Are talent programmes ageist?

15 August 2015
Author: Jane Simms

CIPD Affiliate membership

Talk of ‘high potentials’ is too often shorthand for ‘young’ – and that’s an expensive waste of true ability

Mike Minett, managing director of The Positive Ageing Company, tells an instructive story about talent. He recently sat with a group of senior leaders in a global professional services firm, who were discussing how to spot bright minds within their organisation.
 
One of the party suggested they identify “young rising stars”. Though others felt the term was perhaps prejudicial, the alternatives were no more inclusive. And to their horror, they realised they were ruling themselves out of the talent conversation. “They were in their late forties, early fifties, and envisaged many years of productive work ahead of them,” says Minett. “There was shock and surprise around that table.”
 
Most organisations operate some sort of programme aimed at identifying future leaders and fast-tracking them to success. Though older employees can be included in such initiatives, the very concept lends itself to those who have recently joined the organisation or sector, and who exhibit the ambition and willingness to advance quickly. Few would disagree that older employees are chronically under-represented on talent programmes generally, and a case could be made that they have become inherently ageist.
 
The words we choose to describe talent – whether ‘fast track’, ‘high potential’ and ‘high flier, or an emphasis on ‘energetic’ and ‘ambitious’ as key attributes – only exacerbate the problem. And in this way, language becomes part of “the stories we tell ourselves to justify the biases we create,” says David Clutterbuck, management thinker and author of The Talent Wave.
 
“Much of the historical language of talent management has been ageist and elitist,” says CIPD research adviser Claire McCartney. “Thinking about ‘young versus old’ is stereotypical and unhelpful.”
 
And forgetting older employees in the talent race is not only expensive, and potentially illegal, it is wasteful too. According to Niace, The National Voice for LifeLong Learning, over the next 10 years there will be 14 million new vacancies created in the UK, and only seven million school, college and university leavers to fill them. Clutterbuck says: “We allow older people to ‘fail’ by leaving them in jobs too long. They become demotivated and unproductive, which leads you down the performance management path. Then they become even more demoralised, and failure is almost inevitable.”
 
“Focusing on the inclusive talent agenda could help to turn around the UK’s productivity problems,” agrees McCartney. “To do this, organisations need to provide greater support for the extension of working lives.”
 
The role of line managers, supported by HR, is to identify and nurture ‘talent’ throughout the organisation, regardless of age, says Clutterbuck. This should boil down to ‘the three As’: Aspiration (to grow and achieve), Ability (to learn) and Applied energy (including curiosity, motivation and impetus). All are age-neutral: “There are people in their eighties who have all of them, and people in their twenties who demonstrate none of them.”
 
Many people reach a point where they lose their sense of purpose, but research on plateaued managers shows their get up and go can be restored with the right stimuli, says Clutterbuck.
 
While this might include training, recasting jobs to allow people to apply the skills they already have, or moving them into different roles that are better suited to their strengths, may be more effective solutions. Clutterbuck points out that jobs are constantly evolving and that individuals, however old, need to be helped to adapt.
 
Minett has noted a rise in ‘job crafting’ – a concept where employer and employee work together to design a job that is useful to both sides. “That might include building more flexibility into a job, or creating a new role that better utilises someone’s experience – and in a way that’s likely to keep them working happily and productively for longer,” he says.
 
Forging better inter-generational connections in the workplace is another way of helping to utilise the talent of older workers. Two-way mentoring (with younger employees teaching older colleagues about social media, for example) is on the rise, and Seb O’Connell, executive vice-president and managing director for Europe at talent specialist Cielo, cites a recent study which showed that older workers who are allowed to share their ‘life skills’ with their younger colleagues feel more valued personally and add value to their employers.
 
O’Connell believes that organisations should view ‘talent’ as a much more inclusive concept, “not just in age terms, but more generally” – but he senses the beginning of a sea change, albeit one driven by demographics.
 
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in the UK is a case in point: 45 per cent of its 64,000-plus workforce are now aged 50 or over. As Gill Nicholson, head of talent, engagement and diversity, says: “If we saw them as ‘dead wood’ we wouldn’t be able to function.” HMRC has recently launched three programmes designed to build leadership capability among people of different ages and in different grades. ‘Spring’ is aimed at junior admin staff; ‘Leap’ targets junior and middle managers, and ‘Ascend’ is aimed at the traditional feeder grades for the senior civil service.
 
“Because HMRC is evolving continuously, we can’t afford to let any of our staff plateau,” says Nicholson. “Line managers have to understand individuals and their aspirations, which might be about developing depth or breadth of experience rather than just climbing the career ladder.” At the firm Minett worked with, they’re also thinking differently about talent, and have settled for identifying ‘stars’ rather than high-fliers. As he says: “You can work three days a week, even one day a week, and still deliver ‘star’ value.”
 
This article was originally published in the August 2015 issue of People Management.