Talent Development

8 December 2009 Pat Crull

Developing talent is a key factor in enabling an organisation to transform its competitive position. Time Warner Cable’s Pat Crull tells Jim Banks how the company’s in-house training programmes give it a competitive edge.

Any company that undergoes a significant change in its business model or market proposition must ensure that its employees are engaged in the transition and understand how the organisation will have to adapt. Given today’s rapidly changing market conditions, talent development is a vital part of strategic thinking for most leading organisations.

This has not always been the case, but the increasing pace of change has forced many corporates to reconsider their approach to developing their employees.

"To get a competitive advantage you need to invest time, energy and resources in talent development."

"People development is receiving growing recognition as a strategic issue," says Pat Crull, vice-president and chief learning officer for Time Warner Cable. "Growing talent is much broader than just learning new skills. There is a more strategic perspective than when I started my career. Talent development is now integrated with strategy and business culture.

"The ability to develop talent is a prerequisite for any company’s success. It enriches the skills of employees and increases their commitment, and it provides a competitive advantage for the organisation as a whole."

In a career spanning more than 20 years working for leading companies in a range of different industries, Crull has seen the general approach to learning come a long way among major corporates.

"We’ve seen how quickly the world changes," she observes. "Market and customer expectations change fast, and competitors can mimic products and services quicker than ever. To get a competitive advantage you need to invest time, energy and resources in talent development. The ability to learn and adapt gives a nimbleness that cannot be easily copied."

Crull notes there has been a change in attitude towards learning, which is reflected in the conversations she has with CEOs. Early in her career she might have pleaded with the CEO against taking on any major initiatives without acknowledging the skills and attitudes needed from the company’s people. Now, she positions these as prerequisites to be considered early on among the deciding factors.

"Learning has a strategic presence," Crull adds. "CEO involvement is fundamental for successful talent development. More business leaders respect what training and learning can bring to an organisation, so there is more funding and resources for those things in today’s enlightened environment."

Leaders teaching leaders

The role of the CEO in learning and development has been clearly highlighted at Time Warner Cable, which spun out of Time Warner in 2000 to create a company offering television, broadband internet and telephone services. The second-largest cable company in the US, with 14 million subscribers, it has traded as a public company since 2007, but Time Warner held the majority share prior to the recent spin off.

The company’s move to become an independent business entity has been significantly shaped by the involvement of senior executives in the development of the workforce.

"The leaders here do more than get a budget for talent development," notes Crull. "They are an integral part of it, especially in leadership development."

She highlights the importance of having senior executives lead by example and espouse the values of personal development throughout the organisation. Talent planning activities are a business priority.

"We need knowledgeable leaders and skilled employees supporting our mission and practicing our values."

"Leaders teaching leaders, coaching and mentoring are critical," says Crull. "This is also a pipeline for understanding our employee base and customers. It’s a way of keeping a finger on the pulse of our organisation. Learning is a two-way process. Employees learn from their leaders, and executives learn a great deal from interacting with customer-facing employees, who report back on their first-hand experience of what customers want."

When Crull talks about leaders, she does not mean just the top executives in the company. "We see everyone in our organisation as a leader," she says. "Everything we say and do at every level has an impact on our customers, internal and external, so we need knowledgeable leaders and skilled employees supporting our mission and practicing our values."

Developing the right skill set for Time Warner Cable means focusing on talent development at all levels of the business, given that over 60% of its workforce has direct interaction with customers.

"Executive education is clearly a priority, as well as focusing on developing customer-facing employees within the organisation, whether they are our installers, our techs visiting customers' homes, or agents in our call centres," Crull observes. "We have so much focus on customer services. We know these are our heroes."

"Developing talent is a focused and interactive process," she adds. "Underlying that process are the values and mission of the organisation. We use our leaders to teach whenever we can. For the development of leaders, there are no better learning opportunities than teaching others in the organisation."

Clear goals, comprehensive delivery

The spin-out from Time Warner gave the company a chance to revamp its training programmes to ensure that the efforts of its employees, including the senior executives, were focused on the same business objectives.

Vital to achieving this was the process of getting more input from the people Crull describes as the 'doers' to find out what installers, call centre reps and technicians needed to do their job well.

In addition, the company sought feedback about what employees felt managers need to do well. This information helped inform the company’s plan of how to shape the business in the future. This includes a new programme investing in front-line supervisors.

"What we want to achieve is a clear learning path for everyone in the company."

"We then tied the business goals to a career path and incorporated management of individual development programmes using a blended approach of teacher-led training, e-learning and on-site coaching," says Crull. "In the future we may also look at using social networking technology for talent development. What we want to achieve is a clear learning path for everyone in the company. This serves both our customers and our employees."

Talent development, therefore, ultimately depends on a company having clear goals. The ability to define and articulate strategy is at the core of its success. This is precisely what Time Warner Cable has had to achieve over the last year.

"Becoming a separate entity meant we needed a clear definition of our mission and values," explains Crull. "There was a need to engage our employees at all levels in clarifying those. We are incorporating the newly defined values and mission into our learning paths, talent planning, performance management and evaluation. The mission and values are part of our employee opinion feedback and recognition programmes and our leadership development."

The year has been a successful one. Market share is growing at a difficult time for the economy. Furthermore, talent development structures are in place to sustain the company through any challenging times ahead.

"It has been a best practice for us," says Crull. "We involved all of our stakeholders in getting information and we rolled out our training programme successfully. It included getting our most senior people teaching their people about the mission and values of the company. Mission, values, learning and incentives should all be aligned."

The company is also keen to tap into knowledge wherever it resides, be it through industry associations, business schools or the experienced leaders within the company. Working to build adherence to the company’s core mission and values has created a platform for talent development programmes that will support its business model going forward.

"The rapidity of change in the marketplace means our focus must be on staying flexible and quick in terms of our own ability to change," says Crull.

The lesson that talent development determines competitive performance and underpins a company’s ability to respond to its customers and its competitors is there for any business to learn.