you aren't playing a role in whom your company develops as its future leaders—and as well as how—it's time to get involved.
Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.