Coutts, like many organisations, has undertaken regular succession planning and talent management activities in an effort to improve its organisational performance. And, like others, has found itself completing spread sheets and updating organisation charts annually but the output often does not match the associated effort – although there are some successes with career mobility and internal progression. However, it is debatable whether these successes were aligned to an overall talent management strategy or would have just happened anyway. This paper will outline how Coutts have changed tactic and introduced a more assertive model to drive its talent management and succession planning efforts. We can show some direct successes from the year 2013 until now, but moreover will outline how these changes are beginning to positively affect the culture and performance of the organisation. There is, though, plenty still to do.


Coutts – with now thirty billion pounds of assets under management – was founded in 1692, is wholly owned by RBS and provides private banking and wealth management services to both high net worth and ultra-high net worth clients. Well known to have looked after members of the Royal Family since King George III, Coutts has enjoyed serving many other well known clients including Charles Dickens and Spike Milligan.

Change of approach

One of the key changes we undertook in talent management and succession planning was to push responsibility down to the immediate line management population and ask them to identify who their potential successors and key talent were. This was a material change from previous efforts which were largely top down and decisions taken at a very high level. It was critical to ensure line managers understood their roles and how key they are for success in talent management. This was quite a surprise to many of them. And while we have begun to both educate them and provide tools to help, the reality is that it will take a few more cycles to (i) really embed the processes, and (ii) move beyond ad-hoc success of some managers who naturally did this in their roles to raising the collective capability of the whole line management community.

What did we do?

Firstly, we asked line managers who are your best people? This may appear a straightforward question, and while there are many inherent complexities within it such as ‘how do you define – best?’ or ‘what are the criteria?’ we didn’t overly engineer (the construct of ‘best’) beyond that. As the discussions developed we began to signal more guidance about what we meant by talent. Why? We found managers uncomfortable about making these choices, and providing them with some criteria helped. Although specific details are commercially sensitive, some of the things we look for are things that you would expect such as:

  • Consistent and strong performance.
  • Known for working with others.
  • Getting things done despite significant organisational ambiguity.
  • Behaviour ‘how they behave – especially around conduct’

With limited resources, we felt it was essential to focus both effort and attention towards a small percentage of top performers in order to build momentum, and to increase engagement. The aim was to initiate serious conversations about who these people were and then follow up with relevant interventions to develop them. At the organisational level, without too much effort, we were probably discussing around 30% of the population. At the end of the exercise, we settled around 10% which was in line with the management literature concepts of exceptional performance. Our aim is to further segment the overall population through other lenses such as next 20/30%, diversity and or emerging talent.

Giving the best people the best opportunities

So, what happened with the data? Once we had collected the information and consolidated it on a global basis, we were able to undertake the following:

  1. Manage selection for participation in strategically important development events/special projects.
  2. Push career mobility opportunities towards identified talent.
  3. Clarify a bench of talent with various ‘readiness’ levels for potential future key vacancies, and begin to undertake conversations for bespoke personal development

This is where the activity starts to get difficult, despite the commercial value in getting it right. It is relatively easy to offer high-end development opportunities or to invite ‘talent’ to a breakfast event with the CEO but it is much harder to release talent from their current roles to support mobility or to have career conversations when the next steps require a material change in skill set.

What should we change?

In any event, we have begun this journey. There are plenty of things to change including follow up and follow through on development commitments, up-skilling managers to undertake better career stewarding conversations and tracking activity in order to share success stories within the organisation. We have, though, generated some career mobility, the talent bench is getting deeper and investing in internal development (build) versus external recruitment of talent (buy) is starting to show some commercial value through the P&L.

David Carnegie, Head of Talent & Leadership, Coutts will be speaking at the Talent Management and Leadership Development Summit 2014.