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The five key principles for talent

Evert Pruis

Evert Pruis is based at EMC

Leren, Groenekan, The

Purpose In this socio-economic climate there may still be budget for talent development, but it might
not be as much as we have grown accustomed to. There is a growing need for effective, sustainable and
prudent programs: the question is how? This paper aims to address this issue.
Design/methodology/approach Through the authors work with clients in industry, services and
government, five key talent development principles are distilled, tested and evaluated.
Findings There are various, sometimes conflicting, ways to determine who is of value within an
organisation. HR departments are unlikely to address talent management as an integrated process. The
form and purpose of talent development efforts are frequently mismatched. Preferred learning styles
and the design of talent programs are often at odds. Talents have the potential to be much more
engaged in and meaningful to their organisation.
Practical implications Clarify what talent means in your organisation by formulating a crystal clear
policy. Perceive talent management as an integrated process and start organising it as a coherent effort,
involving all human resource departments. Fulfil a clear and present organisational need with your talent
development efforts. Offer mentoring by true role models and thus enhance the talents organisational
know-how and business insight and accelerate their development. Harness the power of the talent
pool, because talents working in teams could offer your company a huge and largely untapped cognitive
Originality/value The five key principles of talent development and the 25 decisions will aid human
resource professionals in assessing or designing their own talent, leadership and career development
Keywords Multinational companies, Talent development, Career development,
Human resource development
Paper type General review

The crusade for talent has proven to be highly resilient to the current economic downturn.
The recession may be persistent, but the scarcity of talented employees and managers
remains. The demand for talented young recruits in the worldwide labour markets still
outstrips what the university outflow is able to supply. If this is the case, does this imply that
talent development is exempt from the tight scrutiny that all other HRD programs are under?
Is there still unlimited budget available for all talent development programs? The good news
is that there may still be budget; the bad news is, it might not be as much as we have grown
accustomed to. There is a growing need for effective, sustainable and prudent programs:
the question is how?
We have worked with clients in industry, services and government, ranging from companies
such as ING Bank, Philips, Achmea Healthcare to the Amsterdam City Council. From our
past experience in the field, we have distilled, tested and evaluated five key talent
development principles. In collaboration with our clients, we have extended the principles to

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VOL. 43 NO. 4 2011, pp. 206-216, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 0019-7858

DOI 10.1108/00197851111137825

five key decisions per principle. These 25 decisions will aid you in assessing or designing
your own talent, leadership and career development trajectories.

This article looks at talent development through five talent development principles, which we
will discuss more extensively in this article:
1. A crystal clear talent policy requires careful deliberation on the scope of talent
development. Research shows that clearly targeted TD approaches (on high potentials or
out-performers) work best for the short term (2-5 years). TD approaches that regard the
entire organisation as the existing talent pool reap the highest business benefits in the
longer run.
2. The strongest talent development programs are the result of a coherent organisational
talent management effort: from strategic resource planning, to recruitment and
assessment, pipelining, career planning, career development, engagement, mentoring
and coaching and (last but not least) learning and development.
3. The range of corporate challenges that could potentially underpin talent development
may be highly diverse. Strong TD efforts are not only aware of the corporate challenges,
but build their TD programs around them: if only because talents demand this foresight.
4. Mentoring is one way for talent to develop, benefiting from a one-on-one relationship with
a more experienced leader or professional outside their chain of command. The ultimate
goal being to enhance the talents organisational know-how and business insight and to
accelerate their development.
5. Talents often feel under-utilised in their tasks and assignments, primarily due to the fact
that their daily activities claim all available time, effort and energy. Talents may offer their
companies a huge and largely untapped cognitive surplus (Shirky, 2010) that could aid
organisational development.

Principle 1: formulate a crystal clear talent policy, or: What is talent?

Talent has become extremely popular in recent years. There are a growing number of talent
shows on television showcasing the incredible artistic performances of sometimes extremely
unlikely candidates. Talent in this regard appears to be seen as an exemplary skill that some
people possess: something Ericsson and Smith (1991) researched and concluded in the early
1990s. Malcolm Gladwell (2010) popularised his findings: talent is equal to ten years or 10,000
hours invested in a specific field. Consequently, you could rephrase the individual definition of
talent to be about focus, attention and dedication: Choose any area (Sitskoorn, 2008) in which
you want to increase your talent, invest at least 10 years, and presto, youre a talent!
Management science takes another perspective on talent. For both profit and non-profit
organizations talent has become serious business, because talent is imperative for the
livelihood of organisations (Lawler, 2008). Optimising talent determines whether the
organisation in question grows, diverges or reorganises. From this perspective, quite a
narrow view of talent is born, one where regular and careful talent reviews will yield an ever
increasingly accurate definition of the right stuff. Especially when those in executive
positions within a company are about to vacate their jobs for whatever reason there will be
a substantial investment to find just the right successor, within or beyond the organisation.

Talent development approaches that regard the entire

organization as the existing talent pool, reap the highest
business benefits in the longer run.


Taking the innovation perspective offers a completely different outlook on talent. From this
perspective (Christensen et al., 2010), the man in the mailroom of 3M who experimented
with coloured paper and adhesive, an idea which had been rejected by product
development, and came up with the first Post-It note, can undoubtedly be regarded as a
great talent. But would this man have been spotted as a talent by HR or his boss, who
were regarding their organisation from the narrow talent lens depicted in the previous
Fortunately, in recent years, businesses have started supporting an embracing perspective
on talent. Sometimes a narrow perspective is needed, for instance when a top manager
leaves and there is a frantic need for a successor. But this approach must simultaneously
encompass the entire organization. Lidewey van der Sluis (2009), Professor of Talent
Management at Nyenrode in The Netherlands is a strong supporter of this hybrid approach.
She argues that the succession of key positions within a period of 2-5 years, be it managers
or specialists, benefits from a narrow, focused approach. For succession on the much longer
term, the narrow approach is not only too expensive, but may also overlook the talents
spontaneously flourishing in the organisation.
Talent that is not sustainable is not talent
We have looked at talent from individual, managerial, innovation and business angles.
Finally, I would like to add the fascinating view of sustainability. Can an employee who
excelled for a very short time be regarded as a talent? The answer, as organisations have
discovered, is no. Thus, talent is something at which you must persevere. For example,
Philips limits under par performance to a maximum of two years, but after that grace period it
is over and the company no longer regards you as a talent.
My personal opinion is that sustainable talent is all about authenticity. It is most likely that an
individual is sustainably talented at something that has truly captured their heart and mind
something that they wake up for in the morning and dream of at night. Therefore, talent can
de explained as something intrinsic, something that reinforces itself and does not require
appreciation from others. Daniel Pink (2010) would call it drive.
Five key decisions to formulate a crystal clear talent policy are listed below:
1. What drives your organization to nominate employees as talented?

Above average performance over a number (2-3) of years.

Potential for excellent performance:

within or beyond the current job description; and
shorter or longer term.

2. What does your organization do to link talents to jobs and initiatives?


Through clearly defined talent pools for various levels of seniority and roles
(management, specialists, project management, line responsibilities, staff, HR).

3. Which HR tool makes the difference in developing talent?


Assessment cycle.

360-degree feedback system based on clear (competence) profiles, specified for all
key jobs and roles in our organisation.

4. Does your organization employ a tailored talent development approach for the various
generations of employees?

Yes, our talent development approach is markedly different for:

Baby Boomers;
Generation X; and
Generation Y (Einstein).



5. Which HR system supports talent development?


The system that is used during assessment.

An ERP system, like SAP (HR).

Another system.

Principle 2: perceive talent development as an integrated process, or: What is the

talent development process?
Research by American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) Talent Development
Group shows that HR departments, due primarily to budgetary considerations, are less likely
to perceive talent management as an integrated process, let alone to address it as such.
HRD will receive more budget when they have an attractive talent development program on
offer and career development will receive more funding when they support the
organisations outliers on carefully laid out career paths. It seems to me that every HR
department fights for a piece of a puzzle, without actually completing the puzzle.
In 2008-2009 I was involved in the design of the talent program of ING Retail Netherlands,
the Retail Banking Leadership Program (see My focus in this
program was assessing the architecture of all learning and development efforts. In
combination with other related sub-projects, that program became exemplary for an
integrated approach.
Looking at talent development from a distance, it can only take off in co-operation with the
right people that have been previously recruited and selected. Recruiting the right people
requires strategic HR thinking, where the profiles of the outliers could form the derivative
profiles of the new intake. ING has not only clarified the profiles of the top managers, but has
also formulated SMART entry requirements for young talents and has involved management
in selecting the candidates. A marketing campaign targeted at carefully selected
universities and student associations got the influx of young graduates into the RBLP
Having passed selection, the recruited talents begin to work and learn: there is a first job or
project to get started with and sometimes instantly the talent development program is
set into motion. This way the two worlds of working and learning are separated from day one.
From an integrated perspective and ING did this especially efficiently that separation is
not made. Jobs and projects connect seamlessly with the topics in the talent program
developed by HRD. Moreover, the curriculum provides ample opportunities for talents to
learn on the job and not only in the classroom.
After talent programs have come to an end some organizations stage regular talent reviews
(Bryan and Joyce, 2007; Cappelli, 2008) to optimise the match between talents, jobs,
projects and initiatives. An even smaller group of organizations will offer their talents
personal support in their career development. The combination of talent reviews and career
development creates a dialogue between the organisational need for talent deployment and
the talents unique desires for their professional development and careers.
Five key decisions to establish the integrated process of talent development are listed
1. Which integrated talent management process has been agreed?

