August 10th 2011

Potential and Talent Management

Since the dawn of the wage-based society at the end of the 19th century – and with it the division of labour and the establishment of organizational hierarchy – human resource management has continuously evolved. At the start of the 20th century, a change was observed with the advent of scientific management (developed by Frederick Taylor) and of practices to enhance employee well-being (Saba et al., 2008).  The transformation continued during the 1950s through the 1970s, as witnessed by improved labour relations and a rise in hiring-centred activities (Saba et al., 2008). By the end of the 20th century, two approaches had emerged: strategic human resource management and skills management. Most recently, over the past ten years (2001-2011), human resource management has turned more and more toward a focus on competencies and on talent management (Foucher, 2010).

Although talent management has become very fashionable, we have yet to see the establishment of consistent, concise definitions of “talent” and the associated management practices (Morin, 2010). In order to shed some light on this subject for our readers, we will be posting a series of four articles on the EPSI blog, which will examine both the practical and scientific advances made in this domain. In this first article, the background that provided the basis for the emergence of talent management will be explained, and the talent management approach will be presented, based on its definition and goals. In our next article, we will explore the key concepts of “talent” and “potential”. The third article will address a number of key points to be considered when identifying high-potential employees. Finally, the fourth article will present a critique of the approach and some comments from authors in the field.

Background and definition of talent management

In 2001, the book The War for Talent made its first appearance on North American bookshelves. Co-authored by three consultants from US firm McKinsey & Company, this book paved the way for a new approach to management, called “talent management” (Silzer & Church, 2009). This new approach arose in order to help organizations adapt to the new global, socioeconomic reality (Michaels, Handfield-Jones & Axelrod, 2001).

Old realityNew reality
People need companiesCompanies need people
Machines, capital, and geography are the competitive advantageTalented people are the competitive advantage
Jobs are scarceTalented people are scarce
Employees are loyal and jobs are securePeople are mobile and their commitment is short-term
People accept the standard package they are offeredPeople demand much more

Given this new context, in which talented staff are both scarce and the source of competitive advantage, Michaels, Handfield-Jones and Axelrod (2001) assert that an organization needs to adopt five “imperatives” in order to stand out above the rest. First, the organization must embrace a talent mindset at all levels of management. In other words, the organization must: (a) have the conviction that better corporate performance requires better management of talented employees; (b) make talent management a priority; and (c) involve all levels of management in identifying talented staff (Boudreau & Ramstad, 2004). Second, the organization must craft a winning employee value proposition (Kim, 2008). Third, the organization will need to apply best practices in its talent recruitment, evaluation and selection processes in order to be capable of accurately identifying key people. Fourth, excellent opportunities and strong development programs are needed in order to encourage the full development of talented individuals. Fifth, organizations wishing to institute a talent management approach will need to develop a parallel human resource management structure. Given that talented personnel provide a competitive advantage to the organization, these employees merit a different treatment in the interest of their retention, namely through broader opportunities for development (Foucher, 2010).  Thus it can be seen that talent management is an integrated set of processes, programs and cultural norms, introduced within an organization to attract, develop, integrate and retain talent in order to meet current organizational goals as well as future needs (Silzer & Dowell, 2010).

Employees and talent management

According to the talent management approach, there are three types of employees: A, B and C players (Michaels et al., 2001). Employees are categorized based on their potential to add value to the organization (Berger, 2004). Adherents of this approach assert that staff must be differentiated in consideration of the relative contributions made by each member toward meeting the organization’s strategic objectives (Becker, Huselid & Beatty, 2009). To put it differently, employees are not all the same and so should not be treated the same. First there are the A players, who are talented or high-potential employees (Lewis & Heckman, 2006). These individuals boast superior achievements, inspire others to excel and reflect the organization’s core values and skill sets (Foucher, 2010; Reilly, 2008). Next come the B players – the vast majority of the staff at most companies – who meet but do not exceed the organization’s expectations (Foucher, 2010). Finally, C players are employees whose performance falls short of expectations (Berger, 2004). A number of authors share the opinion that the more talented employees an organization has, the more successful it will be (Huselid, Beatty & Becker, 2005). But what makes for a talented employee? And what exactly is “talent”? Our next article in the series will answer these questions and more.

Philippe Longpré, PhD Cdt.

Marilyne Pigeon, PhD Cdt.


Becker, B.E., Huselid, M.A., & Beatty, R.W. (2009). The differentiated workforce: Transforming talent into strategic impact.

Berger, L.A. (2004). “Creating a talent management system for organizational excellence” in L.A. Berger & D.R. Berger (Eds.), The Talent Management Handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1-49.

Boudreau, J.W., & Ramstad, P.M. (2004). Talentship and the evolution of human resource management: from “professional practices” to “strategic talent decision science”. Los Angeles: Center for Effective Organizations.

Foucher, R. (2010). Gérer les talents et les compétences : principes, pratiques, instruments. Tome 1: Fondements de la gestion des talents et des compétences. Montreal: Éditions nouvelles.

Huselid, M.A., Beatty, R.W., & Becker, B.E. (2005). “‘A Players’ or ‘A Positions’? The strategic logic of workforce management”. Harvard Business Review, December 2005, 1-8.

Kim, P.S. (2008). “How to attract and retain the best in government”. International Review of Administrative Sciences 4, 637-652.

Lewis, R.E. & Heckman, R.J. (2006). “Talent management: a critical review.” Human Resource Management Review 16, 139-154.

Michaels, E., Handfield-Jones, H. & Axelrod, B. (2001). The War for Talent. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Morin, D. (2010). “Rendement et potentiel élevés : essentiels à la gestion des talents”.

Reilly, P. (2008). “Identifying the right course for talent management”. Public Personnel Management 4, 381-388.

Saba, T., Dolan, S.L., Jackson, S.E. & Schuler, R.S. (2008). La gestion des ressources humaines: tendances, enjeux et pratiques actuelles, 4th ed. Quebec: ERPI.

Silzer, R. & Church, A.H. (2009). “The pearls and perils of identifying potential”. Industrial and Organizational Psychology 2, 377-412.

Silzer, R. & Dowell, B.E. (2010). Strategy-Driven Talent Management: A Leadership Imperative. New York: Jossey-Bass.