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Three simple steps towards an effective talent programme

Imagine that you are the CEO of an organisation. Besides business performance, you have to take care of many important people issues, and succession planning for important positions is second to none in this respect. What most top executives and board members often forget or ignore is the importance of participation from all related parties. Everyone wants to have a say in this crucial process. As a CEO, it is your duty to ensure that all the executives concerned are involved.

Generally speaking, an effective succession planning and talent programme is a process requiring three simple steps. I will go through each of them:

Succession plan policy: This first crucial step should start at the board level or, at least, with the human resources committee, which is usually an executive committee.

But the succession plan should not be a separate issue; it must be part of the bigger picture of HR policy. Although manpower is one of the four elements of 4M management theory -- the others are Method, Machine and Materials -- it is rare to find a written HR policy, not to mention an HR committee as a subcommittee of the board. Unless the top people truly believe in the capability of their people, the organisation may not be handling human resources professionally.

Succession planning is certainly discussed by the board, but it tends to be limited to the CEO and C-suite executives. It is acceptable for the board to delegate succession planning for other positions to the CEO since the board should not be involved in day-to-day operations. It becomes the CEO's responsibility to report and assure the board that this assignment is being fulfilled.

In this regard, the CEO should seek the board's advice on succession planning and also present clear suggestions about who should succeed the CEO and other C-level executives. The CEO may wish to assign the head of HR to make this presentation to the board on his or her behalf. In that case, the head of HR should be prepared to discuss successor and talent issues with the board as required.

Identifying talent: When we talk about talent, we typically refer to potential. We also tend to believe that people change over time. Therefore, their potential also changes, which makes it important for the organisation to review its talent list on a yearly basis.

But our potential does not change or, in practical terms, it may change marginally. Potential consists of two aspects: leadership potential and cognitive ability. The first relates to personality and ability to work successfully with others. The second consists of three components: verbal reasoning (ability to read and interpret written documents), numerical reasoning (ability to handle issues related to numbers) and abstract reasoning (ability to understand complex matters).

Over the years, people do not change much in terms of personality and intelligence. The things that do change are mindset, attitude, behaviour and paradigms. Hence, in order to identify the right talent and successors, an organisation needs to clarify potential, personality, cognitive ability and current behaviour by means of 360-degree feedback from bosses and peers.

This is where complications occur. For example, the CEO may view a candidate as someone who always performs and delivers the work, while the "potential" assessment tells a different story. Instead of finding out more, top executives usually trust their instincts over the scientific assessment, which is understandable as it's human nature. Balancing both objective findings and personal insights plays an important role here.

Development programme: Learning how much potential each talent has is a good starting point. Preparing the talent to be ready for challenging work is the difficult part.

Technical knowledge for specific work requirements is essential, of course. However, the ability to work as part of a team is equally important. One useful development approach is to assign a new kind of project that the person has never experienced before. This action-based programme will showcase the abilities of the candidate, who has a chance to prove that he or she is worth being considered for the next level.

Besides team assignments, each person needs an individual development action plan, drafted by the talent and agreed on by his or her boss. In order to be more effective, this plan can be complemented by a coaching programme.

The above three steps may be simple, but they do require a high degree of effort, especially by the HR chief and the CEO, to succeed. A talent programme requires constant monitoring and regular reviews or it could fail. Some talents may leave the company while some may stay put but not perform as well as they should. Following these three simple steps with genuine and consistent effort can help turn your talents into stars and successors for top posts later on.


Sorayuth Vathanavisuth is Principal and Executive Coach at the Center for Southeast Asia Leadership and lectures at Mahidol University's College of Management. His areas of interest are corporate strategy, executive coaching and leadership development. He can be reached at