I have been assisting a new Italian client design a talent management system and an important part of this has been the concept of talent pools. Groups of people selected as ‘talent’ on whom to concentrate attention.

I was reminded how often I have helped introduce such pools in different companies throughout the years, both for pure talent purposes but also for skill management.

Back when Shell Chemicals was the first part of Shell to truly set up a global organisation, I led the successful efforts to set up a global technical skill resource management system. This was a globally managed, globally standardised, locally implemented technical skill resource management system that met the needs of both the business and employees. Different talent pools of different types of engineers and scientists ensured: adequate technical skill resources to run and maintain the existing asset base as well as meet capital expansion plans of the enterprise; individual staff development was looked after, balancing organisational and individual interests; skill qualities met business needs then and in the future; staff levels and optimal deployment of resources across the enterprise.

For the European Space Agency we designed a similar system, with seven talent pools (‘job families’) with four ‘job communities’: Science (mission science, including spacemen/women, and science operations), Engineering (operations engineering, expert engineering and project engineering), Facilities and Management/Leadership. The talent pools cut across the whole heavily-siloed formal organisation, which was one of the aims, to stimulate cross-organisational resource planning and broader career development, in addition to individual and talent-pool wide learning and development initiatives.

With a number of other companies we have concentrated mainly upon potential leaders and how the talent pool concept can be useful in their development, assessment and selection for future leadership roles.

This is the case with the Italian multinational, where one of the talent pools consists of the current top leadership (where individuals are in this talent pool because if their position) and another is made up of people identified as key talent with the potential to do jobs in the leadership group (so where individuals are in the pool based on their future talent characteristics, not the job they currently hold).

Talent pools are a more flexible approach to talent management than traditional succession planning, as trying to plan at the job level with succession plans (for example for all the leadership jobs) is both time-consuming and assumes the future is more predictable and unchanging than it actually is.

Talent pools allow talent management to be focused on the development of groups of individuals who have the potential to progress in line with company values, culture and ‘potential’ or ‘scalability’ definitions, rather than in terms of specific position skills or as a potential successor for a specific job.

Talent pools therefore offer the flexibility to develop talent whilst meeting changing business strategies, operational needs, organisational structure and acquisitions, mergers and divestments.

Furthermore, talent pools enable development actions to be both broad (specific leadership programmes or events for the entire pool) and individual, tailored to the person’s unique developmental needs.

Some international best-practice companies have one overall talent pool that may include everyone, or a much smaller selection of potential ‘talent’, whilst others have more than one specialist pool, dependent on business strategy and culture.

As alluded to above, there are different possibilities for ‘filling’ the talent pool.

One straightforward example is to include all the incumbents of a set of leadership positions. Although this misses those new talents who will break into the pool and be promoted to leadership positions, even those in the pool who will not be promoted further will need to be discussed in terms of horizontal moves or as their positions may need to become available for others.

A second possibility that is more common and frequently encountered in companies is the selection of individuals, key people identified as key talent with the potential/scalability to do much more senior jobs (for example in the Leadership talent pool).

As discussed in a previous blog,


the use of talent pools for future potential leaders requires the need for assessment and selection based on well defined and understood criteria, which I do not discuss explicitly in this blog.

Another talent pool approach is to define specialist talent pools (or skillpools), which are crucial to the business strategy and designed to develop important technical or commercial capabilities, where the overall ‘health’ of that pool is business-critical. (This was one of the drivers of the Shell Chemicals work, trying to get an overall global view rather than a local or regional perspective). Again individuals are included because of the position held in that talent pool (although there may be some talents currently doing a broadening assignment or job rotation outside of the skillpool).

Such specialist talent pools are agile in concept: different pools can be created and managed depending on the business strategy (and the perceived health of a specific skillpool, that is vital to the business strategy).

A final type of talent pool that is frequently used is that of ‘Young talent’. These can be recruits new to the company, perhaps in their first or second job after finishing their education. International best practice suggests a ‘Young professional’ type programme for 2-3 years in which this pool – which often will include all people rather than talent selection – receive development (training) and assimilation to the company culture. They can also be assessed for future potential/scalability during such a programme and especially at the end of this process. When we were refreshing the Young Specialist programme for Sibur, Russia’s largest chemical company, we did exactly this. Other company Young Talent pools may however only include people who have been selected using the same basic potential selection criteria as for the leadership talent pools. This is a possibility that my Italian client is investigating.

Despite the many advantages of the talent pool concept over classical succession planning, there may still be a small number of key positions (critical/pivotal roles), some inside the Leadership pool and some outside, where in addition to using the talent pool for succession it makes business sense to check that there are ready-now successors already within the company, and to focus investment and the best talent in those positions.

Nevertheless, talent pools in their many forms now play a powerful and important role in leading company talent management processes, and reconciling the dilemma of longer-term talent development in a VUCA world.


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