Talent Planning

Talent Planning, Chef Style

I’m excited to announce that Engage the Fox: A Business Fable about Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team, is now available for preorders. I cannot wait to share the story of Thaddeus P. Fox and how he saved The Toad Hollow Gazette.

Recently, I was interviewed about talent planning by search consultant, Nancy Massey. I’ll share my comments in this reprint from The Headhunter Chronicles. I apologize that the chef discussed is not a vegan but I think the message is still relevant to readers of The Gazette.


In the movie Chef, Chef Carl Casper is a talented but hot-headed chef who threatens to leave restaurant-owner Riva high and dry on one of the most important nights of the year. Riva is calm as he thinks he has a competent sous chef and line cook who can step into the void. While Riva is by no means an ideal manager (it’s never good when one of your key employees regularly sleeps in his car) common kitchen hierarchy, known as brigade de cuisine, means that there are always a couple of understudies who can help out if a key contributor leaves.

5c637500-a7e8-11e3-b2bb-b940b4e3c814_chef_sxsw_gsSource: Merrick Morton/Open Road /via/

Even if you do not employ temperamental chefs, it’s smart have have a talent management strategy in place. Over the last six years, the baby boomers have started to retire. According to a US survey released earlier this year, 21% of employees plan to change jobs in 2014. Employers should be prepared to rehire almost a quarter of their workforce this year just to preserve the status quo (those in growth mode will have even greater hiring needs.)

Many employers are reactive when it comes to staffing: they do not think about hiring until someone quits or a skills deficiency causes a problem (these are the clients who call me asking if I can have someone hired within a couple of hours.) As a recruiter, I love the challenge but the trouble with this approach is that you are starting out behind the eight ball — the cubicle is empty, the skills deficiency is obvious, the client has nobody to call — and you need to fill the role as quickly as possible. You don’t have the luxury to think about who the best hire would be and so simply try to hire someone who most closely represents the last person who filled that position. Each new hire represents an opportunity to make organizational change and having a talent plan in place can help you optimize the recruiting process.

We asked Jen Lawrence of Process Design Consultants about the key components of a talent management strategy and turn the blog over to her…


Hello there. Thanks for this opportunity to share my views on strategic hiring. While it is often a huge inconvenience and expense when an employee quits or retires, it is also a wonderful opportunity. Every time a position becomes available, you have the opportunity to rethink the role. The natural reaction to a resignation is to find an exact replacement as quickly as possible so you don’t disrupt the status quo. In some commodity-like roles (think outbound telemarketers who follow a tight script) hiring a immediate replacement is exactly what you want to do. In more senior positions, however, chances are you want to disrupt the status quo as each new hire represents the opportunity to more closely match your talent pool to your company’s current and future goals.

For example, when a company is in start-up mode it might need lots of employees with a strong lead generation capability whereas when the company matures it might need to add people who can manage the order pipeline and mine existing relationships. A company that once had an engineering competency might have morphed into one with strength in technology and therefore might need to shift the hiring profile to reflect the company’s new direction. Perhaps a company is expanding into a new geographic market and needs people who speak other languages. Or your vertical manager might need less of a focus on oil and gas and more on alternative sources of energy. If you don’t have a talent plan in place that aligns people with your overall strategy, you might miss out on an opportunity to move your organization closer to its vision through your hiring practice.

I’ll keep with the Chef theme to illustrate my point. Think of your company as a cake and your people as the ingredients that make the cake a success or a failure. A good cake is the result of mixing together the right ingredients in the correct amounts and then baking it at the right temperature. You don’t just randomly start throwing sugar and butter and eggs into the oven: you need some sort of plan.

First, you need an overall vision for your cake. Is this cake for a bachelor party or a five year-old girl’s princess-themed birthday party? Each requires a very different kind of cake. How many people does this cake need to feed? In this case, our vision is that we want to bake a cake that will dazzle a group of 15 princess-crazy party-goers.You want to see the face of the birthday girl light up as you carry the cake to the table. What is the vision for your company? Are you a luxury hotel chain where the care and comfort of your guests is your focus? Are you a company that brings the latest technology to the masses? Who are you? What do you bring to your customers? Why do your employees get out of bed in the morning?

