Upskilling and retaining talent

responding to the talent needs of fast-changing organisations

Upskilling and retaining talent

Nick Henley, Independent Consultant and Former Head of Talent Development at AOL gives ideas on how your organisation can close its skills gaps and respond to talent needs.

‘Talent’… sounds good, doesn’t it? Impressive even. If we’re in HR, using words like talent makes it sound that we’re doing something worthwhile. And we’ll use many other similar terms to give an air of significance to what we’re doing.

The buzzwords and slogans can only mask so much though, and the picture given by the big data shows that we are failing miserably as a profession in developing our talent. Take the latest Training Industry report, for example. Last year a whopping $50bn was spent on training managers in the US alone (and this figure has been constant for years) – yet then look at the quality of manager skill as examined by the World Management Survey and it appears there is nothing to show for this so-called investment. Similar findings exist in technical skills training, diversity and inclusion training and soft skill development. Everywhere we look, it appears we’re doing great things, but look closer and the reality is seriously unedifying.

Yet in the face of rapid industry disruption, the need to upskill talent is more urgent than ever. For example, the recent ScaleUp Institute Report of the fastest-growing UK companies found that there is an acute skills gap shortage… but can you guess where? If you answered ‘technical skills’ you aren’t far wrong. But there are greater shortages in other areas. Have a look:

  • Business skills (34%)
  • Management skills (30%)
  • Technical skills (29%)
  • Social skills (28%)

According to CEOs, access to skilled talent, not customers or finance or markets, is the #1 challenge holding these companies back.

What companies need to do to close their skills gaps

Organisational skills gaps have a number of influencing factors (I’ll come on to explain these in a minute). Before advising what companies can do to close these gaps, there are certain things companies need to stop doing first:

  • Stop doing traditional performance management – study after study shows it’s completely useless and ineffective
  • Stop using competencies – there is no data showing these create any value at all!

Both of these are incredibly time-consuming. Do your people have lots of time on their hands for bureaucracy? Thought not.

Instead, companies need to focus on 2 levels:

System level

  • Build your entire HR infrastructure around Employee Engagement. This is the single most powerful organisational value driver and if you want to develop your people, your first priority is to make sure they don’t leave!
  • As part of your Engagement offering, you need to have at least biannual career conversations – move people to new positions, take risks!
  • To minimise your risks and enhance the chances of success, you need to have robust and realistic learning and development

Robust means learning experiences that are linked to outcomes and financial value, with follow-ups. Realistic means, well, how can I say? If you think one day training is enough to develop effective managers, I’m sorry, that’s plain delusional. Instead, conduct rigorous behaviour analyses before considering any development initiatives and evaluate how long it really does take to change a behaviour. The results will surprise you.

Service level

Organisations also need to ensure what they’re doing on the service level (the actual learning initiatives) supports the desired behaviour change and skill acquisition. We often focus on the second and ignore the first. This is a mistake. Many skills are underpinned by behaviours that have some genetic or hormonal origin and are very difficult to shift – bottom line: individualisation matters. A lot.

To manage this, organisations need to create learning waves with follow-ups, where we then reduce the skills gaps to critical behavioural elements and these are subsequently surfaced and addressed.

Join my session at the CIPD Festival of Work

I’ll be covering the main elements of this topic at my forthcoming session at the CIPD Festival of Work. The session will be hands-on and interactive, so roll up your sleeves and put on your thinking caps, we’re going to have a roomful of talent!

Nick HenleyNick Henley has consulted with the world’s largest companies and has helped them to boost engagement by taking a multi-level approach.




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The CIPD’s Festival of Work (12-13 June 2019, Olympia London, promises to be a landmark event for both people professionals and business leaders. By focusing on the most innovative strategies in management, technology and learning, the festival will help you, and 7,000 of your colleagues, to harness the latest transformations and drive a human future of work. With 7,000+ attendees, 160+ inspiring speakers, filled with inspirational live experiences and challenging ideas, it’s the ultimate celebration of people in the workplace.


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