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Talent and careers, two sides of the same coin?


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How should we integrate our talent management and career development activities for the benefit of the organisation and its employees?

Since the publication of ‘The War for Talent’, most organisations have focused on talent managing the few, rather than supporting career development for the many. Recently, however, things have started to change, and in this VRT, our provocateur, award-winning author, researcher and practitioner Laura Walker highlighted the common tensions organisations face when reconciling their career and talent strategies, and shared her experience of how to resolve these issues.

We were joined by a group of senior Talent and HR professionals who shared their experience of integrating more inclusive and future-focused talent and career development.


David North said that a variety of factors, some long-term and others Covid-related, were leading organisations to recognise the importance of their career proposition, and to invest more in career development support. The discussion began with people sharing the priority drivers and challenges within their organisations, including:

  • Shifting the talent management focus from high potentials to all employees
  • Questioning whether they have the necessary pipeline of local talent coming through
  • Wanting a more diverse workforce, both in leadership roles and to better reflect their customer base
  • Focusing on priority capability needs, particularly technical and IT/digital skills
  • Building a learning culture so employees develop future-focused skills
  • Redefining what they mean by Talent and Careers
  • Streamlining operations so people have one place to go for career development resources

‘At exit interviews people tell us they’re leaving because they cannot see their next career step’.


Laura Walker shared her top insights from 25 years in Talent and L&D for respected businesses across six different business sectors. She addressed:

  • The top three Talent and Careers priorities for any organisation
  • The most common tensions that exist
  • The main benefits of a coherent approach
  • Practical steps that leaders and HR can take

Beginning with the top priorities for Talent and Careers, Laura explained that there are real similarities  – both need a future-focus, both need real business impact, both need robust and efficient processes. But there are also two important differences.

Firstly, the parties most interested in these agendas are very different. Boards and Senior Executives care most about Talent, whereas employees care most about Careers. Secondly, the scope of the work is usually quite different. Talent attention is usually on a capital T shape—i.e. the most senior leaders and slice through the organisation for key positions or high potentials. Careers, however, can be relevant for the whole organisation.

Despite having shared interests, Talent and Careers can often end up being pulled in different directions.

Turning next to common tensions, Laura told us that at some time, all organisations have to face up to one or more of these top four tensions: inclusive/exclusive, global/local, business-led/individual-led, and breadth/depth. These choices show up in questions of strategy, proposition, processes, messages and support.

It’s not unusual for businesses to end up see-sawing between two valid but conflicting positions. This is both confusing for employees, and energy sapping for the organisation, as shifting direction requires significant effort if change is to be effective.

‘Many espouse an inclusive agenda, but have an exclusive approach in practice—paying most attention to high potentials, certain key positions, or their top performers’.

There are three types of benefit from a coherent approach: Strategic (pulling budgets, platforms and suppliers together); Operational (reducing complexity and using consistent processes); and Experiential (using transparent, consistent language to avoid mixed messages).

Finally, Laura highlighted four practical steps to connect Talent and Careers.

  • Clearly defined future capabilities help prioritise investment and enable individuals to make future-proof career and employability choices.
  • Providing clear expectations and guidance helps leaders, managers and individuals.
  • Emphasising experiences over jobs can encourage individuals to shift their mindset from career ladders to a climbing frame.
  • Switching investment to equip individuals to drive their own career can benefit both agendas.

It’s vital, and completely achievable, for Talent and Careers to be mutually reinforcing – as opposed to pulling in different directions.


What practical actions would better integrate talent and careers? Some key takeaways from attendees included:

  • Starting with a clear career proposition underpinned by a strong business case
  • Building commitment to career development by sharing a simple, powerful message supported by some compelling facts (for example, comparing the %s of external recruitment and internal transfers)
  • Ensuring the rhetoric of an inclusive career proposition becomes the reality for our employees
  • Encouraging role modelling from the top of the organisation
  • Keeping our focus on future capability needs
  • Emphasising individual accountability for development
  • Recognising that a shift in direction requires a change plan, and not just new tools and resources

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