How to Build a 2019 Talent Strategy

Talent can be a competitive advantage instead of an ongoing struggle.


These 8 steps will show you how to identify priorities, vet ideas and build a cohesive talent strategy.


1. What business are you in?

2. What are the objectives of your business for 2019–2021?

3. Understand the gaps & brainstorm ideas.

4. Make 1st draft plan.

5. Experiment with theTalent Journey.

6. Make a budget.

7. Put it all together.

8. Learn.


Why build a talent strategy?

HR’s role used to be administration and enforcement. Those are still important functions. They get little respect until your paycheck is wrong or your company starts layoffs to pay for a compliance mistake. But they’re also not enough in today’s world of work.


Today, talent leadership needs to be growth and enablement. Grow leaders who develop more leaders. Find, build and align talent to the goals of the business. Foster healthy cultures. Balance security with freedom. Often all with a fraction of the budget for sales and marketing.


So, how do we deliver as a growth engine rather than a cost center?

We build a proactive talent strategy.


Here’s how.


1. What business are you in and how does the business make money?


If you don’t own the business, double check your answers here before moving on. This is about way more than naming your industry or product.

1a. What market are you in? 1b. How does your company compete within your market? 1c. Who are your customers? 1d. What products or services actually pay the bills? 1e. Who are your competitors and what are they up to? 1f. (if applicable) Where does your team/division fit in the larger scale of the business?

Why start here?


This is info is foundational to how the business stays in business. A grand plan that runs counter to that reality will be difficult or even harmful to implement. An aligned plan will be powerful and budget worthy.


2. What are the objectives of your business in 2019–2021?


Do not start with headcount targets! Cannot say this enough!


Adding headcount is not a business objective. Adding headcount is a way to achieve a goal. A means and not an end.


Consider a 20 person company sustainably and healthily producing the exact same output as a 50 person company. The 50 person team is clearly not the “better” business.


Why then do so many leaders start with “I want to add 20 people this year.”?


Two terrible reasons.

1. Most companies have created a counterproductive link between power and personnel real estate.

2. Headcount is so much easier to understand and share than EBITA or complex customer service issues.


If you’re a services company, it’s easy to link “more billable people” to “more revenue”. But there’s still room to think about how to grow beyond incremental headcount.


If your business objectives are stuck at the headcount stage, check out some of the great resources out there from Measure What Matters, Strategic Doing, The Advantage or whoever else you like for business inspiration. They don’t need to be strictly financial goals.


You may have a people focused goal such as increasing retention. But it should be set with intention.


To avoid the world’s largest tangent, I’ll assume you have goals outside of headcount and move on to mapping them to talent.


3. Understand the goals and the gaps.


Whoever set the goals and whoever will execute on the goals should do this together. If you’re HR, do this with your business leader. If you’re the owner, bring in hiring leaders.

Make this a small and targeted group to be conducive to discussion. You may want to do this within each division or even within each team and roll up the results. Or, start high level but have smaller teams take the resulting objectives and plan from there.


Ask and answer the following for each goal specific to talent.


Don’t waste time trying to be perfect or listing every single detail. Instead, estimate, take your best educated guesses and engage knowledgeable others to answer these.

Ideal is to put these on a whiteboard with post-its for each answer.




3a. What is “the work” to meet that goal? Literally what stuff needs to happen. For oversimplified example — make a new product. 3b. What skills, abilities, competencies and/or bandwidth are required to complete the work? For another oversimplified example — design, development, production, testing, marketing and probably more depending on your business. You get the idea. 3c. What timelines do you estimate? 3d. What is the current composition of the teams involved? 3e. What are the risks or challenges in your current environment to get there? 3f. What’s missing from the needed skills?

Once you’ve answered each, look for similarities, trends and overlaps. This is where moving post-its into themed groups can be helpful.


The three to five themes that appear most often should be the focus of your strategy.

These could include priorities such as: add technical depth in Azure, retain our subject matter experts or build a customer service mentality.


The objective is to know what skills/abilities/information will close the gap between your current setup and the future you need. If something is missing, add it but do so carefully.


Why look through this lens?

The more time you have, the better your options are. Traditionally this information has filtered to HR/recruiting at some point but that point has been when the hire is urgent, the market is tight and time to fill is over 60 days. Not great for anyone.


A strategic approach means understanding the work to be done not just the job description you’ve been handed. Hiring is not always the answer.


These strategic themes can be turned into plans (below) and be used to evaluate new ideas as they come up throughout the year.


4. Make a 1st draft plan.


Map your priorities in order of importance.

Then map them by time horizon from immediate to long-term. Long-term in your business may be 5 years or 1 year. Use a scale that makes sense for your business.

