The 14 Components of an Agile Talent Management Strategy

In business, it is becoming more apparent every day that a large-size company is less of an advantage than speed and agility. There are new stories every month about how smaller firms like Facebook, Zynga, Instagram, and Zappos dominate over larger firms in their same space.

The same shift in critical success factors toward speed and agility is also occurring in the areas of talent management and recruiting.

The once-dominant larger and well-known firms are having difficulty competing because they are not simply not agile enough to continually shift and redirect their talent management approach. I have just returned from the always-excellent ATC conference in Australia where the entire conference was focused on agility in talent management. Although Australia is taking leadership in this area, the need for agility in talent management is almost universal around the world. The need for HR to move fast and to adapt is not new, but the speed that the talent marketplace now changes has made agility in talent management an absolute necessity.

The Definition of Agility in Talent Management

Rather than the traditional “one-size-fits-all” HR strategy and budget that remain unchanged all year, an agile talent management approach requires shifting strategies and approaches rapidly and nimbly as often as each quarter to better meet the changing needs of the talent marketplace. Agility requires that when the environment changes, the talent management strategy must shift to handle those changes in the environment. For example, when the unemployment rate goes up significantly, both recruiting and retention become easier (because everyone have fewer job options), so fewer HR resources need to be applied in order to produce the same results.

Agility requires talent management to be scalable, which means talent management leaders must have a plan to handle both a higher and a lower volume of work and to shift their cost structure up or down in order to meet the “new normal.”

Four Groups of Changes to Prepare for

When you are developing an agile talent management strategy, monitor the environment so that you can respond to changes in it. The four major external environmental categories that you must monitor include:

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  • Changing economic and business factors — which include significant changes in the stock market, interest rates, currency fluctuations, and the unemployment rate.
  • Business actions by your competitors — which include their expansion into new products or regions, new corporate leadership, and higher growth rates.
  • Changes in the talent marketplace — these can include a shortage of talent, higher salary expectations, lower company loyalty, increased demand for innovators, and new HR technologies.
  • Changes in your competitors’ talent management approaches — this includes proactive actions by your competitors including large-scale hiring, hiring freezes, layoffs, high turnover, mergers, and changes in their employer brand image.

Components for Developing an Agile Talent Management Strategy

In addition to monitoring the external environment, there are several other components that are required to build an agile strategy. They include:

  1. Develop a plan that includes at least three growth modes — to plan for both “up” and “down” growth rates, there should be at least three talent management growth modes, including 1) retrenchment and cost-cutting mode, and 2) Slow-/no-growth mode, and 3) rapid growth/innovation mode.
  2. Calculate your likely range of growth and shrinkage — look over the last six years of corporate growth rates and identify the maximum, minimum, and average growth rates over that time period. Then calculate the largest range between the maximum and minimum in order to get the maximum range of variation that you need to plan for. If the total variation is for example 30%, you need to have a plan that includes how you will manage with up to 15% growth, a plan for up to 15% retrenchment/cost reduction, as well as a plan for a zero business growth rate.
  3. Develop the capability of shifting rapidly — work with talent management functions so they become capable of moving fast into the next higher or the next lower new growth mode, right after the environmental factors shift.
  4. Develop a plan for changing direction — develop a plan that allows you to reverse direction and to skip a growth phase (i.e. from rapid growth directly to cost-cutting), as well as having the capability of having different business units move in multi-directions at the same time.
  5. Prioritize your services and business units — even with abundant financial resources, staff and leadership limitations may require prioritizing, so that you can focus your efforts where they can have the highest business impact.
  6. Plan for a well-managed contingent labor component — a critical component of agile talent management is the flexibility to quickly add or release labor capability. Your contingent labor plan should have the capability to meet the likely range of growth and retrenchment spurts.
  7. Learning/sharing plan — speed, change, and rapid movement require a continuous learning and best-practice-sharing capacity.
  8. Measure and improve decision making speed — this is necessary because in a fast-changing competitive world, slow decision-making is an agility killer.
  9. Plan for slack periods — during periods when there is less work to be done in one area, you must have a plan to cross-train workers so that they can be temporarily shifted into alternative jobs.
  10. Plan for overflow capability — develop a plan for handling a sudden but short-term surge in the workload, so that the spurt of work can be handled by designated overflow employees, contingent workers, and/or outsourcing.
  11. Develop a backfill plan — to provide immediate replacements if someone in a key position leaves.
  12. Put agility in the hiring/promotion/leadership criteria — make sure that agility is rewarded by ensuring that it permeates the entire organization.
  13. Use if-then scenarios — use these agility assessment tools for testing the readiness of your managers for appropriately responding to dramatic environmental changes.
  14. Develop effective agility metrics — develop agility metrics and use them to monitor your progress, speed, nimbleness, and ROI.

Final Thoughts

In a world where there is continual rapid and difficult to predict change in the talent marketplace, workforce planning is much harder to do. But this increased difficulty is no reason to reduce your planning effort. Instead, it is more essential that agility planning be done well. So if it is important to understand that you can no longer develop a rigid “one-size for the entire company and the entire year” strategy and plan. Instead, a superior approach is to develop plans with agility, flexibility, and the capability of handling a wide range of upcoming talent management problems and opportunities built into them.

photo from Bigstock

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



4 Comments on “The 14 Components of an Agile Talent Management Strategy

  1. Thanks, Dr. Sullivan. Since you mentioned the term “agile”, I wonder if any of the firms you mentioned or saw in Australia have adopted and implemented the Agile Recruiting Manifesto?

    Manifesto for Agile Recruiting
    (This was “sampled” from the Agile SW Development Manifesto. -kh)

    We are uncovering better ways of hiring people by doing it and helping others do it.
    Through this work we have come to value:
    • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    • Quick, quality hires over comprehensive documentation
    • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
    • Responding to change over following a plan
    That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

    Principles behind the Agile Recruiting Manifesto

    We follow these principles:
    • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of quality hires.
    • Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
    • Deliver quality hires frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
    • Internal customers and recruiters must work together daily throughout the project.
    • Build projects around motivated individuals.
    • Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
    • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a recruiting team is face-to-face conversation.
    • A quality hire which is on-time and within budget is the primary measure of progress.
    • Agile processes promote sustainable employee development.
    • The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
    • Continuous attention to professional excellence and first-class service enhances agility.
    • Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work NOT done–is essential.
    • The best requirements, processes, and hires emerge from self-organizing teams.
    • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.


    I challenge staffing organizations to adopt, implement, and maintain these policies and principles. Don’t know how? I’ll be happy to show you.


    Keith Halperin

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