A process in which all relevant departments work closely together as a unit,

according to clearly defined agreements:
marketing and communications;
learning and development;
performance management;
compensation and benefits;
succession planning;


career management;
career development and coaching; and

At present, an integrated talent management process has not yet been defined.

2. Are the main career paths mapped out?


Yes, but only for top managers.

Yes, for all key groups:

front office;
back office; and
staff (HR, etc.).

3. How is return on investment (ROI) and the impact of talent management measured?

By an external party, on behalf of the board.

By HR.


4. Are the metrics of successful Talent Management known?



No, not yet.

5. Where does the accountability for talent management lie?


HR is responsible for execution, but the board bears the ultimate responsibility.


Good point, we havent specified this yet.

Principle 3: fulfil a clear and present organizational need, or: What should talent
development lead to?
Talent development is not a pro bono undertaking for organisations; it must lead to a
clearly outlined goal (Blass and April, 2008). The number of possible reasons that may
underpin talent development and talent management efforts is substantial (please refer to
the five questions below for an exploration of some of these reasons). Because form ideally
follows function, talent development programs frequently go awry. To cite two examples:
1. A young talent program of a large Dutch bank that has not yet defined whether the
program is intended for future high-value specialists, or for future leaders.
2. A program for top specialists within a European insurance company where the career
paths and promotional opportunities for those specialists had not yet been established.
I find these two examples worrying, precisely because talents will notice this mismatch
between form and purpose immediately: they are not talented for nothing! Instead I propose
matching talent development programs as sharply as possible to the strategic objectives of
an organisation as well as to any other organisational challenges that may be clear and
present in the organisation.
Positive examples from Philips, Shell and ING to help you move forward on this principle
Philips is primarily driven by the availability of sufficient succession for all essential positions
in the organisation. Since most of its revenue stems from products that specialists create,
Philips takes an exceptionally inclusive view on what they perceive as their key positions:
both staff and business and both leadership and specialists. Having the right people in the


right places enables Philips to create a uniform worldwide high performance corporate
A second example as remarkably positive as that of Philips would be Shell Exploration
and Production. Shell EP is currently recruiting its geophysicists worldwide, especially in
India, as early as during their college education. These highly specialised professionals are
the key to the survival of the Shell group: without super specialists locating the oil, it is
impossible to drill for oil.
As a final positive example, I propose the ING Retail Banking Leadership Programme. The
purpose of this program is exceedingly clear: to rapidly develop young talents into future
leaders. The program lasts longer (five years) than the average talent programs that I have
had the opportunity to work with and includes both projects and multiple positions along
clearly established career paths. Ultimately, 80 per cent of participants should reach the
third echelon level: two degrees of separation from board level.
Five key questions to underpin your talent development efforts with a clear and present
organizational need follow:
1. Which succession principle (Lawler, 2008) underpins your talent management efforts?

Recruitment and selection: talents are recruited outside of the organisation.

Career development: succession is sought and developed within the organisation.

A mix of both of the above.

2. To which business strategy should talents contribute?







Mergers and acquisitions.




3. In what areas of the organization is succession not available?


At the top.

At middle and operational managerial levels.

On the work floor (with our professionals and specialists).

Amongst our staff.


4. For which target groups is talent development necessary?


For executives:
freshly recruited;
in the middle of their career; or
supporting their final promotion.

For specialists:
freshly recruited;
in the middle of their career; or
supporting their final promotion.


For other groups:

freshly recruited;
in the middle of their career; or
supporting their final promotion.

5. How does the organization make its expectations of talents explicit?


A clear (competence) profile of our talents.

The career paths we have laid out for them.

The jobs and assignments that are carefully selected for them.


