Firms lose out by leaving pearls in the shell


The Guardian SATURDAY 4 October 2003


Most employers are aware that there is hidden talent in their workforce, yet they usually have no system to identify these employees or help them to develop their skills. Nic Paton reports

Emma Walker is a bright, articulate and committed employee. The kind of person firms only find after scouring endless graduate fairs. Yet two months ago, she walked away in disgust from a job she loved, as a project manager in the voluntary sector, because she felt exploited by her managers.

"By the end of it, as a lot of people had been laid off because of budget cuts, I was doing jobs I was never supposed to be doing, things way beyond the line of duty," she says.

"But all I would get back were belligerent emails, often copied to other people, asking me why I had done something this way or that way, ticking me off about things. Sometimes they were valid points, but I resented the way they just fired off messages without checking with me first," she adds. Although she was rapidly snapped up by a bigger, better managed, organisation, Ms Walker, 30, still feels bitter. "I was working extra hours for them and not claiming all my leave. But I felt I was being undermined at every point.

"It was only when I issued an ultimatum and threatened to leave that there was a flurry of activity and concern. But by that point I had had enough," she says.

Sadly, her experiences are not unusual. A survey by business psychologists OPP, published last month, found that 84% of employers know they have "talent" lying undiscovered and unrecognised within their organisations - yet 79% have no system in place to identify and develop those people.

Similarly, a study in August by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development criticised employers for being too keen simultaneously to fire and then hire staff when they reorganised their workforce. Too few organisations looked at what skills their existing staff had before making redundancies, and so let potentially talented employees walk out of the door, it warned.

Most organisations recognise that giving their employees a bit of career "tlc" from time to time is a good thing, but all too often day-to-day or economic pressures overtake them so it's either done in a haphazard way or not at all, suggests Nathan Hobbs, a practice leader at OPP.

Firms may spend lots of time and effort bringing on high-flying graduates or nurturing their top level executives, all of which has its place. But the rest of the workforce - the manual and skilled workers, lower and middle management - that make an organisation tick must not be ignored. "You need to give people the opportunity to step back and look at what they are doing and where they are going. You need to get a sense of what it is that they are particularly good at and where their natural strengths lie," says Mr Hobbs.

When mobile phones firm T-Mobile, for instance, changed its name from One2One it embarked on a major programme to identify who a T-Mobile person was and what sort of skills they ideally needed.

"We have job descriptions and employee specifications for every position that we recruit to. We also use assessment centres and other selection processes," explains HR director Jim Morrison.

The company makes a point of talking to employees about their performance, career aspirations and how they can improve their skills, he adds. But talent management is not always without pain. In T-Mobile's case, earlier in the rebranding process it involved sitting down with a lot of managers, some very senior and formerly successful, and telling them that they no longer fitted.

Similarly, there often needs to be a recognition that, maybe things have not been done right in the past. Two years ago, technology firm Sony Europe, with 12,800 staff across Europe, realised its recruitment and assessment processes varied widely country by country.

"We had a diverse, dispersed approach. Spain was doing one thing, Germany another and so on," admits Mark Wilcox, general manager of human resources. Graduates are now recruited into a central "talent pool" where the sorts of skills the firm is looking for - business acumen, language skills and so on - can be assessed. There is also now a single European assessment centre.

The company has four separate career development programmes, starting off with graduates, rising through younger managers, more senior level managers and finally executive level employees. At each level there are assessment, training and development, coaching and mentoring programmes. "We used to have a bit of a scattergun approach, now it is much more surgical," says Mr Wilcox.

Spotting and nurturing talent is never straightforward, and companies do find it hard, concedes Angela Baron, an adviser with the CIPD. "One of the dangers is that companies can get suckered in by people who can talk a good talk; people just getting on with their jobs can be overlooked," she says.

But getting it right can give employers an edge. Take Tesco, which just last week reported half-year profits up 17.4% to 628m. Its UK retail director, David Potts joined the business as a school leaver and Terry Leahy, its chief executive, was a graduate trainee.

With 200,000 employees in the UK, spotting and nurturing talent is a major issue, and a key part of every manager's role, says office HR director David Fairhurst. Every employee meets annually with their line manager specifically to discuss their career development - data which is filtered up through the business so that people can then be moved, where appropriate, on to various development programmes.

The key, he argues, is not to make the process too complex or bureaucratic.

All it needs is communication and day-to-day awareness. "It's about ensuring you have the right environment. The starting point must be listening to your staff and understanding their needs," he says.

It's also crucial to get line managers on board. If they don't understand how important the process is for the future wellbeing of the business, it's not going to work, stresses Paul Armstrong, managing consultant at Penna Consulting.

"Employees value recognition for their contribution, not just salary. It can be as little as saying thank you or telling them when you think they've done something well," he says.

The message, it appears, is that simply because that person beavering away in the corner is good at their job, don't assume it means they're happy with their lot. Finding out at the exit interview, although useful for making changes for the future, is usually too late.

Case study: Sony gave my career the Edge

Rachel Edge, a senior manager at Sony Europe, has just returned to the company's Basingstoke office after spending the past couple of years running a distribution centre in the city of Tilburg in southern Holland.

"I've gone from assistant manager to senior manager in five years and, with this latest role, I'll be getting out of pure logistics and into a more strategic position, which is what I've wanted to do," she enthuses.

As one of 172 people in Sony's "developing potential" pool of younger managers, Ms Edge has a sponsor in the UK helping her with her career. She originally had a mentor too, but this ended when it was realised he was abroad too often for it to work effectively. The company has also agreed to pay for part of her MBA.

"To a certain extent it is up to me. I expect to have to manage my own career. But as long as I make the right noises and give enough of a steer, then the great thing is that there are people who can pick you for other opportunities," explains Ms Edge, 35.

Being part of a specific programme has helped to give her an overview of the business and a better understanding of how she relates to people and does her job, she adds. "In big businesses you cannot get ahead just by doing a good job, you've got to get noticed or picked up, you need another way of getting your name around."