Bottoms-up for talent!

Bottom up

During one of our recent programmes on Leading and Managing Talent we were privileged to be invited to the prestigious Adam Smith Institute (ASI) where we heard from their executive director Sam Bowman.

Sam was a real breath of fresh air and it soon became clear that true talent management is genuinely about bringing the best out of people.  To do this however, the organisational climate must be right. We heard that a number of things should be in place and considered as the norm by everyone in the organisation, including things like:

  • freedom for individuals to make suggestions
  • freedom for individuals to follow their experience and instincts in making positive improvements and changes
  • freedom to take calculated risks and make mistakes without being punished
  • inclusive and collaborative styles of leadership and management as the organisational norms – managers as ‘facilitators’, not ‘controllers’
  • a sense of the encouragement of self-determination and self-actualisation throughout the organisation
  • forward looking rather than backwards looking organisational paradigm
  • external rather than purely internal organisational focus

It also became clear that, within agreed boundaries, talent is best managed from the bottom upwards so that people have the freedom to explore and take risks in whatever way they feel is appropriate, allowing the best pursuit and furtherance of organisational vision, mission and goals.  From what we heard, this is certainly the case at the ASI and must surely be part of the reason for their continued successes.

So, what is a bottom up approach then?

A bottom up approach is a concept, that emerged from the more democratic ideals that the wider western world began adopting more in the 20th century. It operates by encouraging participation and cooperation as a way of harnessing the skills and knowledge that the organisations members have to offer to develop a wider peer to peer holocracy.

It is no surprise that employees don’t like to work on things they don’t like to do. So, in terms of talent, taking this bottom-up approach often means that positive infectious energy is created, employee engagement is high and maintained, talent is retained.

What’s wrong with top down?

A top down approach has served many public organisations and private corporates around the world successfully and has worked well for years…right?  Well…perhaps, but whilst well-intentioned, a top down talent management may cause talented individuals to be over-focused in a particular direction or on a particular issue.  Inadvertently this can cause these people to become inhibited in the directions or issues which they feel naturally could or even should be pursued, in an attempt to meet what senior managers appear to want. This again caused us to reflect upon whether talent is calling upon natural skills, or is simply a shorthand way of describing highflyers. My last blog Nature or Nurture explored this dilemma.

It seems that the more guidance, rules and regulations, boundaries and constraints that are imposed ‘from the top’, the more these become a barrier to engagement and success: true creativity and innovation is stifled for those trying to call upon their talents, something that tech giant Netflix realised several years ago and addressed early.


After our visit and during our reflection session, our discussions led us to explore some differences between creativity and innovation – terms which are often used together without really acknowledging that they probably represent two completely different ideas:

Creativity is generally considered to be the thinking of something new (a new idea, concept, product, service), whilst innovation is considered as the implementation of creative ideas into something that adds value to the organisation or society.

Linking this to the concept of talent, we then realised that when talent is considered an inbuilt characteristic of an individual (nature), creativity is likely to be the outcome. When talent is considered to be a high flyer (nurture), this is likely to result in innovation.

My take on this is that a bottom-up approach would seem to encourage talent within an organisation for both the creation of new ideas and innovation of implementation.  With the dramatic shifts in the future and importance of working, highlighted recently by the RSA, this type of talented innovation seems to me all the more important to help solve both impending commercial and societal problems.

We were delighted to hear various examples from Sam, which illustrated well the practical points that he was making. We are indebted to Sam and the ASI for welcoming us and giving us such valuable insights into the world of talent and performance management.


Leading and Managing Talent 2017 - at the Adam Smith Institute, London

Leading and Managing Talent Programme 2017 – at the Adam Smith Institute, London (Pictured with Sam Bowman, Centre)

Notes to editors:

ATi provide bespoke programmes through both face-to-face and supported blended learning, including understanding, developing, leading and managing talent, and the development of effective competency frameworks.

This blog and content are the copyright of Accredited Training International.  Content can be quoted, extracted or shared with permission.  ATi do not accept responsibility for the content of external links that are outside of our control. For media enquiries, please email

The new world of Talent: Nature or Nurture?

Talent balance

Recently my colleagues and I have been delighted to work with two groups of senior managers from the Indonesian government.  They came to the UK to explore the issues of talent management and performance management.

During our many discussions it became clear early on that the term “talent management” is both complex and ambiguous and can be used in a range of contexts for a range of purposes. Thinking this through together caused us to identify that talent is really “in the eye of the beholder” as we say in the UK:  it depends on the perspective that you are taking.

Like me, you might have noticed that many organisations are now installing talent management processes. All well and good then, but surely this depends on your definition of talent?  Opinion on this subject appears to be split, some saying that certain individuals are talented and need to be identified and specifically nurtured within an organisation on a specific talent management programme.  Others identify that everyone is talented, and the secret is to bring out the best in everyone.