Principle 4: offer mentoring by true role models, or: Where are the role models?
In my daily working practice I began to notice a huge contrast between the preferred
learning styles and the design of talent programs.
Manon Ruijters (2006), a Dutch professor on learning and development, has found through
her research that talents, especially future leaders, have two preferred modes of learning, of
which observing role models is one (the other, unsurprisingly, is learning by discovering, by
doing). Through observation talents learn what works best and how to build their own best
practices. Talents, her research further finds, are not afraid to make mistakes and are driven
by results and challenges. Learning in a safe, classroom environment holds little appeal and
is even perceived as childish.
Career planning and career development is based on the former preference: offer talents
attractive jobs, positions and projects and this will undoubtedly lead to a superior learning
experience. In fact, a better learning experience may be difficult (if impossible) to find. A
company I visited some time ago embodied this principle perfectly. For each job of
importance (for which career planning was either meaningful, or a necessity) HR offered
experience navigators. These navigators provided an attractively and visually designed
map of mandatory, optional and required work experience, whether those are projects, jobs,
countries or regions.
Besides relevant work experience, it can greatly aid the talents development to observe a
more experienced colleague a role model. And in this regard I notice an omission in what
HRD is able to offer. Whether you are a leader, manager or specialist, the better you get, the
smaller the group of role models from which you can learn. In addition, the higher you get
promoted, the less exposure to role models you will have in daily working life. When do
talents meet their role models during and in their work?
Dont get me wrong: organizations spend quite some time, effort and money in this area.
Mentoring (Jones, 2008), coaching, intervision and supervision are all examples of
interventions that bring peers into contact with each other to exchange their work
experiences. My concern is whether anything worthwhile is learned during these interventions.
Why? Because most often these interventions take place somewhere outside of the daily
environment, in a beautiful location and isolated from the workplace. Brain@work (van
Dinteren and Lazeron, 2010) criticises whether you can learn anything about your work outside
of your work environment. Why is mentoring such an effective intervention to accelerate the
development of talents? The neurological explanation stems from the fact that our brains are
wired with mirror neurons that will literally mimic real life examples of role models. Mirror
neurons work all the time, but the transfer of what role models can teach you is multiplied by
learning in your real-life work environment, if only for the sake that this helps your brain
remember the learning once you are on your own, back at work.
My plea is therefore for mentoring to take place during work time and in the working
environment not by philosophising together in the boardroom, but by attending a board
meeting together. This will require a careful briefing of prospective mentors by HRD,


because the expectations that a mentor has of their role may be vastly different from what is
required from them in this regard.
Five key decisions to start offering mentoring by true role models are as follows:
1. Who are the talents role models?

Board members.

Top professionals.


2. How are talents exposed to their role models?


Through mentoring.

Through direct coaching.

By working for or with their role models.

By doing assignments for or with their role models.



3. How do talents learn from their role models?


Through mentoring or coaching.

By deploying role models as their trainers.

Role models take up prominent positions in communication processes.



4. How are mentors mobilised to embrace their role?


Long history of mentoring in our organization it is simply part of the way we work.

Strong appeal from HR without mentoring our talents will leave.

Our mentors are not actively mobilised.


5. What roles do mentors fulfil within our organisation?


They assist with assessments during the recruitment of new talent.

They decide directly on hiring of new talent.

They participate in development centres when talents are promoted.

They help establish talents development plans.

They are the clients of the assignments the talents undertake in their talent program.

They act as trainers in talent programs.

They play a role in matching talents to jobs or assignments.


Principle 5: harness the power of the talent pool, or: What potential does the talent
pool offer?
Looking at the way companies organise work, it appears that jobs, assignments and projects
are the dominant form. A job requires a minimum duration to offer any return on investment
and a maximum duration after which the job will become routine and no longer provides a
rich learning environment for talents.


Offer mentoring by true role models and thus enhance the

talents organizational know-how and business insight and
accelerate their development.

