Devising a strategy to grow top talent

In 2001, the Harvard Business Review ran a story headlined, “The Emerging Role of the Chief Talent Officer”. The heading said “emerging”, but the role was virtually non-existent. Of one million corporate vacancies, the article noted, only two were for a chief talent officer. Both were junior positions. The duties of a CTO – hiring, developing and retaining talent – were done by either existing human resources professionals or the board.

The post barely existed and those who undertook its functions were kept well away from the top level of governance.

The magazine story ended: “Maybe it’s all semantics in the end, but for a short time it looked as though HR executives might finally rank alongside the most influential executives in the organisation. Maybe someday, but not yet.”

A similar article appeared at the same time by an HR guru with the apt title: “Chief Talent Officer: What in the @#$^& Is That?”

Since then not much has changed. Not in the UK, anyway. In the United States there is a smattering of chief talent officers. Accounting firm Deloitte has one, so too does advertising agency Havas, the charity American Cancer Society, law firm Baker & McKenzie and streaming service Netflix.




Talent problem stats


Here at home you have to look even harder. Ad booking agency Mediacom created the role in 2009 and digital marketing agency iCrossing also has a CTO. And, er…

The absence is striking. By failing to create a dedicated talent officer and excluding the holder from the board, firms risk underplaying the importance of fostering talent.


Without a talent strategy the best employees will walk. A survey by Roffey Park shows that 44 per cent of British employees are currently considering a move in the near future. In the public sector the figure is 52 per cent. And it’s not about money. The top three reasons for wanting to leave are lack of promotion prospects (52 per cent), poor management (48 per cent) and lack of appreciation (39 per cent). Junior managers are especially flighty, with 56 per cent on the look-out for new work, compared with 43 per cent of senior managers.

By failing to create a dedicated talent officer and excluding the holder from the board, firms risk underplaying the importance of fostering talent

The war for talent means firms should be troubled by these figures. UK unemployment is low – under 6 per cent – yet this number masks the difficulty of luring premium labour. In booming areas, such as the Midlands, the local unemployment rate can be as low as 1 per cent. In Motorsport Valley, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire, the rate is, in effect, negative. There are more vacancies than candidates.


Netflix are among a number of US based companies who employ a chief talent officer (CTO).

So what’s the answer? The HR industry seems split. Kate Russell, managing director of Russell HR Consulting says: “The jury appears to be out on what chief talent officers are doing in large companies and whether they are successful.” In her view the job title is superfluous, so long as the duties are clearly denoted: “There needs to be a talent strategy identified debated and agreed by the whole management team. All managers should have responsibility for the implementation of the talent project, because good quality managers understand what the right talent looks like and what will work.”

Stephen Duncan, of employee engagement consultancy Radley Yeldar, agrees: “In a SME [small and medium-sized enterprise], every manager has to be the chief talent officer for his or her own team. Every day they need to question what they can do to hold on to the most talented people they employ.”

The trend in SMEs seems to support this. At digital agency Rockpool Digital, a regular entry in The Sunday Times Best Small Companies to Work For, the structure is anti-hierarchical. Heather Wilson, Rockpool’s director of people and organisation development, says: “A traditional hierarchical structure can stifle creativity and create bureaucracy, which can be damaging when you’re in an industry that needs to be agile and innovative. Companies can remedy this by removing traditional management roles. No more one-to-ones, no more appraisals and no more convoluted chains of power. Give power to your people. Trust your teams to self-motivate and innovate.”

The data shows retaining key members will take more than money and perks. Empathetic working conditions are vital. That needs to come from the top. Kevin Byrne has built tradespeople review website into a £10.8-million-revenue, 200-staff business since 1998. He says: “In 17 years of employing people, I can recall only four leaving who gave going on to a better job as the reason.

“When every new member of staff joins, I spend an hour with each of them. People ask me how I have time and why on Earth I do this. My answer is it makes them feel appreciated and special. I am flabbergasted that bosses can’t see why this is so important. It’s about taking time to know people and understand them – it’s about empathy.”