In jobs crisis, in-house talent development is key

By Wes Siegel
September 2, 2011

By Wes Siegal
The opinions expressed are his own.

In too many organizations today, talent development programs are being cut.  And it makes sense: hiring has literally ground to a halt as shown by today’s jobs numbers; cash is tight; and activities that are not perceived as adding direct value to customers and shareholders cannot be funded.

But managers who blindly decrease their investment in talent development are shooting themselves in the foot.  They are gambling that their best people – who are also the most mobile – will choose to stay.  More importantly they are missing the opportunity to use the development process itself to address critical organizational challenges and improve performance today.

Turning talent development into an engine for results requires a radical rethinking of how to develop people. Programs that take people away from the job and are built around assessment, coaching and training are not only financially unsustainable, they also don’t work. Everything we know about adult learning says that we learn the most when we are forced to tackle real life problems, not sit in a classroom or attend off-site workshops.

Organizations need to provide development programs that require their highest potential managers to deliver real results in critical areas: to solve persistent problems, reduce expenses, free up capacity, or generate revenue.

Here are a few examples:

  • At a global financial services company, “high potentials” helped local Asian managers grow product sales in recently acquired retail banks.  In each country, they worked with these managers for 100 days to generate new revenue and find ways to sustain it. The high potentials then shared their learning with participants in other countries, generating a snowball effect that increased the value of acquisitions throughout the region.
  • A leading industrial manufacturing company realized hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and profit through a long-running program where teams of high potentials would identify opportunities, recruit senior management sponsors, and go after the benefits in rapid-cycle efforts.  The teams accelerated or boosted product launches, drove growth, installed standard processes or reduced costs, all by choosing a focused opportunity and committing to realize measurable value in that area.
  • A major pharmaceutical company is deploying high potentials on initiatives that eliminate complexity from the way work is done.  One team found ways to reduce requests from headquarters by 50 percent, freeing up time for customer contact.  Another focused on eliminating unprofitable products from the portfolio.  In the process, these managers are learning how to work across functions, accelerate decisions, and improve execution – developing the leadership behaviors that will be key to the company’s future success.

Development programs that put talent to work on real problems deliver measurable benefits that are far greater than their costs. They also produce tangible examples of what the company’s desired leadership competencies look like in practice.  They expose talents to new functions and businesses, preparing participants to move into more challenging organizational roles.  And they create networks and connections that last long beyond the term of a program.

Senior executives who think they can no longer afford to fund talent development programs, but still want to develop their managers, should ask their HR partners to convert leadership training into an investment that yields high and rapid returns.

Here’s how:

  • Be clear about the leadership skills to be developed.  These should contribute directly to performance and competitiveness.  They should be stated as practical, observable behaviors rather than academic constructs.  This ensures that the programs do more then solve today’s business problems; they also develop talent in ways that are consistent with longer-term strategic needs.
  • Identify and prioritize performance gaps or improvement opportunities that high potentials could tackle.  These might include areas where revenue and profit are lagging behind plans, or emerging opportunities and threats that need to be addressed quickly.
  • Form teams that include the high potentials and other stakeholders, and put them to work on these issues.  Lay out a clear challenge – asking for tangible results in a short period of time (i.e., 60 to 100 days).  Let the teams scope their approach accordingly – for example, they might choose to improve co-selling of products and services to a single customer who represents a broader opportunity.
  • While the teams are working, periodically bring the high potentials together to check progress and provide “just in time” guidance on the skills that will help them lead the teams to results.  These can take the form of individual or group coaching, or classroom inputs.
  • Lock in the gains by tasking managers to integrate the teams’ breakthroughs into their day-to-day work.

When talent professionals and executives work together to follow these simple steps, they help their companies challenge and grow their future leaders.  But more importantly, they get tangible value from these high potential managers today, rather than waiting for them to “develop” at some unspecified point in the future.

One comment

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There’s no substitute for targeted, on-the-job learning experiences– particularly when they’re supported by the kind of guided reflection, discussion, and evaluation that Wes describes. But part of learning is failing and determining how to do better next time. In today’s ultra-competitive marketplace, risking missteps with critical business decisions could potentially lead to disastrous results. Of course, the appropriate checks and balances can go a long way to mitigating risk, but executive-level review is time expensive. Up and coming senior managers have earned a level of trust that enables the organization to participate in developmental programs like those described above without the organization gambling excessively. But what about more junior employees? Surely, they need to be developed too if we’re considering the business’s long-term viability. For them, training alternatives like e-learning or classroom based experiences are proving grounds that enable the organization to more effectively build the next generation of top talent.

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