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Talent (Development) is a Talent Conversation

Updated: Oct 22, 2023

At the heart of strategic talent management we find clear, frequent, simple talent conversations.

I believe we should build integrated talent solutions around the talent conversations we'd like to see happening in our organizations. Then we'll begin to see a shift in how leaders and employees leverage talent management to lead their teams.

When leaders are more effective at coaching and engaging their teams, business productivity improves. Isn’t that the goal of talent management solutions—to enable an enterprise to reach corporate goals? After all, as the founder of Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher coined, “the business of business is People.”

Talent (Management) is a Conversation
"The business of business is People." -Herb Kelleher

So I'm stepping up on my soapbox. I am passionate about talent development and all the activities we Talent Professionals facilitate to support the identification, movement and promotion of talent within an organization. Like you, I love a well facilitated talent review, a balanced bell curve and calibrations that seem to be well... calibrated. What irks me enough to get me back on the soapbox is that after talent planning activities, such as those talent reviews, performance appraisals and calibration discussions, conversations between leaders and their employees are not happening. Leaders are not sharing with their employees how they show up in those talent discussions. Further, development conversations are meager or flat out not happening.

This article on People Matters by authors Michael Campbell and Dr. Roland Smith, both with the Center for Creative Leadership, sums up the benefits of talent conversations nicely: "A talent conversation is where development becomes real, and when done well, produces behavior that positively affects others, has a real impact on business performance, and helps accelerate the development of your people." Exactly.

I believe that talent development is 100% about the conversations that happen after a talent development sessionleader to employee. Talent planning activities should support the conversations that occur with the talent (the PEOPLE) that are the subject of the activities.

I'm sure my team gets tired of hearing me say, "Talent is a conversation."

Once a talent discussion has been facilitated, what value are we losing in the activity if we don't build into the process a follow-up step and accountability to discuss with individuals the results? What if several months after you complete a succession plan with top leaders, one of the key players in the plan leaves? Oh wait, that never happens.

Could you have retained that player if a formal follow-up discussion had been conducted? Maybe, maybe not. But you might have gotten a heads-up that something had changed for the individual to cause her to make a new choice. Or maybe the leader realizes the player did not want the role, that her next desired career step is in a different group altogether.

Talent Conversations Bring Transparency to Talent Development

The value of alignment and transparency is priceless. As a leader, I dig into the career goals of my team and provide ongoing coaching on performance and skill building to assist them in reaching their goals. As an employee, I get a candid conversation with my leader on what's next for me, whether it's a touchy subject or not. Maybe I don't agree with the next step, but at least I know and have a chance to acquire skills to fill in a knowledge gap and/or hear what I need to do differently.

As Talent Professionals you likely find it obvious, the logic of direct, kind performance feedback or touching base on a career development goal. An investment in a short conversation often reaps great reward in both performance and engagement. So then why, oh why, have leaders not figured it out? I have found in my career of supporting leaders that we typically know what we need to do. It’s making it a priority in the midst of a hundred other critical tasks. And, I need some leadership courage to make sure that I’ve not only conducted the conversation, but that my employee has heard what I need them to hear.

As humans, most of us are naturally prone to avoid difficult situations and certainly difficult discussions. We tend to shy away from tough conversations, except maybe when we’re "coaching" other drivers with colorful direction, safe in the confines of our vehicle. We are not conditioned to be comfortable sharing news to which we think others may react negatively. The crew at Vital Smarts published a book and offer a program on Crucial Conversations. These experts share that “crucial conversations are about tough issues.” They go on to say that, “unfortunately, it’s human nature to back away from discussions we fear will hurt us or make things worse. We’re masters at avoiding these tough conversations. Coworkers send email to each other when they should walk down the hall and talk turkey. Bosses leave voice mail in lieu of meeting with their direct reports... We use all kinds of tactics to dodge touchy issues.[i]” So true.

The bottom line: Clear, frequent, simple Talent Conversations are crucial.

I'd like to see us conducting talent conversations with those on our teams after every talent activity, such as talent reviews and succession planning. For my organization, that would look like:

  • Quarterly performance check-ins (versus an annual appraisal). This worked well for teams at Southwest Airlines. I talk more about it here.

  • Follow-up talent conversation with my direct reports after a nine-box talent review discussion on where they are showing up and any kudos or feedback from others that will help them continue to hone their performance.

  • Development conversations after succession planning season to gain alignment on what's next for my direct reports, whether or not they are a noted successor for me or others. What do they see next for themselves, where can we target development experiences and how can I help?

  • Annual merit conversations that sum up performance trends for the year and communicate what they can expect in the way of compensation changes.

  • Anytime is great for a talent conversation. I especially welcome them when a team member initiates the topic themselves.

Talent development begins with clear conversations between employee and leader.
Talent Conversations are frequent, candid, kind conversations between managers and employees. Image courtesy of Unsplash.

To my knowledge, there is not a program called “Leadership Courage.” But I think we need one. Until then, there are a lot of models available on the market to teach leaders and employees about how to have productive, challenging conversations. They all have strong points. As the lead over my company's talent practices, I tell leaders that I don’t care which one they use, as long as they pick one and stick with it. What I care about is that they are having talent conversations, frequently, candidly and with kindness.

My charge to you as Talent Professionals is to build into your processes the follow-up action and accountability for leaders to talk with their employees about talent discussion outcomes. Let's make talent conversations an expectation.

Until we see leaders tackling these conversations, clearly, frequently and with candidness, I'll stay on my soapbox.


[i] Patterson, Kerry, Grenny, Joseph, McMillan, Ron, Switzler, Al. “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking with the Stakes Are High.” McGraw Hill. 2002. Pg2-3.


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