If you ask talents whether jobs offer a maximum engagement of their talents, then they will
deny it. Talents have the potential to be much more meaningful to their organisation. The
question is, how?
Mobilizing Minds (Bryan and Joyce, 2007) outlines some answers that primarily focus on the
way organisations organise talent management. Peter Cappelli (2008) and Ed Lawler (2008)
add several practical pointers: from talent pools, to talent markets and from electronic HR
systems that track competence development to learning networks between divisions and
True to my profession and the focus of this publication, I will limit myself to the possibilities
that talent programs can offer to maximise the engagement of talents.
Taken as a group, what potential do talents offer?
That question occurred to me after having reviewed several talent programs. I saw talents
come together for training and group meetings, but not for any significant collaborative
undertaking. I was able to win over the Career Development Division of ING Retail to the idea
of shaping leadership development through strategic group assignments, with the board as
a client and one of the directors as the delegated client. It was imperative that the
assignment was serious: where the proceeds if they were of sufficient quality to the board
would actually benefit the organisation. Too often the assignments for trainees are
fictitious, and not grafted on a real and fundamental organisational dilemma.
In the ING Retail Banking Leadership Programme we shaped leadership development
entirely through these strategic assignments. The learning experiences of the trainees
during the assignments triggered training, education, peer coaching and leadership
development. In other words, the strategic assignment triggered both informal and formal
learning moments (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2010).
Illustrative in this respect is INGs experience with the first strategic assignment that the first
trainee group undertook. The board commissioned an assignment for them to achieve at
least e1m in savings in a specific part of the organisation. Six months later, a proposal was
presented that has since then realized e10m in savings. Learning can pay off!
Five key decisions to start harnessing the power of your talent pool are as follows (Groysberg
et al., 2010; Jones, 2008):
1. How many colleagues of equal or greater talent surround the talent?

The direct report of the talent is also marked as talent.

We hire talents in groups to establish a high potential peer group.

The immediate colleagues of the talent are also marked as talent


2. How is the information exchange between talents regulated?

During our talent program, we organize networking events for our talents.

Our talents have access to an intranet environment that facilitates information


Talents find each other easily mobile phones, internet and e-mail addresses suffice
as enablers



3. What are the sounding boards that talents can refer to for sharp criticism and feedback?

Our talents, their managers, colleagues and talent group enjoy continuous access to
a 360-degree feedback system.

Each talent has a personal HR career developer for coaching and feedback.


4. How do talents come into contact with each other across divisions?

Parts of our talent programs are generic, open to participants from all divisions.


5. How do talents collaborate actively with each other (and thus break through their

Our talent programs offer group assignments.


Recap of the 5 principles

1. Clarify what talent means in your organisation by formulating a crystal clear policy.
2. Perceive talent management as an integrated process and start organizing it as a
coherent effort: from strategic resource planning, to recruitment and assessment,
pipelining, career planning, career development, engagement, mentoring and
coaching and (last but not least) learning and development.
3. Fulfil a clear and present organizational need with your talent development efforts, if only
because talents demand this foresight.
4. Offer mentoring by true role models and thus enhance the talents organizational
know-how and business insight and accelerate their development.
5. Harness the power of the talent pool, because talents working in teams could offer your
company a huge and largely untapped cognitive surplus (Shirky, 2010) that could aid
organizational development.

Final thoughts
Some time ago I had the privilege to work with a focus group of young (early twenties) top
talent. During our first sounding board session on the framework of the young talent
program that I was designing, I asked them for their most impressive learning experience
so far. The most notable initiative proved to be from one young talent who had offered himself
as secretary to the executive board meeting of the company. This stands out to me, because
I clearly realised that every talent program could and should accommodate this type of
initiative. Indeed, that enterprising spirit is exactly what organisations expects from their
talents; it is largely why they were hired in the first place. What a pleasure it would be if all
HRD consultants would reserve half a day per week in each and every talent program, for
talents to execute initiatives of their own accord. And then, without interference, see what
those initiatives deliver.
I would like to close with an insight offered in the Winter 2010 edition of MITs Sloan
Management Review (Groysberg et al., 2010; Jones, 2008). No leader or employee can
develop their talent in the context of untalented and unmotivated colleagues. Could this be
the reason that TD efforts that go all-out for a very select target group fail in the long run? For
the very simple reason that these talents find themselves in surroundings that fail to
stimulate, engage and inspire them to greatness?

Blass, E. and April, K. (2008), Developing talent for tomorrow, Develop, Vol. 4 No. 1, pp. 48-58.


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About the author

Evert Pruis (1966) worked in Dutch and multinational companies upon receiving his Masters
in Educational Design and Development. Currently, he is a Dedicated Senior Learning and
Development Consultant to the Dutch financial sector. In recent years he has assisted
several banks and insurance companies in setting up their corporate academies. In these
academies talents, high-value specialists, new hires and leaders learn their job-related skills
and knowledge at an accelerated rate, in order to speed up their deployment in the
organisation. Evert Pruis is currently working as an interim Senior Learning Consultant and,
among other projects, is helping to set up the curriculum for the board of directors of
Hollands biggest bank. He has also spoken on talent development at the 2009 and 2010
Annual Conferences of the American Society for Training and Development. Evert Pruis can
be contacted at:

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