The toughest challenges facing human resources departments (Toughest HR Question)

Talent management concerns include succession planning, leadership development
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/15/2014

Question: What do you consider to be some of the most challenging human resources issues faced by Canadian employers? Are there any potential solutions to those challenges?

Answer: Some of the biggest HR challenges faced by employers in Canada today fall under the talent management umbrella. These relate to every facet of an organization’s talent management strategies and programs — specifically the acquisition, onboarding, engagement, development, promotion and retention of an organization’s talent.

When people hear the word “talent,” they frequently think of individuals with certain unique or special innate skills or abilities such as artists, musicians and elite athletes. However, everyone possesses unique knowledge and abilities, and organizations are increasingly recognizing the competitive advantage of their own workforce (hence the mantra “Our people are our greatest assets”).

The problem is many organizations haven’t been particularly good at managing talent — particularly in the wake of the recession that began with the global financial crisis in 2008. While employers could get away with a haphazard approach to talent management in the past, certain economic and demographic factors are going to make it imperative for organizations to focus on the recruitment, engagement, development and promotion of talent.

The importance of succession planning

Part of this relates to an aging population and the fact that the large cohort of baby boomers is starting to retire in fairly large numbers. This will result in a tremendous amount of personal and organizational knowledge literally walking out the door.

Organizations will, therefore, need to figure out how to document and retain as much of that knowledge as possible. Appropriate knowledge management solutions will be extremely important to document that knowledge, as will coaching and mentoring. But, above all, succession planning will be key to developing the leaders of tomorrow and passing leadership knowledge from one generation to the next.

The problem is many experts believe there is insufficient depth of talent or “bench strength” of new and emerging leaders ready to step into senior management positions in the near future. That situation came about because many organizations neglected succession planning and talent management over the past few years because they were operating in a “lean and mean” mode in the wake of the recession, and relying on a supply of external talent to fill vacancies for senior leadership positions.

However, in a tighter labour market where it is difficult to find talent, succession planning becomes imperative. In fact, succession planning is necessary in any type of labour market because it makes more sense to groom and develop talent internally so that high-potential employees can be successful when they step into senior leadership positions.

Promoting from within also signals to an organization’s employees that their efforts are likely to be rewarded. This helps to promote enhanced employee engagement and retention, which are also important talent management concepts.

Leadership development and talent acquisition 

Leadership development programs, coaching, mentoring and other development activities such as stretch assignments, secondments and establishing cross-functional project teams can be helpful. 

It is also necessary for each high-potential employee or succession candidate to have an individual development plan in place to document specific training and development activities that will help make her ready to step into a senior leadership role in the relatively near future.

Talent management, of course, also applies to talent acquisition, and there are signs many organizations have been having significant challenges finding and attracting the talent they need. This has led some employers to complain about skills shortages. 

While there are always going to be shortages of skilled workers in certain fields and geographic regions, several studies have questioned the existence of widespread skills shortages in the Canadian labour market. 

Instead, some commentators have suggested that perceived skills shortages could be the fault of employers having unrealistic expectations and insisting on hiring only so-called “purple squirrel” candidates, while others believe unduly restrictive parameters in the applicant tracking system (ATS) may be part of the problem.

Indeed, such systems tend to disqualify non-traditional or “out of the box” candidates who possess required skills and competencies — in spite of the fact they may not have had the same job title in the past or worked for a direct competitor. Employers need to be willing to consider candidates with transferable skills – especially since most people will have several careers in their lifetimes.

Whatever the cause, there is no question organizations are spending much less on training and development these days and have placed far too much emphasis on obtaining talent externally — as opposed to growing their own. While organizations obviously prefer to hire employees who can “hit the ground running,” employers need to return to hiring for potential and cultural fit and focus on developing skills and competencies internally.

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Carswell’s human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions. He can be reached at or visit for more information.

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