Psychologues Consultants Y2

Managing talent in turbulent waters

You've heard it many times: public service leaders are accountable for leading and managing people to achieve results aligned with strategic directions.

This is a tall order at any time in a dynamic political environment marked by evolving priorities, shifting resources, changing employee expectations, and ongoing public scrutiny. However, people remain at the heart of it all – people who take on the challenges of leadership, and the people they lead.

Many pieces of the puzzle need to be in place for leaders to achieve results in the short and longer term. Talent management is one key piece. Leaders need to strategically manage the flow of talent through their organizations so that the right people are in the right place at the right time.

Critical to managing the talent flow is recruiting the right people and developing them. In the hurly burly of daily activity, however, leaders often focus less on developing people after they are on board.

For some, that talent flow is now becoming a sea of white water as the reality of baby boom departures sinks in and new generations are being recruited to fill their shoes. The timely development of the right people to fill those shoes is a major challenge for many managers.

Moreover, employee engagement must also be maintained. Results of the 2008 Public Service Employee Survey indicate that employee engagement is high – employees generally like and get satisfaction from their jobs. As well, employees are generally positive about their access to job-related training. However, they are less satisfied with their supervisors' efforts to help them determine their learning needs and with the organization's support for their career development.

Challenges arise, however, when considering who to develop and how to get the most from development initiatives.

Some or all

In the private sector, debate often swirls around whether to develop the "chosen few" or all employees, with most efforts invested in the "high potential" employees. In the public sector, the situation is more complex.

The federal government's Policy on Learning, Training and Development (2006) specifies requirements for specific groups of employees such as new employees to the public service, managers at all levels and functional specialists. The policy also specifies that all employees must have learning plans aligned with departmental business priorities. The learning plans are intended to enable employees to acquire and maintain the knowledge, skills and competencies needed for their level and functions, and prepare them to do the next job. Accordingly, all public service employees are to be developed. However, selection among employees occurs for participants in leadership development programs.

In short, the responsibilities of public service leaders for training and development are multifaceted. Working in a challenging environment, leaders are accountable for fostering the learning, training and development of all their employees; selecting certain employees for participation in leadership development programs; and taking care of their own development, an often-forgotten priority.

Given the demographic tidal wave, people must be identified, assessed and developed early enough to ensure the flow of talent at all levels in the leadership pipeline. Comprehensive federal development programs such as the Management Trainee Program (MTP) and the Career Assignment Program (CAP) provide excellent training and development for employees who aspire to leadership positions. However, MTP and CAP graduates fill only a small minority of middle management and entry-level executive jobs across the federal public service.

Federal leadership development programs, whether public service-wide or departmental, often involve rigorous assessment of program applicants' key competencies. However, less rigour is typically brought to bear when identifying the learning and development needs of other employees, especially those outside formal development programs who aspire to leadership jobs. For example, when seeking leaders at the supervisor, middle manager or executive level, organizations sometimes promote people who are strong in the technical aspects of the work, but who won't make good leaders. This typically occurs because comprehensive assessment and development of leadership potential has not taken place.

Leaders often use their informal knowledge of employees' past performance, interests and abilities to identify employees who would be good future leaders. This knowledge alone is insufficient and can be inaccurate.

Before investing in the development of future leaders or in any member of your workforce, it's essential to learn about each employee's strengths and developmental needs ("gaps"). A variety of proven competency assessment and development approaches can help provide information on these aspects and other key predictors of general professional (or leadership) success.

Development centres have a demonstrated track record for accurately diagnosing aspiring leaders' strengths and gaps and for identifying emerging talent – people with high potential. The centres also provide a safe and continuous learning assessment environment and send a clear signal that the organization is committed to investing in the development and ongoing learning of employees.

Y2 Consulting Psychologists, for example, has designed a centre at the middle management level that assesses key leadership competencies for the federal public service and is designing similar packages for other occupational groups (i.e., graduates, non-management, first line management, and executives).

The payoff

There is a cost attached to identifying talent. But one thing is certain. Organizations do a better job of hiring the right people using structured approaches that assess competencies required for the job: for example, tests of judgment and assessment centres that evaluate leadership strengths and gaps. As well, published results indicate that the use of such human resource management approaches improves employee performance and reduces employee turnover.

Effective executives thrive in white water; they know the currents and the hazards and look keenly ahead. In the white water of public service, talent management is a key factor for executive success.

Yaniv M. Benzimra, Ph.D., and Yannick Mailloux, Ph.D., are managing partner/consulting psychologist with Y2 Consulting Psychologists, a consultancy in the National Capital Region of work psychologists, HRM consultants, executive coaches, career counsellors and clinical psychologists (

November 2009; Canadian Government Executive

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