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South Africa: Leading or Lagging in Talent Management?

The month of September is always a reminder of the reality of change and transformation.  In South Africa we celebrate the new season of Spring – we see around us how nature is changing and how people, animals and nature welcome the new season of colour, beauty, energy and growth.

In no other spheres of society are the sign of change more prevalent than in politics, culture and sport.  In the political environment, we witnessed yet another successful local government election as a reminder of our maturing democracy at municipal level. South Africans immersed themselves in the dynamics of the dominance of our strong liberation movement in rural areas on the one hand, and the strong growth of opposition parties lead by youth leaders on the other hand.  In essence, the local government election was about retaining leadership talent and about a new breed of young talented leaders making their mark for the first time. At the heart of the election was the millions of voters, many of the youth voters casting their ballots for the first time.  However, poor service delivery, incompetence and corruption remain obstacles to local government performance as clearly indicated in the recent report by the Auditor-General on the audit outcomes of municipal entities.  It is in this vain that Talent Talks opens a new season in South Africa – the season of talent.  It is the position of the editorial panel of Talent Talks that the success of local government service delivery over the next five years will depend on one word only – talent.  We believe that all cities and towns are dependent on the best talent to drive service delivery.  All municipalities require top level council members, engineers, managers and other public servants to ensure effective service delivery, thus, in one word – talent.  Admittedly, big metros and cities are better positioned in terms of the availability of talent and resources in cities.  Unfortunately, rural towns will remain marginalised if they continue to struggle attracting and building local talent. But why can’t rural towns become centres of excellence in education, service delivery and tourism?  New models will have to be found to build local talent, and these models will be talent management models.

The second major milestone in the month of August was Women’s Day.  We were once again reminded of the need to position women empowerment at the centre of society.  At Talent Talks we call it women talent.  You cannot drive the successful execution of your business strategy if you neglect half the population.  I believe that we have to accelerate all efforts of leveraging women talent in all organisations, at all levels and occupations within organisations and different sectors of the economy.  Attracting and retaining women talent should become a top priority for organisations, not only in South Africa, but all over the world.

The third major event in August putting the spotlight on talent is the Olympic Games in Brazil. This major global sporting event epitomizes what talent is all about.  At the end the true test of talent is performance.  We need to be able to recognise the great performance by our athletes and other sport champions.  Once again, the South African swimmers, Chad le Clos and Cameron van den Burgh were leading our sport stars by winning our first set of silver medals.  Wayde van Niekerk won the gold medal in the mens 400 m with a world record time of 43.03 seconds.  Caster Simenya won gold in the womens 800 m.  Our young sport talent also highlights the importance of talent identification, opportunity, development and of course the need for hard work, perseverance and sustainable performance.  I hope that the excitement around the Olympic Games will inspire more South African youngsters with talent to excel and to prepare for international competition. Yet, the role of our schools, coaches, government departments and sport bodies cannot be over-emphasised in becoming centres of excellence in enabling talent to develop and flourish.

In no other field do leaders understand the essence of talent better than in sport.  Sport coaches always pursue the best talent to build the best teams.  Also, sport teams understand the notion of bench strength, i.e. having sufficient back-up talent when needed.  It is therefore once again a proud moment to realise that South Africa occupies one of the top positions in the world when it comes to cricket and rugby, while our golfers and swimmers are also among the top performing sporting nations world-wide. But new and sustainable talent is needed to sustain performance and to create new talent pools. The current talented individuals and teams on the sport fields are clear evidence of the need to build sustainable talent pools, not only for current competitiveness, but also for future success. Business can learn from these efforts in the world of sport.  While potential is often praised, the real test is in performance.  It does not help you to have a high potential team if the team continues to underperform.  The ultimate test is therefore to build high performance teams who can perform in a consistent way.

