Nina Johnson

Senior Commercial Insights Manager

A bit of tension is good. It can start conversations, and provide the opportunity to hear conflicting ideas. But a lot of tension can be difficult to overcome. Given what has changed in the last couple of years alone, it is hard to imagine what the corporate world will be like in five years. So many factors are difficult to predict - technology, economics, politics, consumer habits and public sentiment, the regulatory environment – perhaps the only way forward is to define a vision for the future and be flexible about how to get there.

Visions require strategies, and strategies require plans, and plans don’t succeed without the right people and skills to deliver them. Effective talent planning has become more critical than ever, with an increasing need for agility to adjust to different potential future scenarios. We gathered views on the tensions currently impacting talent planning and several common themes emerged.


Uncertainty is the status quo

There is an obvious tension between surviving the uncertainty of the now and planning for the future, with companies often lacking any critical space to test ideas or make mistakes.
In addition, the rise of Environment, Social, and Governance (ESG) requirements has brought in longer-term considerations from an investment perspective, including, for example, diversity and inclusion, well-being, and work/life balance. However, a consistent and robust approach to reporting sustainability measurables still needs to be agreed, and without it, companies are feeling their way through a shifting landscape.

In the context of economic uncertainty, operational management is being assessed on the short term, tasked with increasing the pace of delivery and making do with decreasing budgets without necessarily being given the time or the resources to address longer-term needs.

Building consensus around workforce priorities has always had its inherent challenges. We can expect these tensions to increase in this next phase of the economic cycle, with priorities around short and long-term outcomes becoming ever more polarised. The key will be in providing decision makers with the insights and latitude needed to plan for and realise a more sustainable workforce. James Ward, Programme Lead, Workforce Transformation at NatWest

Shifting measures of success

For years there’s been talk of market disruptors and globalisation, with organisations continuously restructuring whilst trying to navigate hyper-competitive market conditions. Our corporate structures and cultures have developed from how workforces have been organised since the dawn of industrialisation. Short-term thinking has dominated the race for profit for profit’s sake, with shareholders demanding returns. There’s no doubt there’s been growth - much money has been made, new markets created, products sold, services delivered, people employed – but now the question has arisen, at what true cost?

Leaders are no longer charged with making profit at any cost; the target now is profit the right way. Charles Damianides, Executive Director, Center for Sustainable Fuels & Chemicals

Spotlight on leadership

When faced with uncertainty, a common approach is to base decision-making on what worked in the past. Except those tried and tested methods are increasingly centred around assumptions that are no longer accepted as cultural norms. Public sentiment has risen in importance – thanks to technology, every move can be scrutinised, every intention analysed, and every viewpoint aired. In the digitalised world, transparency is not a choice, it is unavoidable.

Our definitions of ‘good leaders’ are changing. There is an increasing focus on adaptability, care giving, empathy, and empowerment by empowering others. Of course, none of these skills are exclusive to a particular generation. Still, they are a departure from the assumption that specific knowledge and expertise built through experience are the basis of leadership skill. As the world continues to shift, leadership effectiveness and behaviours will remain firmly in the spotlight.

Talent markets: check your assumptions

Many organisations are grappling with trying to change the talent profile of their workforce to meet future needs. The conversation is now around deploying skills to respond to changing circumstances. According to Andrew Stephenson, Chief People Officer at Equiniti, there are three things often overlooked in talent planning:

  • How long specific skills will be needed within the organisation
  • How to access those skills in the external market
  • What that talent actually wants from their employer

It is easy to ascribe a ‘one size fits all’ viewpoint to providing progression and career development to employees that is aligned with the future needs of the business. Two basic assumptions are often made; all employees want progression and all organisations should seek to retain their talent. With the current pace of change, today's jobs might not exist in three-to-five years. But perhaps more importantly, do all your employees intend to remain with your organisation longer than a couple of years? Our recent survey of 200+ professionals indicated that 57% of respondents had never had an honest conversation with their manager about how long they intended to stay with the organisation.

From our research into talent markets as divergent as Chief Financial Officers to Scientific Directors, we know there is often a discrepancy between what organisations assume individuals want and the reality. As a result, more often than not decisions are made based on corporate strategy without data providing a realistic view of the availability and priorities of the talent needed to bring the strategy to life.

It is incredibly difficult to get leaders at the pinnacle of their career to think differently. The companies at the forefront are those that have recognised the need to train their senior leaders on key current topics, such as retaining and developing a diverse workforce, climate change or the generational gap. They have invested heavily in modern day leadership capabilities, to the benefit of their employees, the organisation and the economy. Denise Wilson, CEO, The FTSE Women Leaders Review

Creating the space to embed strategic leadership talent

Where new talent is unproven in the role or the sector, there remains a need to build credibility with shareholders, workforces and markets. Just as with any diverse hiring, it is inclusion that determines impact and success. Recruiting or developing leaders who might bring new behaviours and fresh approaches to an organisation is not the main challenge; it is accepting that support will be needed, and time and resources invested. Joan Soong, Global Head of Executive Search at Schneider Electric, outlined three distinct elements that need to align to set up non-traditional leadership profiles for success:

Robust and Flexible Leadership Behaviours

The individual needs to have high learning agility, adaptability, to be astute. They need to be able to ‘read the room’, influence and relate to others, demonstrate resilience and quickly seize opportunities to bring value and impact.

Sponsorship is Key

Leaders need to back the person’s new ideas or vision, which could mean removing roadblocks, supporting investments in resources or capabilities, and facilitating conversations with their peers and upper management.

Peer Support

How people at an equivalent level in the broader organisation work with the new individual will significantly impact their ability to influence.

Analysis of what is needed from specific leadership roles is key. Depending on the business unit, the market, and the overall appetite for risk, the main business need could be credibility, new thinking or the ability to bring a team together. A starting point is identifying the roles where there is space for change in the short term and which offers time to build up buy-in from a complex suite of stakeholders.

Closer Integration of Internal and External Talent Management

As we move from a focus on jobs to skills, many organisations are beginning to bring internal and external talent management closer together. Succession planning has typically focused on internal talent; forward-thinking organisations now understand internal successors' availability and development needs and are also benchmarking their talent with the external market and building relationships ahead of need with potential external successors. This approach aligns well with a changing mindset around internal and external organisational structures, partnership approaches to access expertise and the opportunity to leverage the strengths of different organisations.

There is a sea-change happening in the way companies work together. Commercial success increasingly requires teams in different companies to integrate seamlessly – talent managers have an essential role to play in developing these capabilities. Greg Watson, Founder, Partnership Capital

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average tenure of salaried employees with one employer was 4.1 years in January 2022. From this perspective, understanding external talent markets is essential to any talent planning process.

From our work with various clients across multiple sectors we know these talent planning tensions are common and not easily resolved. So if you’d like to understand more about the approaches different organisations are taking to fix broken talent planning processes or mitigate their succession risk by building relationships with external talent ahead of need please get in touch.

With over 30 years’ experience, Armstrong Craven is a global leader in bespoke reach- driven talent solutions. We work with many of the world’s best-known and most respected organisations. Our experts provide specialist skills in talent mapping, pipelining and insights to ensure businesses are able to keep attracting and retaining the best scarce and senior talent.

Want to know more? Speak to Nina Johnson