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The Talent Solution

The trick to selling talent management to line leaders is to think like a doctor. If you can find their business pains and offer talent management as the solution to those problems, there will be no need to "sell" at all.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009
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Comcast Corp. Executive Vice President of HR Ken Carrig strongly believes that when it comes to beefing up talent management within an organization, it's critical not to put the cart before the horse.

"A lot of the time, HR finds a talent-management solution on its own -- in a vacuum -- and then tries to sell that solution to the business units," he says. "That's the wrong way to engage the leadership of the organization. If we were doing strategic planning, we wouldn't go to a pricing model without looking at our customer base first to see what they needed."

The "customer" in this case is the larger organization, and too often, HR approaches that customer with a product that it didn't ask for -- and frankly, doesn't want. There's a reason that HR is frustrated by the difficulty of "selling" a talent solution, and it's not because talent management isn't needed.

The problem is one of perspective. Colleen O'Neill, worldwide partner at New York-based Mercer, says HR and business units simply judge "a good reason to do something" in different ways. To the business units, it may look as if HR has found a new pet project and wants to spend money to affect procedure -- but not necessarily results.

"Often, HR leaders will see a problem, and they see a need to change a process, such as performance management or something to do with compensation," O'Neill says. "For them, the business case is clear: 'This is just good HR management.' But from the business standpoint, it just looks like spending more money, or dedicating more time that may take away from something else."

Resolving this disconnect is especially important when it comes to talent-management initiatives, which are, after all, designed to strengthen what is often an organization's sole competitive differentiator these days: its workforce. For these initiatives to work, getting approval from the CEO is only the beginning -- it's critical, experts say, for HR practitioners to win support from their organizations' line managers as well. To do this, HR must be able to demonstrate to the managers that talent management -- whether it takes the form of extra training or a new software system -- will benefit them in ways that matter to the bottom line. Succeeding can mean the difference between their grudging acceptance of the initiative versus their wholehearted support.

Connecting the Dots

Prior to joining Philadelphia-based Comcast earlier this year, Carrig served as chief administrative officer at Sysco Corp., a large food-distribution and marketing company in Houston that had $37.5 billion in revenues in 2008. There, building a business case for talent-management initiatives meant drawing a clear line between leadership development and the performance of the people under those leaders. Carrig's team could have found a software package or development program and tried to sell it on a vague promise to "make leaders more effective," but instead it presented a case to show the businesses what specific goals could be achieved by developing better leaders.

"We were able to show a correlation between leadership tenure and capability and operating performance," says Carrig, who gave a presentation on how to build support for talent initiatives during the Conference Board's Talent Management Strategies Conference, held in New York earlier this year. "We looked at the top 20 percent of performers among 156 of our distribution centers and found that 70 percent of the leaders in those centers had been in their positions for three years or more."

By contrast, among the lowest-performing 20 percent of the centers, only 30 percent of the leaders had been in their positions that long, says Carrig.

"This metric supported the idea that stability and keeping people in a position to learn the business actually impacted performance."

Taken together with some other internal factors, the data convinced Sysco that implementing a standardized educational program for leaders could bridge the knowledge gaps that would otherwise require three years of experience to fill. The company examined the educational systems that were in place at Sysco -- a mix of e-learning and classes -- and noted what the best centers were doing so it could spread those best practices across the entire company. At the time, each business did its own training, but Carrig's team wanted to implement standardized training that would include best practices in order to bring leaders up to speed in a consistent way.

The result was a standardized leadership-development program for front-line managers at every distribution center, mandated from the top of the organization. Of course, this meant managers would be spending more time away from the job. Carrig notes that this had the potential to be a sticking point. "We knew we wouldn't get a lot of support if we had to pull these people away from their jobs for one to three days at a time for training," he says. "It was important to find a way to build learning on the job."

So Carrig broke down the training into small, two- to four-hour modules that leaders could tackle a little at a time without spending long periods away from their normal duties. As a result, higher-ups readily got on board. In the meantime, while training was filling the knowledge gaps, Carrig's team proposed that leaders with less than three years of tenure have only six to eight people working under them, whereas more experienced leaders might have 10 to 14 direct reports.

Carrig is reluctant to discuss actual figures, but says the correlation between performance and tenure did help demonstrate -- in dollars-and-cents -- that restructuring leadership development would yield a bottom-line ROI. Talent management, in effect, had become a solution, rather than just another set of procedures for the businesses to follow. "Many times, HR is trying to sell a program, and that's difficult to do," says Carrig. "If, instead, we're trying to sell a concept -- maybe getting better at developing people so we can create the best opportunities for our people and organization to succeed in the future -- then I think there's a seat at the table for that."

"This 'HR Stuff' " 

As one way of cross-pollinating the often-separated worlds of HR and business, Jeff Schwartz, a principal and leader of organization and talent practice at New York-based Deloitte, points to cases he's seen in which HR managers do rotations into other parts of the company, and people in the lines of business do rotations into HR. This is not yet a common practice, he says.

"Those are the sorts of things we think HR needs to do," he says. "A greater understanding of HR by business, and of business by HR, will go a long way toward making the need for talent management more clear in light of certain challenges."

One directional trend does appear to be emerging, says Schwartz, and it's the tendency for senior HR leaders -- particularly CHROs -- to be as likely to come from business operations as they are to come from the HR suite.

Sherry Covell, vice president of talent management at Melbourne, Fla.-based communications and IT company Harris, falls into that category. Prior to moving into her current position, Covell was vice president of business development at the 14,000-employee company's government unit. Harris had decided that it wanted someone heading talent management who understood the needs of the business, and Covell fit the bill.

