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Employers: Bosses expected to master HR skills

"HR needs to prove it can create value and we can prove that spending time on quality conversations does make a substantial contribution to the bottom line."

LESLEY UREN, PA TALENT Management expert

Sharmila Devi

Financial Times

11 April 2013


PA’s Lesley Uren, talent management expert, is extensively quoted in the Financial Times. Lesley shares her view on the role of the HR function in ensuring line managers are capable of having quality conversations with their line reports and questions whether HR or the business should manage and develop talent. 

Lesley begins by explaining how a senior leader with the UK’s NHS told her that clinicians find it easier to tell someone they were very ill than to have a conversation with a colleague about their performance or career potential. Lesley explains: “The reason was because the doctor did not necessarily have an in-depth, personal or long-term relationship with their patients, but did with colleagues and this goes to the heart of the issue.

“Having a great conversation is a highly skilled task and we are asking line managers to develop a skill set on a subject that actually takes the experts years to master.”

Lesley suggests that HR should take a bigger role in managing and developing talent, having the difficult conversations about performance, and guiding and mentoring individuals towards career goals and greater satisfaction within the workplace.

She explains that it may increase their value to an organisation and enhance their experience at work: “What we know is that although perceived wisdom is that this is the line manager’s ‘job’, most organisations will tell you that their line managers find this part of their role particularly challenging – indeed, creating a culture where great conversations happen between the individual and the line manager is almost the ‘holy grail’.”

Lesley goes on to talk about the skills line managers should possess: “Consider as well that we have historically attempted to close this gap by building line manager skills through training programmes of often quite short duration. Putting this in context, this often means that we need to build the capability of line managers to understand seven technical concepts about performance, potential and development and at least four different types of conversational skills – each of which have more complex sub-sets.”

The article draws on a study by PA that asked organisations about what their talented individuals wanted and what was offered to them. The study also looked at what talented individuals wanted from their organisations. The study revealed that there was only a 45 per cent alignment between what talented individuals wanted and what their organisations offered them. “Open, honest and transparent” communication was one of the issues rated highly by individuals and their relationship with their organisation.

The article goes on to list the four key elements of a balanced conversation that are mentioned in the PA study: suspending assumptions, listening, inquiry and advocacy.

Lesley argues that HR professionals need to get more involved in business strategy and should “reclaim the ground” as experts in conversation: “HR talks about the need for a seat at the table and it deserves to be a business partner. At the heart of that, HR needs to prove it can create value and we can prove that spending time on quality conversations does make a substantial contribution to the bottom line. Proven engagement, not a once a year conversation with a line manager, drives performance.”

Lesley talks about a having “quality conversations” and how important these are to help move individuals around the organisation. She talks about a client who worked in the fast-moving consumer goods sector who chose to spend more than half of her time on one-to-one conversations with individuals about their career: “Not all managers have a natural predisposition to lead. They wanted to be an accountant or an engineer but ended up leading others and it becomes tough grafting on additional skills.”


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