Doing this visually will help to give you perspective as you build out ideas.




Begin brainstorming solutions for each priority as individuals. Write your ideas on individual post-its. Take some time to think about ideas. Multiple solutions encouraged.


The Design Sprints have some great ways to both to come up with ideas and quickly test them. For instance to identify leading ideas, try dot-voting. Each person reads every idea and gets 1–3 votes (depending on group size) to cast for their favorites with either dot stickers or marker dots. The ideas with the most votes move forward.


Take note here of any ideas that conflict with step 1 — how you make money. That’s not to say that things that don’t generate revenue are bad or impossible. Goodwill can be wonderful. But ideas that directly conflict with the money machine will need to have a powerful “why” behind them. That’s reality.


5. Experiment with the Talent Journey™.


Take your leading ideas and turn them into small affordable experiments.


Do you need a brand new cafeteria built or can you see if providing food in once a month garners attendance? Test this in different areas of the office to see if it’s really the space or workloads that have people eating at their desks.


Can you try the idea with a smaller group? If you do this, pick a diverse group of voices and make sure to include at least one known skeptic.


Why use the Talent Journey (<- shameless promo) as a view for experiments?

Humans need repetition and consistency to create change. We don’t hear something once and do things differently. Especially at work, we believe what we hear, see and experience exponentially more than a mission statement or a memo.


It’s critical to understand the whole system to create that consistency.




Your experiments can be inside of one stage but you should plan with the following questions:

5a. Does this effort align or conflict with what we’re saying at other points in our talent journey? 5b. Is this origin of this behavior or outcome? Is it a reaction to something else? Trace the origins to treat more than symptoms. 5c. What ripple effects could this have? 5d. Where else can we reinforce this idea? 5e. How will we know this is working? What does success look like? 5f. What assumptions are we making?

Use the whole system to solve the problem.


You may think you need to hire 10 people when really you could train 5 current employees in less time. You may think you need to add perks when you really need to fix a toxic culture or train managers.


Before moving on, evaluate this plan from a time and effort standpoint.


Are you dedicating 80% of your time to an idea that’s going to pay off two years from now? That might be perfect if it’s the hardest and most important thing your business will do to survive. That might be awful if you’re entering the year behind from 2018 and it’s a less important problem.


6. Finance needs a budget. Do math.


Estimate both the cost of the experiments and the cost of going big on any of the ideas to give yourself a budget to start with. Lay the costs out over the timeline you built in step 4.

Use historical data to evaluate the actual cost of whatever you’re trying to fix.

For example turnover aka the financial case for retention: Cost of Current Employee = $87,225 Comp + Benefits Cost of Replacement = $102,543 Comp + Benefits (we wanted someone senior to “hit the ground running”) + $45,235 lost opportunity during search + ramp up that happens even when someone is senior + $10,345 recruiting costs ….

Then make sure it makes sense (cents! ha!). If you’re thinking about spending $60,000 on something with $6,000 in return on paper, a better idea is probably out there.


Look at the returns and edit your grand plan budget accordingly. Unless you work somewhere with big happy padded budgets. Then go wild and tell the rest of us about it!

You’ll likely also need headcount budget numbers at this point. Depending on size and your finance department, this may be a small or herculean effort.


As a general rule, your and/or the hiring leader’s headcount totals should result from the following:


  • The work to be performed to meet goals (see: step 2)

  • The work to be performed to keep the train on the tracks. These are year over year consistencies that may not be tied to a strategic initiative but you want to keep running smoothly.

  • Anticipated turnover. Key internal indicators include: year over year trends including seasonality and workplace sentiment.

  • Market demand. Higher demand in the market means higher pull on your existing team. That can lead to higher turnover and/or the need to increase salaries internally.

7. Put it all together.


You should now have:


  1. An overview of your business

  2. The top business objectives for 2019–2021

  3. A list of talent gaps or risks for each

  4. 3 to 5 clear major themes and priorities

  5. Experiments to validate your ideas

  6. A budget and timeline that looks beyond immediate needs

  7. Outcomes that maximize your efforts on impactful work!


8. Learn.


A lot can change between an idea in December and a business in June. It’s healthy to adapt your ideas to the current reality. The distance between reality and your plan is the answer to whether it’s time to adjust or start the planning over. Critical for this strategy to work is to keep efforts and resources focused on the outcomes of the business even as those evolve.


For ideas and more discussion, we hope you’ll join us for our upcoming series discussing the Talent Journey in detail. We’ll cover each stage and ideas to both leverage your strengths and address any process shortcomings.


Either way, let us know how this goes for you and any improvements you make to this approach. We want to learn from you too.

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