Despite the positive sentiment from the above examples, the reality is that we face several challenges in business and society at large.  Recent business scandals and poor performance on the sports fields is a reminder of the dichotomy South Africa faces as a nation struggling to build adequate talent pipelines, yet the pockets of excellence we have developed are testimony of the progress made to position talent management as a key facet of corporate and societal transformation.  South Africa is still regarded as one of the most unequal societies in the world and the current level of inequality cannot be perpetuated if we want to build a thriving democracy.  Building large and strong black talent pools in all occupations and levels of organisations reflecting the broader population demographics remains the biggest disappointment in the era of a democratic dispensation in South Africa.

In many areas we are lagging when it comes to talent.  In several highly skilled fields such as engineering, pharmacy, information technology and science we have a shortage of talent.  Notwithstanding these talent gaps, as a nation we have performed well in certain areas.  In the highly specialised field of auditing South Africa is a world leader, and we should be proud of this achievement.  Likewise, South Africa is a world leader in corporate governance and integrated reporting, and some of our talented business leaders like Mervyn King have put South Africa on the map in this new era of moving boards forward with improved governance, sustainability and integrated reporting. Also, talented South Africans have shown the world that South Africa is ready to share our pockets of excellence with the world at large. This has been showcased by some of our top talent ranging from Charlize Theron to Trevor Noah as they have achieved excellence internationally.

We also realise that it is now 16 years after the year 2000, and we are only 14 years away from achieving or failing to achieve the goals of the National Development Plan (NDP).  Talent and people development are at the centre of the NDP, but with only 14 years to go, time may be running out to build sufficient talent pools in leveraging the NDP agenda.  In certain areas we are indeed lagging the world, such as technical skills.  Furthermore, the recently released Sustainable Development Goals set for countries world-wide to achieve is in essence a talent agenda for countries, regions, continents and the world at large.  But these goals, like the Millennium Development Goals may prove to be elusive, if some of the basic elements of national development fundamentals such as education, poverty alleviation and equality programmes are not embedded into national cultures and systems.

However, South Africa is also the first country in the world with a National Talent Management Standard as part of the National Human Resource (HR) standards, and we are indeed proud of this significant achievement.  Making this standard a success is of utmost importance in ensuring that South Africa’s talent needs are addressed.  Failure to do so, will not only cause damage to business, but may deplete the early gains of our young democracy.  High youth unemployment and under-employment in the workplace cannot be perpetuated if we want to become a nation of achievers.  To continue on the path of a less than one percent economic growth is simply not the way to build a competitive nation.

In this vein, the science and practice of talent management provides hope that South Africa’s young talent are indeed our future leaders and specialists in turning the country around into a nation of high performing talent ready to achieve excellence in raising our competitiveness as a country. I salute our young talent, their managers, mentors, family members and companies for supporting them all the way to achieve this milestone in their careers.  Moreover, we are all reminded of the need to accelerate all current efforts in identifying, engaging, developing and retaining talent in South African companies.  We can all become talent leaders or continue to be talent laggers.  This time, time will not tell. There is simply no time to waste on debates about the talent war or talent gaps. That is the reason why have launched Talent Talks in September 2016 – to put talent at the centre of the national agenda.  At company level, talent is the heart beat of business. Without talent, your business will die.  Talent keeps your business going. Talent keeps your business growing.  We need a daily, organisational and national conversation on talent.   It is about getting down and making talent management happen. With a clear national Talent Management standard in place, we have no excuse not to excel in talent management. Talent Talks will keep this conversation alive and we will encourage all those interested in advancing the talent agenda to become involved in sharing their stories and insights.

A purposeful approach to talent management should be our top priority at all South African organisations.  However, we will have to collaborate like never before.  Perhaps that is the new lesson for business from the new notion of coalition politics.  We need a clear focus on collaboration in setting the talent agenda for business, government and society at large.  Ultimately, as is the case in politics and sport –  individuals, teams, organisations and countries will be winners or losers. The strength of your talent management practices will determine in which category you will fall.  Now it the time for talent leadership.  It is my hope and wish that Talent Talks will put talent at the centre of our conversations and discourse as we take our people, organisatons, country and continent forward with a renewed focus on talent as the real kingmaker in business, government and society.  Welcome to South Africa’s Talent Talks, welcome to the new season of talent management. Let us all work together in getting talent management on top of our mind as we do our daily work.

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