Accountancy & Management: If you've got talent, look after it: Roger Trapp looks at an attempt to encourage managers to nurture their staff

IN THIS age of total quality, BS5750 and mission statements it is common to find company logos adorned by mottos of the 'Bloggs & Co: where the customer is king' type. 'If you think you've got it, flaunt it' seems to be as important a credo as any management nostrum.

But as with anything, the truth can be very different from the image. Cynics would not be surprised to learn that the US company most admired seven years running by a jury of more than 8,000 senior executives, consultants and financial analysts is one that has spent little time telling the world about its values and beliefs.

The pharmaceutical company Merck has clearly impressed its peers and observers through its performance rather than a message. It is a lesson that some of Britain's bigger-spending organisations might bear in mind.

It is also a lesson Sir John Harvey-Jones seeks to convey in his latest book, Managing to Survive, when he notes that almost every company refers in its annual report to its workers as 'our greatest resource' but does little to make them feel that way.

If this is a problem in general terms, it is much worse when the people concerned are especially talented. Then, according to Philip Sadler and Keith Milmer of Ashridge Management College, people are indeed the key assets - and in such organisations talent is 'the only available source of enduring competitive advantage'.

By only paying lip service to such ideas most top executives are erecting a formidable obstacle to a strategic approach for managing talent, and hence to the success of their firms.

But not everybody has such a limited view. The two men have conducted an extensive international study that has found a few beacons in the dark.

In their report, The Talent-Intensive Organisation: Optimising Your Company's Human Resource Strategies, recently published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, they seek to change overall attitudes through examining best practice as exemplified by the likes of National Westminster Bank, the Anglo-Dutch consumer products group Unilever, the Japanese-owned UK computer company ICL and the US electronics company Motorola.

The report looks at the correct ways of recruiting, motivating and rewarding people through case studies. Particular attention is devoted to organisations, such as drug and computer companies, where there is a high proportion of highly trained specialists.

But, as the authors make clear, this is not the only kind of talent. The ability to manage and lead is a valuable talent in itself, as is the knack of getting business - as one company acknowledged by paying its sales director well above the norm because his loss could lead to a sharp reduction in sales.

The fourth category of talent is the 'hybrid', the individual who is perceived as having the potential to cross over from a specialism to general management. The most valued - but hardest to come by - hybrid is the person who can move from being an engineer, say, to building the business as a whole.

All of which makes it vital to be able to spot the high-fliers, or those who are going to add some sort of value. And, though the talent itself may be elusive, the Ashridge team has nailed down a number of techniques for identifying it, which should appeal to most companies - not just those like Glaxo and ICL with a high population of 'rocket scientists'.

For instance, the UK hotels and restaurants group Forte is credited with bringing a 'distinctive approach' to the problem of predicting individuals' career paths.

It is based on a procedure developed by the Brunel Institute of Organisation and Social Studies at Brunel University, which is itself based on the management thinker Elliot Jacques' idea of how organisations work. One of the central ideas is to link pay to the time span during which the consequences of a decision become known. Since this lengthens as an individual moves up the organisation, the pay gets better as the responsibility and the risk grow.

Forte uses the concept to give an indication of where managers in their 30s will be in the future. It can also be used to demonstrate why some managers will never reach the top or will take longer to get there than the high-fliers. At the same time, the process produces a lot of information about the organisation that has helped Forte change from a tightly controlled company to a more flexible, market-led operation.

This is a vindication of Mr Sadler's view that the way to meet the challenges of the next century is to nurture talent. With the market for such 'gold- collar workers' rapidly becoming more international, 'there is no doubt that superior competence in managing talent provides a significant and sustainable competitive advantage - and chief executives ignore this at their peril'.

Mr Sadler is leading a seminar on this theme at Ashridge in October. But in the meantime, he and Mr Milmer offer a number of pointers for success.

Talented people need a 'sense of mission'. More than pay, security and the opportunity to develop their skills, they want a cause that is satisfying.

Companies should seek to develop an organisational structure that does not stifle creative talent but channels it into productive paths.

High potential should be identified and talented individuals given the chance to develop their skills through challenging work.

The chief executive must describe the connection between the economic aims of the enterprise and the desire of the talented people to excel in their chosen profession or vocation.

At Merck, ICL and elsewhere this last requirement is assisted by the chief executive's rising from the specialist ranks rather than being a professional manager. But before John Birt's beleaguered BBC or the City's professional firms think that this is the only way of going about raising morale among staff unused to the pressures of a true business environment, the report points out that there have been some notable successes where the chief executives have not progressed through the companies they run.

The key, though, seems to be not to brag about it. Some years ago Merck commissioned an outside consultant to find out whether the company had shared values in spite of them not being stated. The same four or five issues came up time and again. And it was recommended that they should not be emblazoned over everything - but left implicit.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Sport
football
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Market Research Executive...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Report Writer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Technical Report Writer is re...

MBDA UK Ltd: Indirect Procurement Category Manager

Competitive salary & benefits!: MBDA UK Ltd: MBDA UK LTD Indirect Procurement...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

£16500 - £16640 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing Finance compa...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall