28/08/2013 - 15:46

No substitute for learning on the job

28/08/2013 - 15:46


Save articles for future reference.

There’s a science behind getting the right people in the right roles, and developing their potential.

There's a science behind getting the right people in the right roles, and developing their potential.

The terminology may change, but best practice doesn’t.

Take the term ‘talent management’ that’s bandied around in the HR world these days. What does it mean? Is it anything other than the same old wine in a brand new bottle?

When it boils down to it, we all aim to manage talent (our people) in order to ratchet up company performance and improve the bottom line.

I have been very fortunate in my career to brush up against the very best in ‘talent management’ practice.

At Chase Manhattan the management development program lasted 12 months. It included every professional who worked at the global bank singing for their supper doing credit analysis while binding them to each other and the Chase culture.

It was similar to Proctor and Gamble’s insistence that all employees experience work on the front line, coming away with understanding and appreciation of the core process seared into their brains.

Later I worked with Jaques and Stamp as its talent management ideas were implemented at Rio Tinto and Westpac. Here I first understood the importance of having all your people ‘in flow’, or having every role filled with people who could manage the complexity inherent in their role. Poor fit meant people were stressed or bored, with either one leading to bad decisions, which aggregated into poor company performance.

The talent management trick was not just to have the right people in the right jobs, but to ensure a succession from grad program to the ‘C’ suite – a flow of ‘in flow’ people.

So what does such a best-practice capacity development program look like?

You need organisational capability to execute your strategy and that means requisite capacity at every level, plus the identified people reserves to flex and grow. You need to consciously and scientifically build this ‘fit’ plus bench strength.

I believe there are six essential elements to that.

Senior leadership program ownership

 The capacity building program is owned by the CEO. They use HR expertise to execute the program but it drives the CEO’s strategy and the executive team is involved in building it.

Work of the role competencies

Capability for today’s work and potential for tomorrow’s can be measured and should be the basis for deployment. Each level of work requires a distinct leadership competency and this must be learned in addition to technical and managerial competencies. Those with potential for GM and C-level jobs must be nurtured as a key corporate resource. You are at the highest risk of losing them

Strategy, structure and culture understanding

Binding people to the firm produces low turnover and high discretionary effort. Everyone needs to understand the strategic positioning of the firm, the rationale of its structure and distinctiveness of its culture.

Business literacy at each level

All managers in all functions must understand how the firm makes money and are accountable for finding better ways to do it. The program inculcates this accountability.

Experiential learning

There is no substitute for learning on the job. A capacity building program tests the capacity of managers, especially high potentials, by trying them out on small but complex projects or by having them substitute for senior managers on leave. This is how GE and Chase pick their future CEOs.

Professional networks

Great programs impart a sense of group identity and leave participants with a professional network they can call upon to enhance their performance. This enculturation can be so strong that some organisations maintain networks of ‘alumnae’ who have left the mother ship.

Get the most from your talent by getting them all in flow – cognitive complexity, competency and commitment all appropriate to the role. Get the right people in the right jobs using science, not seat-of-the-pants judgments. Do the same to measure potential and then develop that high potential cadre as you would any valuable corporate resource.


Jack Somerville is a founding partner of Somerville & Partners and a director of the 4HR Consulting Group.


Subscription Options