The Talent Wave: A book review by Bob Morris

The Talent Wave: Why Succession Planning Fails and What to Do About It
David Clutterbuck
KoganPage (2012)

How and why alternative approaches to succession planning and talent management may well be much more effective

In a remarkably informative Introduction, David Clutterbuck identifies common problems that business leaders face when attempting to “grow” talent in their organizations, then demythologizes four incorrect but durable misconceptions many (most?) business leaders have about talent management and succession planning, myths that help to explain the nature and extent of failure in those two critically critical area. What to do? “One part of the solution is to question all assumptions about what talent is and how we assist it in rising to leadership positions.” He insists that the proper role of HR is not to control the succession planning process, but to enable it.” I agree.

At this point, I presume to add three brief points. First, all organizations need effective leadership and management at all levels and in all areas. Therefore, succession planning must address needs and perils throughout the given enterprise, not only at the C-level. Second, those who are frequently described as – or who consider themselves to be – “indispensable” are, with few exceptions, bottlenecks to the flow of work. No one is irreplaceable. Finally, organizational structures must be sufficiently flexible to accommodate changes within their competitive marketplace. Not every employee who retires, passes away, or leaves must necessarily be replaced.

Clutterbuck offers a system that is cohesive, comprehensive, and cost-effective. That said, invoking a vehicle metaphor, it must be able to traverse all terrains, have extra-strength shock absorbers, and be guided a GPS system based on its vision, mission, values, core competencies, and strategic objectives.

These are among the dozens of passages in the book that are of greatest interest and value to me. They also give at least some indication of the range of subjects on which Clutterbuck focuses.

o Why [most] succession planning doesn’t work: a summary (Pages 39-42)
o Characteristics of succession planning and talent management systems that are complex and adaptive (46-49)
o How do definitions of talent affect people’s ambitions? (67-73)
o Is performance really measurable? (82-86)
o Developing realistic yet flexible and opportunistic career paths (101-105)
o Creating the environment for alignment (111-116)
o The Perils of pipelines (132-135)
o A strategy for career and succession planning (150-151)
o How the organization can help promote the inner dialogue (166-171)
o The line manager as coach (179-185)
o Social networking and succession planning (209-212)
o Integrating organizational and employee social networks (212-214)
o Ensuring that talent development and succession planning systems enable rather than control (222-224)

Clutterbuck makes skillful use of eight mini-case studies that provide a real-world context for his key insights. For example, here are three: Succession planning at a UK-based Asda supermarket chain that includes “knowing when to go” (Page 15); how and why succession planning is “bottom up, not top down” at Tetley, a UK subsidiary of India’s Tata Group (138); and a social-powered community within the Philips organization called “Connect Us” that enables direct communication between and among all of its employees (218). Clutterbuck does rather well developing several separate but related themes throughout his lively narrative, themes such as job modeling, knowledge transfers, making room for succession (i.e. barrier removal), ownership, and revised alignment of division of labor to changes in the given competitive marketplace.

No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of material that David Clutterbuck provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of him and his work. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how the information, insights, and wisdom could perhaps be of substantial benefit to them and to their own organization.

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