HR
December 16, 2014

The right stuff: Talent management

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat defines talent management as “ensuring that people are matched to the right job for their skills, competencies, and career plans. Through dialogue, feedback, career support, and individually tailored learning the potential of these individuals can be fully realized, organizational priorities can be met, and public service excellence can be achieved.”

The man responsible for supporting leadership development overall, and talent management specifically, is Chief Human Resources Officer Daniel Watson. Editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe asked him why talent management is important in today’s public service.

 

As the federal government, we’re the largest employer in the country and we touch Canadians’ lives in more ways than any other employer in the country. Just to stand still, we have to bring in around 10,000 people a year. That’s what it takes for us to not start decreasing in size because of retirements, resignations and other reasons for departure in the public service.

And we have everything from people who are supporting commanders of the International Space Station to world-class submarine archeologists who are a key part of finding the ships of the Franklin Expedition, to people who are making sure that when you have your breakfast in the morning the food is safe to eat, to people who are promoting trade agreements in places like Korea and the European Union, to people who are working on the safety of the Canadian transportation system. And it matters deeply if you do not have the right people in those positions. Even more to the point is the fact that, often, these are not areas where you have a readily available alternative supplier.

If you don’t like brand X of something in a supermarket you can simply go to a different supermarket or gas station and replace whatever it was that you didn’t like there. There isn’t another Canadian Food Inspection Agency you can go to. There isn’t another Canadian Space Agency that you can go to. There isn’t another place that manages Canada’s debt effectively to make sure that Canadians are only paying what they need to service that debt.

So talent management is the ability to have the right people in the right positions at the right times for all of those jobs, to make sure we know they are going to be ready for the challenges that are going to come to them, and to do the necessary development that they require.

Is one implication the need to replace the departmental siloed approach to talent management with a horizontal government of Canada approach?

A lot of people think that, but we have organizations like the Public Health Agency of Canada who do a very specific set of things: they have people today who are world leaders in responding to diseases such as Ebola. We’re not going to turn them into business development experts or small business experts in rural Saskatchewan. So I don’t think that talent management is as generic as sometimes people make out.

I do think, though, that in the area of the financial officers and some other functions that have an appropriate history of people moving from department to department, you want to understand these communities as a whole and manage that talent on a government-wide basis.

If you were talking to Canadians about talent management they’d say, “You mean you don’t do talent management already?”

Well, if anybody thought we weren’t doing advanced talent management for quite some time they’d be dead wrong. And as with many organizations, we began our focus on the most senior levels: we’ve spent a lot of time and a great deal of effort on the talent management of the DM community, the ADM community and their feeder groups.

We’ve also spent a lot of time figuring out where we need to do individual development to make sure they are ready to take on the challenges we would expect them to have to deal with. And we respond to shortages: when the big high-tech boom was at its peak, finding people to work in IT-related issues in government was a great challenge because of the competition with the private sector. Today, that’s leveled itself out a bit and, while it’s never exactly easy getting the right people in this field, we don’t have quite the same pressures from the outside as we once did.

Another area we look at is making sure that we have a public service that is representative of the Canadian population, making sure we have candidates who can qualify and who are ready to take on the challenges of the more senior positions in the public service.

Explain the difference between performance management and talent management.

Performance management is about how someone is doing against the objectives that were set out for them at the beginning of the year. Talent management is a different thing. We measure that over a much longer term.

Talent management is two-fold: in the first instance, it’s the question of a community as a whole. Does it have within it the constituent skill-sets and individuals to make sure that a particular function will be well-served into the future? The other part of it, the one that many individuals focus on more directly for obvious reasons, is what talent management means to me as an individual, what’s the conversation I’m going to have with my boss about where my career could or should go into the future.

And there is a new government of Canada performance management framework now…

There is a new framework and it’s standardizing what we have been doing in many parts of the public service and setting that as a broad standard for everyone.

Talent management is about workforce input, performance, and succession planning. How do all three of those get synced?

We will make sure in our conversations with employees and in our analysis of the workforce that we know if there are particular gaps that need to be filled both institutionally and individually. When we look at what is happening in a particular department or area of a department and realize a group of people are about to leave for whatever set of reasons, we want to make sure we know the feeder group for that pool well enough to know who the folks are who can be developed and become ready to take on those positions.

When it comes to individual conversations, we are discussing what specific areas of development the individual might want to consider to best be prepared to meet the challenges of roles that will require staffing in the future.

Let me switch gears a bit and talk about the HR function. What do you see as the HR function’s role in supporting managers in talent management?

Talent management and performance management involve a set of conversations between managers and employees. Sitting down with somebody and having a frank conversation about what they’re doing well is sometimes hard enough for many people, but to get into the conversation about what’s not going well is even harder.

So one of the roles of HR is to support managers in having those conversations, to help them with some of the tools, to provide them with some of the encouragement to do that. I also think that it has a role in working with employees who are going to be part of these conversations.

Does that imply capacity-building of the HR function?

It will be turning some of those skills that are already there in the HR community to a new area of effort. What I expect will happen is the advent of a more systematized approach of having talent management conversations that will lead more people to turn to HR. That’s where I would imagine the bigger change would be, rather than developing a new set of capacities. Having said that, you have to identify over time areas where we could add to our skill sets and abilities. But I don’t see at this point in time any glaring gaps in the HR community. They’ve been very strong supporters of what we’re doing in performance management as well as talent management.

How do you measure success?

First of all, success for me is that we need to know our labour force, where we’re going into the future, recognizing that some of the talents we’ll need in five and 10 years are not the talents that we need today, knowing that we have people with the ability to adapt to those changes and knowing where our most critical positions are in terms of the degree of difficulty in filling them. I think it’s also knowing where we are at risk, that we’ve demonstrated we’ve done a comprehensive review and that we’ve undertaken steps to make sure we’ll have sound public institutions staffed by people capable of doing the jobs Canadians expect because we’ve prepared them in advance.

Is this about avoiding a crisis of capacity?

That’s right. But it’s more than avoiding the crisis. What is entrusted to us by Canadians is something that has a profound impact on Canada and Canadian society. So what we need to do as public servants is not to simply avoid crises but to make sure that Canada works and that Canadian society gets from its public institutions what it’s supposed to get. And that means finding people that you wouldn’t find in very many other parts of Canadian society or the economy and making sure they’re in the right positions at the right time with the right skill sets.

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