"I think the one thing I can bring to this HR position is credibility within the business, because I have run a business," she says. "Those leaders have seen me in my other roles. [Having a business leader in this role] says to the lines, 'We understand what you're asking for. We're going to work with you; we're going to be collaborative.' "

To the leaders, "working with you" means that Covell doesn't push things that appear to only benefit HR. Rather than talking about streamlining processes, her department will actually sit down and show leaders how a talent initiative can impact retention, turnover and bottom-line profitability.

"These leaders are operating profit centers," says Covell. "They're not going to care about people data for its own sake. What we, in HR, need to explain to them is how that data benefits them, and how it saves and makes them money."

In mid-2007, Harris replaced its antiquated hodge-podge of talent processes -- many of which were tracked in Microsoft Word or Excel and none of which were consistent across the organization -- with a talent-management suite from Waltham, Mass.-based Authoria. Though Covell describes the system as "a big investment," she says getting upper management's buy-in on the software's purchase was the easy part.

Now, getting managers to actually use it and understand how it can help them? That's been harder.

"Nobody likes to take the time to do this 'HR stuff,' " she says. "To keep the units from being overwhelmed, we've been rolling this out module by module. First was performance management, then salary and incentive planning, then succession planning and competency models. Each time we roll out a new module, it's difficult to get managers to use it -- to do the appraisals and plans, and to enter that data into the system. So each time, we have to sell them on its value."

Covell says Harris cannot yet put a dollar value on a bad hire or show ROI, so she focuses on less tangible business metrics such as "better job fit" and "faster turnaround" and "less turnover."

"With the modules we have now and the data that's been entered, it's very easy to run a search across the entire organization to find people with certain qualifications who are strong in specific skills," she says. "We couldn't do that before because we're so geographically dispersed. But today, when a position opens up, we can easily find a list of people who have X and Y skills and are ready to move into that spot."

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The "sell," she says, is almost retroactive. Her task is to show business leaders that their earlier use of the system is what's responsible for today's fast results.

This is possible, she says, because the business units and HR are quite intimate at Harris. HR leaders do rotations into the businesses regularly. There is an HR generalist assigned to each business unit who sits on the executive committee at corporate and can explain how diligent use of what seems like an HR initiative (talent management) helps solve a pressing business problem.

"It's hard when you don't have ROI numbers," says Covell, "but what we can do is to show leaders that it's their own data that made a great hire happen quickly. We can say, 'You wanted a person for a business-development position, and that person needed to have strong customer-communication and strategic skills.' And then we can search the system and show them that a dozen people across the company had excellent performance reviews last year and came up 'blue' for those skills."

Then, she makes it clear that they were only able to run that search -- and find that list of perfectly-matched people instantly -- because business leaders used the system in the past, entering performance and skills data and tracking training and development.

"It's kind of a backwards sell," she says. "But we have to connect the dots and to make it clear that business results -- such as solid hires who are perfectly matched for their positions -- are a direct result of having done that 'HR stuff' in the past. Going forward, that kind of proof makes it easier to convince them to use any new modules we roll out."

A Green Initiative

Exploding in size as "green energy" begins to take hold, Vestas Wind Systems, a wind energy provider based in Denmark with a North American headquarters in Portland, Ore., has had to process huge numbers of new people in recent years. In 2008 alone, the company onboarded 8,000 of its current 22,000 employees.

However, high turnover rates have been a problem. Vestas's Senior Vice President for Business Performance, People and Culture Helle Bay saw the solution as a new, expanded onboarding initiative for all new employees that would include more training and development. Perhaps not surprisingly, the idea met with some initial resistance from managers, who wanted those new hires on the job fast.

"They would say, 'I need them here. I hired them to do this.' I had to convince people that after the person went away and came back, he'd be better in the long run," she says. 

Bay knew she had to sell managers on the idea that the delay would be worth it, but she also knew she couldn't make her case using "HR speak." To sell the company on a large investment of time and money (Bay doesn't have a figure, but says the initiative was substantial), she had to explain why it made sense from a business perspective.

At the time, the company was experiencing the greatest turnover rates during new hires' first six months of employment. This suggested to Bay that the problem was not attributable to bad management or other long-term causes, but was more likely a flaw in the recruiting or onboarding process. Accordingly, she set out to demonstrate that 1) turnover was indeed a big, expensive problem and 2), HR had the tools to solve the problem by devoting more time to recruitment and onboarding.

"I made a list of the items a new employee costs us: recruitment costs, training costs, IT and whatever costs that you have with new staff," she says. Bay was able to demonstrate that the cost of one bad hire was equal to a year's worth of salary. "Having that figure really helped make the case for focusing on doing recruitment right."

Bay says she met frequently with managers across the company, walking through plants, having business lunches and generally "putting a lot of strain on the travel budget." She put the numbers in front of leaders and showed them clearly: If we onboard in this way, we stand to save this much money.

"I've been with other companies that have done HR for HR's sake," she says. "Here, we have really made a big effort to link HR initiatives to the bottom line to ensure that we get buy-in from the company leaders. We make a business case looking forward to what we can expect to harvest, so to speak."

It's like Josh Bersin, CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based consultancy Bersin & Associates, says: If HR can understand the needs of the business, it can propose ways to address them. That way, HR becomes a strategic partner, and an alleviator of pain.

"[This is] about . . . translating why and how this talent management 'stuff' will help you solve the problem," says Bersin.

In other words, if a tool will fix what is broken, managers are going to want to use it. HR's job is to make that connection -- to diagnose the problem, and then prescribe a cure.

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