Limited dollars for talent development? High expectations for measurable impact? More requests and expressed needs than resources available? These are just some of the challenges facing HR today. The solution: make strategic talent investments that directly link to the business strategy.
Successful organizations have business strategies that define their winning aspiration, where they will play, how they will win and the capabilities and systems they need to have in place to execute.i From my experience, the volatile marketplace has challenged leaders to craft sustainable, competitive strategies and for those that do, many still don’t thoughtfully consider the capabilities and aligned systems needed to operationalize their strategy. While there are exceptions to this conclusion, it is more commonplace to see lagging talent strategies and business systems.
For HR’s part in this, they need to adopt a mindset shift from being reactive and “in service” to proactive and a “strategic partner” in enabling the business strategy. Throughout my career I observed HR wait for the strategy to be defined by the “business” before they determine the actions they need to take in support. That doesn’t work. The time to make a difference is during the creation of the business strategy so everyone involved understands the organization’s current readiness to address the where to play and how to win choices. Absent that perspective, leaders are making assumptions about what can and can’t be achieved to execute their strategy. When it comes time to build budgets, the lack of forethought into what it will take to execute in terms of both capabilities and systems, becomes an unaligned mess. Budgets become grocery lists of investments that are only very nominally linked to the business strategy. No one is thinking through what capabilities and systems are truly critical to enable the strategy execution.
How Do You Get More Strategically Aligned with the Business?
As I mentioned, HR executives need to adopt a mindset shift and assume a more proactive role during the strategy formation. They need to exert their influence on the leadership team when making choices of where to play and how to win. They need to come prepared to share a clear understanding of where the organization is today from a talent and a HR systems perspective. This means leaders need to already have in place an effective means of classifying the current talent capabilities they have, where the gaps are against the current strategy and knowledge of their pools of talent in each of their core areas. An infrastructure of integrated approaches to assessment, talent planning, attraction and hiring, performance management, and compensation needs to be functioning at a high level to provide HR executives with the necessary data for strategic decision making. Furthermore, HR executives must have sufficient knowledge of the business, the competition and the consumer. Otherwise, recommendations on strategy will lack sufficient credibility. With the data and knowledge available then HR can make strategic investment decisions.
How Do You Make Strategic Talent Investment Choices?
If you have clarity around the business strategy and know where you are today in terms of capabilities and where you need to be to execute the strategy, then making these decisions will be straightforward. Most organizations struggle with unclear priorities and massive tactical “to do” lists that are not aligned with the strategy. Your plans need to be directly tied to the business strategy.
Building a strategic investment plan means you make critical, differentiated investments in core/key talent areas that will have the most significant impact on your business strategy. Just as a business has to choose what it will and won’t do as part of creating their strategy, HR needs to have the discipline to make choices. That can mean you allocate some of your investment across frontline leaders as you implement a new service model. Or, perhaps it is an investment in high potential mid-level leaders who need to make the transition to managing larger scope across broader global teams. The point is, regardless of where you do and don’t make investments, your choices should be a result of strategic input at the beginning stages of business strategy formation. Failure to make the strategic connection and to monetize the ROI will lead you to arbitrary HR decision making and ineffective solutions.
Similarly, the absence of the right talent development solutions will bring further failure in delivering against the capability requirements for the strategy. The keys to strategic talent investment: link business strategy to investment choices, to solution identification, and follow through with execution and measurement.
Using this as a model to build your talent development plans will significantly increase your chances of investing in the right solutions, for the right audience, at the right time and with the right results.
How Do You Build a Case For Your Talent Investments?
The question you need to ask first is: Will making an investment in this population, in this solution, in this initiative facilitate the accomplishment of our business strategy?
Even if you answer yes, organizations may still cut the talent investments that most directly impact their ability to achieve their strategy.
For example, I recently led a high potential program designed to build general management capabilities among leaders from product functions who were experts in each of their fields. The goal, originally defined by the CEO, was to create a pool of GMs that could take on leadership of businesses that were becoming more global and integrated. Rather than have operators run a product business, the objective was to have GMs with product expertise run a product business on a global scale. The results from two years of the program were that 72 percent of the participants received promotions to GM roles and 22 percent of the participants took on expat assignments as GMs in Japan and China. Despite its success, the program was cut because the investment, 50K per person for 20 people was deemed too steep. The primary reason the case couldn’t be made to continue this investment; is following a CEO leadership change, we were unable to demonstrate how this program was directly aligned with the business strategy. We didn’t monetize the value of this investment.
Here are some questions you should answer in making a strategic case for talent investment:
1. How does having internally developed “x” leaders with “y” capabilities enable the achievement of your organization’s vision and strategy? Will having leaders with these capabilities allow you to more rapidly innovate, act on opportunity and compete in new markets? Which specific strategic business objectives are you tackling?
2. How much business do the leaders you are developing impact and how much economic value can be gained? Let’s say the leader runs a $200m business. If the leader, as a result of your targeted development, is able to find cost savings and increase earnings of just 2 percent, the economic value the leader brings is $4M.
3. What is the cost to attract, hire and onboard someone into a key role? What is the cost in lost productivity? Most estimates put the cost of hire to be 1.5 to 2 times the salary for key roles.ii If you assume a key leader earns $200,000 then the minimum cost to hire is $300,000 and according to most studies, nearly half will fail within the first 18 months at a new employer.iii
4. What will it cost you in attrition, if you don’t invest in your key talent? As Dan Pink articulates in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, leaders need a sense of mastery, autonomy and purpose to be motivated and achieve their best. Development provides leaders the opportunity to expand their mastery and autonomy and even clarify their purpose. As Pink says, “The secret to high performance and satisfaction … is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”
The loss of key talent affects commitment and focus on results among team members. It has a lasting, negative effect on climate that can permeate the organization.
5. What insights are you not tapping into from these leaders by not making the investment in development? Leaders are both born and made and through practice, excellence can be achieved. By creating the right development solution, leaders are given an environment in which they can acquire new knowledge, learn new skills and practice with low risk. What new idea, innovation or perspective might you leave on the table because you didn’t invest in giving leaders the tools and resources as well as the space to learn?
With these questions answered HR executives should be able to make the case to invest $50K in the development of key talent (per example above). Between the cost to hire of about $300K and the lost potential economic value of $4M, the possibility of attrition and the resulting negative climate impact, the organization is beyond remiss for not making the investment a priority.
HR has long sought to be a business partner. The more HR professionals can influence business strategy, link their efforts directly to the strategy, and deliver thoughtful, differentiated investments that can show true value, the more likely the “business” will seek their partnership.
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iPlaying to Win: How Strategy Really Works by A. G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin.
iiEmployee Retention Now a Big Issue: Why the Tide has Turned, August 16, 2013. Featured in: Recruiting & Hiring, Josh Bersin, Principal and Founder, Bersin by Deloitte.
iiiWhy New Hires Fail (Emotional Intelligence Vs. Skills), Leadership IQ, Mark Murphy, 2015.
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