Talent management, succession planning and knowledge management seem like HR buzzwords of the last decade, yet for some businesses they represent a very real and very threatening problem.

A global engineering company with an outstanding reputation has a highly skilled and experienced workforce with experience going back to the first jet aircraft, the first nuclear power stations and the first large scale materials handling systems in the UK.

The problem is that 50% of these people will reach retirement age in the next 5 years. This means that 50% of the company's tacit knowledge will disappear, and the older installations that the company still supports will be left with no instruction manual.


Historically, the company has had no formal knowledge management structure, and knowledge was passed across generations using the time honoured methods of apprenticeship and team work.

The company has a generation of talented engineers in junior grades, a generation of experienced engineers in senior grades, and very little in between.

The solution? The company identified 24 of its engineers and project managers who they believe have what it takes to be tomorrow's leaders, and we developed a customised talent management program to give them the best possible start.

There are no appraisal systems or competency frameworks to rely on, so the selection criteria were inherently subjective. Yet everyone involved had a clear understanding of the problem and what was required for the company's continuing success and even survival.

We created a bespoke, two year coaching program aimed at developing these junior staff and giving them the direction, guidance and skills to drive their careers forwards to reach pivotal positions in the business of the future.

The design process began by asking the question, “What do people who have highly successful careers do to manage their growth and development?”

By interviewing and researching people in a range of industries who had demonstrated an ability to drive their own career progression, we developed a cyclic process which focused heavily on the acquisition of tacit knowledge and personal accountability. Gone are the days of being told what their next role will be, these high potential staff must make their own choices and develop their own career paths.

Each of the 24 nominated staff were assessed against the career development model, and the coaching process began at whichever step was appropriate for the individual.

During the regular coaching sessions, we challenged staff to look further to the future, to think in more depth about their personal motivations and to seek new challenges earlier than they would have done otherwise.

For the most part, these staff enjoyed the technical challenges of their jobs so much that they didn't ever set time aside for career planning. By setting challenging short term goals, we encouraged the staff to look outside of their immediate teams and seek opportunities across the entire business. They rose to this new challenge willingly and made new connections that they found invaluable in many ways.

Every six months, we pulled the group together for a networking and knowledge sharing session, creating a new sense of community and support amongst this group of people who would one day lead the business.

Over the two years, 20 out of 24 staff achieved either promotions or significant job changes – a 83% success rate. The 4 who did not achieve this expressed an ongoing desire not to progress but to seek technical growth – a desire that was wholeheartedly supported by their managers.

The participants reported many personal benefits including:

“It’s given me the opportunity to reflect back on myself, see what I do and why and take control of that.”

“I hadn’t put much emphasis on networking before, now I do and wherever I go I ask myself ‘who do I need to know?’”

“It helped me to get my promotion which would have taken longer. It’s given me more confidence.”

“It’s made me realise what I want out of life and where I want to be. It’s given me direction. What you put in you get out.”

“It’s definitely been of benefit. It gave me a good kick up the backside to get my IMechE sorted. I’ve actually taken an interest in my career planning and where I want to be in the next few years, I have more interest in how I can effect changes to my career rather than being reactive.”

“If someone had said I would be a [role] in ten years I would have been happy. It’s actually taken me two years, that’s quite a step up.”

“You’ve got to be open and honest with the coaches and put your cards on the table. I learned not to take things personally [the coach’s direct feedback], nobody gave me that advice before. It definitely speeds things up.”

“I probably didn’t realise how much I was in control of my career path, it’s been a valuable insight, it’s made me realise it’s my responsibility to move things forward.”

“Taking a step back, looking in, reviewing where you are, steps to move forward, questioning why you want to change, doing things differently, it’s a way of thinking that is definitely useful.”

“I’ve learned about myself, that I am able to learn, move on and adapt into a new role. It’s made a difference to my status too, more people know who I am.”

“It helped me to move across [to a new role] and left [previous managers] with a good relationship, that helped me move to where I wanted to move.”

“The program definitely made me think about what I really want to do.”

The talent management coaching program has had a measurable impact on the value to the businesses of these 24 staff, increasing their loyalty and their willingness to invest in the business. With a greater sense of control over their own careers, they are more aware of their own value to the business and therefore the potential for them to achieve even greater career success.

While the company can't stop experienced people from getting older and retiring, it can protect their years of experience and learning by investing in the development of tomorrow's business leaders.