Spotlight on Talent

14 October 2008 Kevin D Wilde

In a world focused increasingly on the short term it can be easy to overlook the development of the next generation of leaders. General Mills' Kevin D Wilde and Verizon’s Renée Robertson talk to CEO about long-term talent management.

At a time when companies are dealing with immediate pressures from the credit crunch and worsening economic trends in key markets such as the US, it is tempting to focus investment on improving short-term operational performance. However, no business that wants to survive in the long term can afford to neglect efforts to grow its internal skills, identify the leaders of tomorrow and develop the talent that will steer strategy and operational capability in the future.

Training and development should be high on the corporate agenda and must be driven by senior management if a company is to sustain its position in any market. The truth of this is borne out by the experience of established market leaders.

"Training is very important to us and the senior leaders I work with, and is part of our core corporate values," says Kevin Wilde, chief learning officer of General Mills. As the company behind many of the world’s best-known and most popular brands – including Betty Crocker, Häagen Dazs, Pillsbury, Green Giant and Cheerios – General Mills is the world’s sixth-largest food company and a leader in almost all of its brand categories. On average, US shoppers put at least one General Mills product into their shopping basket every time they shop for groceries.

The company’s sustained success is due in part to its product range and marketing strategies, but owes much to its commitment to the development of employees at all levels. "Build your people, build your business," is Wilde’s motto. "We are dedicated to ensuring all our employees are growing at all levels. We want to give people the chance to take on responsibility, not just fill a position."

A similar emphasis on training can be found at US broadband and telecoms company Verizon Business. Formed in January 2006 from the merger of MCI and Verizon Enterprise Solutions Group (ESG), the company has undergone significant change and is now a global solutions partner.

Throughout these challenging times the company has prioritised talent management, and has shaped its strategy for learning and development to suit its changing business goals.

"We are a technology firm with large, global clients, so we must prepare our employees on how to navigate the global market, while building complex and integrated solutions for our clients and positively impacting the client experience and delivering results," says Renée Robertson, director of talent development for Verizon Business. "We need to adapt our organisation at a rapid pace, and at the same time deliver business performance. Our need is compounded when you look at the high-tech market. The rapid changes in technology mean we need to be fast and flexible in learning and development.

"There is a constant need to perform in our industry and Verizon has a high performance culture, which can give our employees great opportunities."

Robertson admits that it has not always been easy to keep talent development at the top of the agenda in the face of short-term pressures. Despite this challenge, the company has always understood that today’s talent is tomorrow’s competitive advantage.

"It can be difficult to prioritise learning and development when the main objective is to achieve business results, however it is important to balance short-term goals with long-term strategic planning. At Verizon, learning and development is relatively high on the agenda. Our employees have a great desire for learning and development and we all know we need to stay current on changing technologies and our clients' needs in order for both of us to be successful," she says.

Structure and commitment

The details of companies' approaches to talent management differ according to their business models and objectives, but all will be subject to certain defining characteristics. The need to ensure that skills fit with corporate strategy is universal, as is the need to engage at all levels in the development process.

The structures in place at General Mills take these factors firmly into consideration. Each employee creates a career development plan (IDP). All departments are scored annually on employee development to see where each can improve. "We see in the metrics whether we are doing what we say we do," notes Wilde. IDP adapt to reflect the stages of an individual’s career. Crucially it is kept separate from the appraisal process. Development is not tied up with rating performance or discussing pay increases.

For Wilde, the basic structure of the IDP is within reach of most enterprises. "Medium-sized and small companies might say that we have more resources to invest in our training and development processes, but any company can build an IDP programme. It is very simple, but managers must have a talent mindset. They must value it and inspire it," he remarks.

"We run an institute where our senior executives, including our CEO, teach classes, and we try to live the value statement by having leaders training leaders."

At Verizon, too, there is a framework for talent development. "Here, employees can see the connection between investing in themselves and their day-to-day responsibilities. They have a line of sight between personal development and the results they achieve," says Robertson. "We must understand our employees' learning and developmental needs. "Our approach uses a talent management system, which houses talent information. It indicates potential strengths and shows us where each person is at on their path of development. It is a challenge to keep such a database accurate, so we have regular talent reviews and sessions where managers discuss performance potential. From the data we identified trends and needs to help us devise the appropriate learning and development strategies which support our employees' needs."

To assess an employee’s potential, Verizon uses a fairly standard nine-box grid model, which for Robertson brings much-needed clarity. Her first step is too see how employees are performing in their current role.

"It provides some structure and helps us build programmes for the needs of employees now and in the future. Consistent and positive performance is important," she notes.

Input from employees themselves is another vital ingredient in structuring development programmes that fulfill their objectives. "Our philosophy is that you own your career," says Robertson. "Individuals must embrace their future and be clear on what they want."

Many of these themes are echoed at General Mills, where Wilde sees the importance of long-term commitment to development, especially at the top level of management. There, as at Verizon, senior executives are closely involved in training programmes. "It starts at the top of the company," says Wilde. "We’ve been doing it successfully for dozens of years and it must be a part of long-term strategy, even if the market has a bad year. Building talent is like building a brand – it is an on-going commitment.

"We run an institute where our senior executives, including our CEO, teach classes, and we try to live the value statement by having leaders training leaders," says Wilde. General Mills places great emphasis on measuring the effectiveness of its development programmes, and through feedback from internal surveys it gauges this by asking employees if the company is a good place to work.

"This gives us an engagement score for our employees. Employees must have belief in their leaders' values and ethics, they must have good relationships with their immediate manager, and they must feel like they make a difference to the organisation. Development programmes are crucial to creating engaged employees," Wilde adds.

Avoiding the war for talent

A talent development strategy can help to attract the right people when a company goes to the recruitment market. More importantly, it can improve a company’s ability to retain key people. "Our brand proposition is that this is a great place to work and develop," says Wilde. "It is good for your career and we will give you opportunities to realise your potential. Great talent is demanding and we must satisfy it."

In 2007, the company filled 78% of its managerial jobs from within, largely thanks to its development of the right skills among its employees. It is when companies have not invested in developing their people that they find themselves in a war for talent.

It may be hard to quantify the benefits of effective talent management in terms of savings on recruitment costs, but many of the gains manifest incrementally over a long period, or are intangible. This means there is a need to constantly review and adapt a talent management strategy to keep it relevant to business needs, just as Verizon has done.

"We are trying to bring people forward in a more integrated way. Verizon is two years old and we have settled into who we are. Now we have an eye to the future," says Robertson. Above all, one clear message emerges from the experience of both Wilde and Robertson – training and development must be a priority, and the structures through which it is delivered must be aligned to a long-term plan.

"Some companies fall into the trap of chasing the latest thinking, but developing talent should be part of the business culture," says Wilde. "It is a year-in, year-out discipline."