Working within our programmes, our guests took as their definition of talent as the highflyers within their organisation.  They were looking for guidance on how to identify this group of talented people and how to develop them further. This caused me to refer to some dictionary definitions on talent:

  • “Someone who has a natural ability to be good at something, especially without being taught”. Cambridge English Dictionary
  • “Natural aptitude or skill”. Oxford English Dictionary

These seemed to confirm that part of talent is about some natural ability or aptitude.   However, if this is the case, how come organisations are also focusing upon “growing talent”?  I think we are dealing with two distinct types of activity:

  • Talent: Natural characteristics, skills and abilities
  • High Performer: Learned knowledge, skills, behaviours

It seems obvious that organisations are seeking high performers, but to assume that our high performers also have the natural characteristics, skills and abilities needed, might be a false assumption.  I put this to our guests which allowed us to think about what sort of criteria should we use for identifying high-performers. What separates these individuals from the regular and essential individuals who perform adequately and appropriately? It turned out that some very specific criteria would be needed.

Using Competencies

The specific criteria needed can be in the form of effective competency statements. However, using competency statements can causes issues in its own right. One of the important pitfalls of many competency frameworks is that they cause people to focus too much on complying with a few specific criteria, which in turn inhibits innovation and creativity, one of the very things that we are looking for in our high performer version of talent.

Of course, a properly devised competency framework, which is then effectively used, should be able to provide such criteria. But how many competency frameworks are devised with this sort of flexibility and developmental approach built in, and how many are used effectively within the organisation?  An effective competency framework is more likely to be more successful if, for example:

  • Criteria at a number of different ‘levels’ are used for each competency. This should help differentiation between ‘just meeting’, ‘meeting well’ and ‘significantly exceeding’ in each of the competence areas.
  • All criteria are performance-achievement focused, rather than task-focused. This should ensure that the ‘talented’ individuals and their ideas are not constrained or limited by the criteria themselves.
  • Competencies are grouped and assessed, according to the nature of the activity (for example Communication, Behaviour & Approach, Technical requirements), to ensure specific strengths in different areas can be identified and built upon.
  • Managers receive training and mentoring on how to use the competency framework effectively and fairly.

Fast-track and motivation

When identified, perhaps using competencies, some individuals are put through some form of fast track development are nurtured within an organisation.  But, what does this do in terms of motivation for those that are not selected? Often other “hard working” individuals end up feeling hard done by because they have not been looked upon favourably in terms of development when compared to others “why not me?” I hear them cry, as they become increasingly demotivated and disengaged.

The talent conundrum laid bare…

So, talent it seems can be both natural skills and abilities, AND learnt skills and abilities. Individuals can be assessed (formally or informally) to establish the extent which they meet what the organisation needs within the organisation’s own definition of talent. All employees could be considered talented in some way, or only those that have been specifically identified and selected.  The identification and selection of “talents” depends on what the organisation, department, or individual manager perceives as appropriate. The identification process can be very effective when using clear criteria, but more commonly might be a loose artistic arrangement, like “I know talent when I see it”.  This of course is of highly subjective and relies increasingly on personal perspectives.

Questions on talent

Talent has many faces and many meanings.  One of the questions often asked is how to refocus or improve talent management solutions. Perhaps a good place to start is to ask some basic questions:

  1. What do you really mean by the word talent?
  2. How is this different from what other people within your organisation or partnerships mean by talent?
  3. Is everybody treated equally in the identification and development of what talents they have, or are some individuals singled out for special attention?
  4. What are the implications for everyone of the approach that you and your organisation take?

A talented future?

Due to changing nature of work across the globe at the moment, there can be no ultimate recipe for talent. Change is changing. There are, however, some common things that organisations should consider (and the more effective organisations perhaps already do):

  • Build and maintain a culture for innovation
  • Use an effective competency framework to set the criteria for measuring degrees of talent: everyone knows what to aim for to increase their skills
  • Identify and recognise the talent in everyone and nurture the talents discovered to maximise everyone’s contributions and build motivation
  • Use the identification of talents to ensure the right people are in the right jobs
  • Reward people for their suggestions, ideas and innovations – even if they are only small changes
  • Remember that people need to be positively motivated to bring out their talents, so attend to individual and team motivations
  • Build your organisation’s reputation as one that values people and develops their talents, which send an essential positive message to staff, customers and stakeholders alike

By doing at least some of these, an organisation is more likely to attract and retain the specific individuals and teams people needed, not only to operate but to also thrive in an increasingly competitive and volatile world.


Notes to editors:

ATi provide bespoke programmes through both face-to-face and supported blended learning, including understanding, developing, leading and managing talent, and the development of effective competency frameworks.

This blog and content are the copyright of Accredited Training International.  Content can be quoted, extracted or shared with permission.  ATi do not accept responsibility for the content of external links that are outside of our control. For media enquiries, please email

Coaching, Performance Management and Reflecting on Reflections


It has been delightful working with two groups of senior civil servants from the Indonesian Government over the last three weeks. They had come to the UK to explore issues of Strategic Performance Management and Coaching and Mentoring for Trainers. It has been a pleasure for ATi to host these delegates, these programs again running in partnership with Middlesex University Business School.

