Talent Strategies 2012 Day Two: Leading Human Capital

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Talent Innovation and author of Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets, took the stage and kicked off this morning’s agenda by discussing how to attract and manage top talent.

One point I thought was particularly noteworthy is the increasing prevalence of “extreme jobs,” as Hewlett referred to them. No, we’re not talking about Alaskan crab fishing – although these jobs also encompass a certain degree of danger in terms of the toll they take on an employee’s overall health and well-being. Extreme jobs are high-pressure positions characterized by intense workloads, tight deadlines, etc. Post-recession, 78 percent of top talent reported high levels of stress compared to just 33 percent pre-recession. What’s interesting is how these jobs have two seemingly contradictory facets in that they’re challenging and rewarding on one hand and have the tendency to negatively affect personal relationships on the other. At the end of the day, these folks say the experience is worthwhile because the benefits justify or outweigh the stress.

Many employees today burn the midnight oil on a regular basis and refuse to avail themselves of benefits like flextime because they fear the chopping block and feel they need to show how indispensable they are. Companies looking to take advantage and run these employees into the ground had better be cautioned though – neglecting their needs ultimately could be detrimental to the organization. “Great people can always go somewhere; there are always options for your stars,” Hewlett said. And the last thing human capital leaders want to worry about is the flight risk of their top talent.

To prevent this from happening, some companies are implementing creative strategies. For instance, Google has TGIF meetings every week where top employees and company leadership recap their successes that week, followed by a candid Q&A session where employees are allowed to ask anything of the organization’s leaders in a move designed to enhance transparency.

In keeping with the theme of leading human capital, keynoter Stephen Miles — vice chairman at Heidrick & Struggles — ran us through how to effectively recruit, retain, engage, develop and coach top talent, but I’ve teased out a few highlights that require leaders to shift their mindset.

Instead of looking for candidates who are “ready now,” we must change the vernacular to “Do we have a viable candidate?” Once candidates assume a new position, they shouldn’t be given a 90-day on-boarding period, but talent managers should go beyond that and provide the necessary support for the transition during the employee’s first year. He also challenged talent leaders to rethink coaching – instead of viewing it as a remedial activity, they ought to diagnose issues beforehand when it can make a difference. “When someone is underperforming, don’t sit in the bleachers for another quarter; you’ll have to do surgery later,” he said.

He ended with this advice. “If you’re not learning voraciously, asking questions, getting people to reverse mentor you, it’s one of my breakers. You need to be a continuous learner. [Those who aren’t] will not be of much use in a few years.”

With that, Talent Strategies has begun to wind down here in New Orleans. As we return to our organizations with knowledge and insights gleaned over the past two days, we have a renewed interest in pursuing learning. But that can wait till tomorrow – because tonight we’ll be serenaded by a Grammy-nominated jazz musician at the networking reception.