Identifying employee potential, creating career paths, and developing hard and soft skills all add up to future success.
By Simon Kent
Identifying and developing leadership talent is a particular challenge for HR. From succession planning and development to external talent acquisition, HR leaders need to ensure there are practices to identify and place talent that will help the business thrive. Even in the face of the pandemic, forward-thinking organisations have prioritised their leadership programmes, ensuring their businesses have a strong direction despite stormy waters.
Case in point: Portico. Rather than being furloughed, Learning and Development (L&D) Manager Victoria Craig says her role at the company was reimagined. Craig oversaw the development of a new L&D programme called “Five Portico Pathways.” One of the pathways is Portico’s “Future Leaders” programme. It was created and made available to all staff members with managerial ambitions.
“We want people to feel confident when they take on the responsibility of leading a site or department,” she explains. “Therefore, our ‘Future Leaders’ pathway looks at how to prepare for this role either beforehand or as a support when starting out. This pathway is designed to make people feel empowered, proud, and uplifted.”
Pre-pandemic, the leadership training programme saw the business promote 20% of its people into leadership roles every year, and Craig says the programmes are set to expand further. That may be a lofty goal: The nature of the business means Craig and her team cannot always fulfil their talent’s ambitions.
“What we can guarantee though is that we will continue to talent spot, ensure our people know they are invested in and appreciated,” she says. “We’ll provide the most beneficial and engaging development initiatives that ensure whenever a coveted position comes up, our people have the desired skill set and are more than ready to fly high in that role.”
According to Laurent Choain, head of people, culture, and learning at global professional services firm Mazars, “Leaders are not born or made, they are revealed.” Choain says his company has a campus-like feel—“a business school designed around its strategic needs where education is a habit for all.”
Against this backdrop, leaders can be identified and supported, but the organisation also looks externally as it expands. “We do bring in talent and leaders from outside through mergers, be it to acquire certain skills or grow our foothold in a specific geography,” he says.
But whilst the business develops and recruits leading talent, it also recognises that it will not be able to leverage every individual who rises in the ranks. As is common for audit and advisory firms, the business operates an “up or out” process, meaning that Mazars will be the first employer for thousands of fresh graduates who then either move up the ranks or leave to take management positions elsewhere.
“As an HR leader, we need an attrition rate of around 20% a year to uphold our business model,” explains Choain. “In the audit business, a large share of the work can be performed by younger people, so we need this natural turnover in order to preserve our staff pyramid.
“I am not in the retention business but in the employability business,” he asserts. “I prefer seeing good people leave rather than bad people stay, but as an organisation, you can only afford this if you permanently recruit top people. It becomes a virtuous circle, a talent factory. You pay attention to the people you recruit because talented people leave and talented people come in.”
Annette Evans, vice president of people and culture at Global Processing Services (GPS), highlights the need to constantly update the development of leadership to reflect the industry in which they operate. For GPS, this means a combination of internal road maps whilst also working with talent acquisition.
The business has created clear career progression paths so employees can access reward and development opportunities at each level. These development programmes mean employees undergoing training are always on course to fulfil the business requirements.
“Building on internal management and development programmes is crucial to developing the soft and hard skills needed to be an effective leader from the get-go,” says Evans. “We have created a robust 18-month programme with top talent identified in our biannual performance cycle, as well as management-specific internal programmes for emerging business leaders.
“It’s imperative that as an organisation, we succession plan on a regular basis to identify gaps in our internal talent pools,” she adds. “An ideal situation is being able to see our employees progress through the ranks with the knowledge base they have built with us over time. However, natural attrition and increased skills competency in hard-to-fill areas sometimes make this difficult to address. Bringing in external talent also helps with diversification in our workforce and the imparting of fresh ideas to the organisation.”
At Texas Star Nut & Food Co., HR and Talent Acquisition Manager Jennifer Featherstone says that whilst some leadership positions are filled based on technical skills and employee productivity, identifying future leaders also requires a focus on potential. “We find that high potential team members often express an interest in the organisation’s future plans and will take the initiative to propose ideas for improving processes or expanding business opportunities,” she says.
The company also puts great emphasis on soft skills, such as the ability to coach others, effectively communicate objectives, and build a cohesive team. Such assets have proven to create a more positive work environment and procured more impactful business results.
“To keep high performers engaged, it is important to meet with them on a quarterly basis to discuss their achievements, exchange candid and timely feedback, and plan the next steps in their trajectory,” says Featherstone. “We have found that the company and our employees are in a stronger place when we have frequent feedback and review discussions with our top performers rather than waiting for an annual review.”
Featherstone explains that their talent management programme minimises avoidable employee turnover but points out there is always a contingency plan in place for departures that may arise due to unexpected events, including a spousal relocation, family illness, and so on.
“A good way to ensure organisational preparedness for these situations is to foster ‘knowledge-sharing’ as a cultural component of our succession planning,” Featherstone says. “Many people are very reluctant to transfer knowledge to a mentee or potential successor out of the fear that they will be deemed redundant or replaced sooner than anticipated. To overcome this fear and to successfully manage our resources, we hold our leaders accountable for developing others and for helping to build a culture of information sharing from the top down.”
Identifying, inspiring, and supporting future leaders may initially be an HR challenge, but it should not start and finish with L&D. To truly support future leaders, the approach needs to be organisation-wide, built into the structure and culture of how work is done, and extended to taking advantage of the leadership talent that exists the wider business community.