Learning how to engage talent for the long-term

11 Dec 2018

Learning how to engage talent for the long-term

Finding the right talent is hard enough, but keeping them engaged in a world where they are hugely in-demand is arguably an even more difficult task. What’s the secret?

Every leader knows that an engaged team member is much more productive than a disengaged one. Engaged people with tenure are priceless. And a fully-engaged team can do anything. This has always been the case.

So it’s not surprising that the HR Director of a global pharmaceutical company told us that they don’t use the word ‘retention’ any more. ‘Engagement’ is everything because it’s engagement that keeps people in the company.

Premium value

Today, there is actually a premium on engaged, agile people, so there are lots of external distractions for top talent as competitors vie for their attention.

A bank CEO told us that they have invested heavily in their people and this has turned out to be a double-edged sword. “We are struggling with people being poached because we are ahead of the game and have developed skills that others need. This has increased significantly over the last 12 months.”

A technology company, known for its excellent culture of engagement is also a target. “Retention is our biggest issue. We are very successful and people are happy to be here, so everyone wants our people.”

Every one of the 70 APAC leaders of MNCs we interviewed is concerned about this and some explained what they are doing about it.

“Recruiting people who stay is now a hard KPI.”

She went on to explain that “We had to create new talent pools – these people wanted something different.”

Having done this though, she explained that, “If you don’t match the passion with the job, you have six months or you are out. You are defending a swarm that wants that person to leave. There is a fundamental shift in how committed people are to their job.”

Collaborative, engaged teams reject people who do not meet their standards and if leaders don’t support this, then there is a risk of losing the stars.

Higher purposes

Others see that a high level of engagement has been easier to achieve in Asia than the rest of the world: “Our engagement score is a leading indicator of a successful business. In Asia, we have a higher engagement score than anywhere else in the world. The reason is that millennials are more engaged. Perhaps this is because there is a higher purpose in healthcare.”

Others are still thinking about where to start. “We need to work on monitoring how talent is progressing and experiencing the company.”

Supporting the professional growth of talented individuals is a major engagement factor. One benefit of the ‘pace of change disruption’, that is at the heart of this research, is that companies are talking a lot more about investing in their people.

Investing in people

One leader explained that “The new demands from our clients are now such that our people are not geared up for this. The top trends in our sector are very different to a year ago. From a skills perspective, there are different needs. Add the generational changes in the workforce and it’s hard to keep up. It requires a different mindset.”

When pressed, he estimated that 50% of his management team was not right for the future direction of the company. This was not an isolated comment. Several of the leaders we interviewed said the same. They said that the people they have, were right when they hired them, but the world has changed and they are not right for the new order.

Historically, companies would replace redundant skills or attitudes. Today, that is not necessarily the answer. “We have the money to buy talent, but we can’t find it, so we now invest in developing people.”

“The skills we need don’t exist in our business, our partners, customers or competitors.”

The competition is struggling with the same issue, so re-skilling good people as opposed to replacing them is the answer. But not everyone wants to learn. “As we become more digital, we have to re-skill people. Some can do this and some cannot.”

Of course, there will always be a need to bring people in from outside and the above comment highlights why. Some people will always resist change, but leadership needs to get better at quickly identifying who can change, with help, and who will never change. The ‘never changers’ will kill progress.

“The skills we need are very new. We have work to do and really fast.”

“The team will not get us where we need to go by doing what they do today. It’s about learning agility. There are no better people out there – to succeed, we need to invest in our people.”

In a later chapter on culture, we will bring to life the leadership challenge of setting the ‘change mind-set example’, but for now, we can simply say that if more than 20% of your people are resisting change and learning new things that are important to the future of the company, then the problem is one of leadership!

Diversity is critical

The pace of change is disrupting business from multiple angles and bringing ‘new’ problems to leadership. Often, these are problems that have not been seen before. Of course, the solution to any problem is only as good as the intellect applied to solve it. Neuroscience shows that when we apply ourselves to finding that solution, our response subconsciously draws on our cumulative experiences. So, faced with a difficult business problem, a Board of Directors, all of the same gender, nationality, ethnic group, education and generation, will more than likely approach the problem from the same start point, and quickly agree with each other on the solution. It’s normal human behaviour to respect the opinion of people who have the same view as we do. It’s called confirmation bias.

That solution may or may not be a good one, but the ‘optimal’ solution, properly debated, would come from a much more diverse group. A group made up of people of different genders, generations, nationalities, ethnic backgrounds and education. This is not just about boards of course. It applies at every level.

“Diversity is important. Talent comes to us in different forms. Diversity and collaboration fit well together.”

From what one hears in business circles, you would expect that just about every leader knows the confirmation bias trap. But from our research, it is still there for many, and they have a long way to go.

But, as one leader we interviewed puts it, “Diversity creates Diversity.” There is an unstoppable process underway, but for companies wanting to be smarter in the face of disruptive change, the process needs to speed up.

As the leader of a truly diverse team, right through every level, puts it, “My leadership team is incredibly diverse in age, gender and nationality. They demand change!”

Mixing it up

One company we quoted in an earlier chapter explained their exponential growth and success across APAC, over the past five years. The same leader said this: “Over the last seven years, our average age has gone from 48 to 32, and the diversity mix has shifted significantly.”

In Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Culture Code”, he provides convincing proof that a collaborative and cohesive team creates additional ‘IQ’ together and better decisions are made. Make this a diverse group too and the possibilities multiply.“

Rik Vera, the CEO of Nexxworks, a Belgian company that helps leadership teams to open their minds to future possibilities and loosen their grip on the legacy thinking and models, adds a bold prediction. “In some sectors, they are so stuck in old business models and assets that they will not need in the future, that I predict 50% will not survive.”

He went on to say that “they are using old-fashioned processes to try and change the company. This is the biggest problem. If they cannot escape this, they will not make it.”

All of this comes down to the ability to think the right things and make effective decisions. Thinking is becoming a team sport and, like any winning team, every player counts.

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