As well as supporting our delegates to further enhance their subject knowledge, one of the things that we particularly focused upon was the importance of reflections. It occurred to me that as English was not their first language, from time to time some individuals used an online dictionary to check the meaning of words – “reflections” being potentially quite ambiguous.

Take the idea of reflections being what you see when you look in the mirror. This was appropriate as one of the focal points of their training was to encourage people to look at themselves in terms of their actions, skills, knowledge, approaches, behaviours, and emotional control (my ‘ASK ABE’ model, published back in 2007). This work quite well, although culturally this is something that does not come naturally to individuals in South East Asia, where people are often more interested in the relationships with other people than in examining themselves. Reflections in a mirror therefore fits quite well with looking internally to see what actions could enhance each individual and their interpersonal behaviour and performance.

Reflections can also be taken to mean reviewing. In this sense we were encouraging people to review the systems and processes policies and procedures and the way in which these were utilised in their organisation to look for the strengths weaknesses opportunities and threats in order that they might identify areas that could be changed to optimise their operations.

Reflections can also be considered an important part of many religious faiths – reflecting on the world at large, life in general, and the current situation and context of the individual and groups. The majority of our guests were of the Muslim religion, and it was very clear, especially as Friday prayers were approaching, that reflection would form an important part of their prayer meetings.

Each Friday for our groups we allowed some additional time in the afternoon following Friday prayers for training programme and workplace reflection. We did not specify, however, where this should take place. For our guests this was mainly their first visit to the UK, and whatever spare time they had was taken in sightseeing and shopping. A new meaning was added to my idea of reflections when one of our participants told me they were going to reflect as they walked around, and that they had a number of shopping bags with them in which to put their “reflection notes”!

So what is reflection? There are many writers providing self-help books, life coaching books and online processes for CPD, all referring to reflection. For me reflection is about looking at what has recently occurred and asking myself – What happened? Why did that happen? Was this good or could it have been better? What needed to happen to improve or enhance it? What were the key points that I learnt from it? How could I use this learning to be more effective next time this or something very similar crops up?…… and so on.

Michael Jackson had it about right with his 1988 hit Man in the Mirror (lyrics by Garrett and Ballard), that clearly sends the message “…if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change”. I too firmly believe that change starts within.

And then of course, ideally we should reflect on reflections…… Thinking about how well did we just reflect? Did we genuinely pick out the good the bad and the ugly from recent activities? Did we truly look at the learning points? Did we really take the time to examine a range of options to enhance this next time? Did we make notes or something similar to be sure that next time the activity occurs we really did learn from last time? Or were we simply reflecting in passing whilst shopping or sightseeing?   And, of course, for those who must keep or like keeping CPD records, how has this reflection been recorded?

Ultimately we all need to reflect effectively, and reflecting on our reflection skills must surely therefore fall into the categories of essential life skills as well as management skills.

So what are your reflections on my thoughts? More importantly, what have you learnt from this, and how will you use this learning?  All our participants seem to gain significantly from their visit to Middlesex University in London and I’d like to thank all my ATi and University colleagues and associates for their hard work and contributions to the programme. We all wish our new friends in the Indonesian Civil Service the very best of luck with the challenges that lie ahead!



Strategic Performance Management: What AND How

I have been looking forward to the last few weeks of August for a while now – not just because of the prospect of some summer weather (at last) but also because this is when our Open Programme on Strategic Performance Management is taking place for overseas visitors, in partnership with Middlesex University London.

Last week my colleagues and I took great pleasure in receiving our distinguished guests from the Indonesia Government and introducing them to London.  Over the last few days we have been exploring a number of tools and techniques in relation to performance management from a number of different perspectives.

On a very hot summers day, as part of our programme we were very privileged to be invited to a senior UK government department to hear from a number of specialist senior staff about the context, strategy and detail of performance management within the UK Government.  My special thanks to our hosts for their help and support in providing such excellent sessions, and exceeding all expectations with both the content and the hosting of our visit.   All our delegates really enjoyed themselves and I know from our summary session afterwards that everyone had learned a great deal from the visit.

One of the most interesting things was the emphasis within UK government PMS of balancing the ‘What’ with the ‘How’ – making sure that both Task achievement, and personal behaviours are given equal weighting when reviewing performance.  I was also stuck by the inclusion of significant self-assessment as a cornerstone of the process.  These two focal points reinforced my own experiences of the very best in PM systems: those that looking at the person, not simply the task. Indeed, it is refreshing that my own maxim of “look after the people, and the people will be motivated to do the work well” appears to be very relevant.

When managing people, do you focus on the needs of the people that work with you, or focus on the needs of the task outputs? The UK government are setting a brilliant example from their internal and external research, and seem to have created a framework that has been adopted by almost all of the various government departments, which in turn encourages and motivates staff to offer high level performance.  How could we all learn from this?

SPM Group Cabinet Office 2016 (ATi)
Our SPM Group pictured here with Sam and Becky
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