Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to explore the influence of national institutional contexts on a multinational's project to develop a transnational talent management system. Design/methodology/approach - The study combines a comparative analysis of British and French conceptions of management with qualitative empirical data drawn from interviews, observation and documents collected in France and the UK. Findings - The concept of "talent management", as understood by UK managers, could not simply be reproduced in the French setting where the idea of managing talent took on a different meaning. The attempt to do so through a UK-instituted programme ignored this difference and resulted in the complete failure of the headquarters' project to develop a transnational talent management system. Research limitations/ implications - Theoretical implications include the importance of an institutionally sensitive approach to the study of talent management within multinationals. A limitation of the study is that it is based on a single case study. Originality/value - The paper is a case study of a cross-national talent management programme from a comparative institutionalist perspective rather than that of mainstream international management. It highlights the conflicts and tensions involved in implementing management systems uniformly across national borders. The paper's Anglo-French focus also contributes a comparative angle that is relatively rare in institutionalist studies of MNCs (multinational companies). Finally, the paper sheds light on the newly emerging and yet under-researched concept of "talent management", connecting this idea with existing debates on multinationals and institutional change and reproduction.