Talent Strategy – Elite or Inclusive?

Despite a now brighter economic outlook, most organizations still have limited resources for employee development. They must prioritize what they spend, and make decisions and compromises based on what they believe offers the best return on investment.

The question is: Will an organization be best served by investing in its elite performers or by taking a more inclusive approach to development?

The Two Arguments, in a Nutshell

Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, knows a thing or two about running a successful business. He once famously said: "Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good... they are 100 times better." It’s fair to assume then that Zuckerberg probably advocates prioritizing the development of top talent.

Not everyone agrees though. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, author Bill Taylor makes a strong case for the value of a collective team, suggesting this is more important for an organization to achieve long-term success:

"There is more to long-term performance than the excellence of your individual players. Great teams, great companies, great organizations of all kinds are as much about character as credentials, about what makes people tick as much as what they know."

Elite Development Strategy

It’s not uncommon for big organizations to spend most heavily on developing the top five percent of their talent.

The logic in this approach, presumably, is that it ensures top performers are engaged and remain in the business. And, in the process, these high performers become part of the succession plan of the next business leaders. This might not work for every organization though.

In fact, investing such a significant share of your budget into a small minority of employees is, arguably, a short-term play.

Top talent are always highly sought after, naturally ambitious and keen for new challenges. For these reasons, they’ll always be more of a flight risk. Therefore, investing everything in them is a high-risk talent strategy.

Another drawback of such an elitist approach is that it could very well disengage and demotivate other employee groups that are not being developed.

Inclusive Development Strategy

So would all organizations be best served by a more inclusive approach to developing people? One in which all employees receive equal priority in terms of development. It’s probably not quite that simple or clear cut.

In reality, all employees are not equal. They’ll have differing value to the business and therefore the level of investment in their development is also likely to be different.

However, there’s certainly an argument that a more balanced approach to development spend could offer a more sustainable competitive advantage. This is down to the incremental value of turning low performers into average performers or average performers into high performers.

Such an inclusive approach offers a lower risk for businesses, too, if they lose several of their top talent at once. It is also likely to lead to a happier, more engaged and more productive workforce.

Weighing up Your Strategy

Ultimately you’ll need to decide whether it’s preferable to have an entire team of skilled and engaged employees all contributing or an elite band of superstars who are central to your business fortunes.

My two cents is that even if you prioritize developing elite talent, you can’t afford to ignore the development needs of the wider employee group.

Ideally, every employee should have access to a developmental tool, such as 360 degree feedback, and have a personal development plan. This will give them a clear idea of what they need to do to progress and contribute to the organization’s future success.

Not only will this boost collective competency, it should also mean increased engagement and performance too.

Ben Egan is a consultant at UK-based HR consultancy and bespoke technology firm ETS. The company works in partnership with global companies including PepsiCo, Vodafone and The Royal Bank of Scotland on employee engagement, development and appraisal initiatives.