Chief Talent Officer: What In the @#$^& Is That?

For the past two days, I have been attending and speaking at the first ever Talent Officer Conference in Austin, Texas. Where else for BIG ideas? Sponsored by (, KPMG, and Fast Company Magazine, it brought together industry pundits and HR leaders to talk about what is happening in the talent marketplace. As John Sumser, Industry guru and the founder of Interbiznet pointed out, we are just in the gentlemanly skirmishes of a talent war that will get bloodier as the months go by. While I often find analogies to warfare exaggerated or trite, in this case I think they apply. His statistics show that job growth has outpaced workforce growth by more than 10% and that there are far more jobs open (about 10,000,000) than there are people to fill them. I believe that this situation will not change unless we can find ways to develop new sources of people who are already in the job market, to reduce the need for as many people as we need today by automation and job redesign, and to tap the global talent pool. As more than 150 attendees listened to these industry gurus ponder where the war for talent is taking the corporate world, we wove together a definition of what a talent officer could and should be. I don’t think anyone fully meets my definition of what a talent officer is, although a surprisingly large number of people wear that title. The concept is new, and yet the people who earn this title, or one similar, will be the people who build coalitions and alliances, who have a global perspective, and who collaborate with whomever it takes in order to bring in and develop the talent that will make their company successful. They will have to live at the intersection of recruiting, career development, training, and retention. A talent officer is far, far more than a recruiter or a trainer or a process integrator. A talent officer is the general and strategist in charge of the war. This is the person who has to understand the objectives of the company, find and develop the people who will be needed to accomplish those objectives, and re-deploy people efficiently and effectively when their initial objectives are achieved–without losing them to the enemy. While more efficiently using, stealing, and borrowing existing talent is a great skill for a world class recruiter, it is not enough for a talent officer. Their focus will have to be on creating a net increase in the supply of people in any needed job category, instead of simply being better at getting at the existing supply. While being well-versed in training technology and having a focus on e-learning are wonderful skills for a world class training manager, it is not enough for a talent officer. They will have to design systems and tools to assess and continuously train people to fill jobs we haven’t even thought of yet. Effective talent officers will be partnering with vendors, working with high schools and colleges, and marketing to the community the benefits of gaining the skills the firm needs. And, while being somewhat familiar with the corporate business objectives and the global talent pool is important, it is not enough for a talent officer. They have to understand the global workforce and know where to move work or people. They will have to do that according to their firm’s business goals. A talent officer has to influence management to implement the integrated solutions this war will require for victory. More often than not these days the person chosen to be talent officer will not be an HR person, but a marketing person or line manager or business leader who has established credibility with senior management and who can marshal and coordinate whatever it takes to meet the corporate objectives. Alan Webber, Founding Editor of Fast Company Magazine, gave the best advice of the conference when he advocated breaking the rules. In a war, winners win because they do the unexpected and devise and execute new strategies. HR has consistently failed to show strategic initiative and a “can do” spirit. Many, some say most, HR people are process police who focus on doing something “right” rather than on doing something that has an effect on the bottom line. All in all, the two days of conference and networking was invigorating and a challenge to all of us–even those of us who profess to know more than some others about what is happening. I think we were all humbled a bit by the magnitude of what is in front of us. As Sumser said, the war is just beginning.

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Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


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