Once you have a vision, you need to figure out a strategy that will bring that vision to life. If you want to dazzle pre-school princesses, look is probably more important than taste. You might do some market research to discover that sweet and sugary is popular among the Dora set. You are going to need a big fancy cake, preferably with a lot of glitter. Subtle flourless chocolate cakes need not apply. What strategy is going to bring your corporate vision to life? Are you the low-cost provider or do you provide white glove service with a smile? If you are the low cost provider, you need to manage your margins and your volume. How are you going to do that?

Now that you have a general idea of the type of cake you require, you need to make some concrete plans. You research “fancy princess cakes” on Pinterest and decide on the pink glitter castle cake. Perhaps there are detailed instructions for decorating the cake but no recipe for the cake itself. You know that you will need a stable base for the heavy fondant icing and glitter. You ask around and get a recipe that has worked for other people’s castle cakes. You now know what ingredients you need. Once you have a clearly defined vision and strategy and start to think about action planning, you are ready to think about the skill sets you need to make your vision come to life. These are your ingredients: you need someone who is great at managing an international supply chain; you need someone who is excellent at negotiating vendor terms; or you need the best concierge in Paris to look after your guests’ needs.

Now you can source the ingredients to make your cake. How full is your pantry? If you have been minding the kitchen you should have the basics in place. Hopefully your have an oven and some bowls and a spoon. Perhaps there is some flour around. And some butter. If you are new to baking or things have changed (perhaps you used to avoid sweets entirely) you may need to bring in a lot of new resources. In the leadership and development world, we call this a talent audit. What skills do you have? What skills do you still need? Who can you train? Who must you hire?

Perhaps your pantry is full and you only need vanilla extract. If you have vanilla beans and vodka on hand, you can make your own (think of this as employee development) Otherwise, you will need to go outside to source the vanilla extract. What type of vanilla extract do you need? How important is this vanilla extract to the success of your cake? Do you need the organic, hand-blended variety in the fancy glass bottle or is the generic label variety alright? (And as an aside, if you need the organic, hand-blended variety in the fancy glass bottle, you might want to hire a recruiter like Nancy to help you with that!) What is your budget? Does your local store have stock on hand? Are you willing to bring in the vanilla extract from another town? Your needs will dictate the sourcing strategy. Generic vanilla — such as the type required for our sugar-soaked princess cake — can be found quite easily. The fancy stuff requires a trip to a speciality store. A line manager should work with a recruiter (internal or third party) to draw up a list of specific skill requirements for the new role. It’s tempting to simply use the existing job description but if you want to maximize this hiring opportunity it makes sense to think about exactly what skills you need today and in the future.

So there you have it. That’s talent planning. It’s looking at where you want to go as an organization and figure out how your people are going to take you there. You need to train and develop the people you have and add in new talent whenever you need to. When you break it down into smaller steps, building a great organization through people is, well, a piece of cake…



Coaching the New Hire

Companies will often hire a business coach for long-term employees in order to prepare them for their next challenges within the organization. Fewer organizations consider coaching recent hires, even though it’s an optimal time to engage a coach’s skills.

Joining a new company is a high-stress time for most people. A new company has a new set of rules, a different corporate culture, and a completely different cast of characters. Often a new hire has been recruited from a good job where she was recognized for her contribution within the firm and had a certain degree of job security; change feels scary. Even if a new hire was not thrilled with his past job and was actively looking for a change, there is comfort with “the devil you know.” While some companies have a formal onboarding program to help ease a new hire into the role, many, including most start-ups, do not. Even those companies that have a formal orientation process tend to focus on explaining the policies and procedures contained in the employee handbook rather than addressing what a new hire wants to know: details about the specific role, the makeup of the team, the resources available, and the immediate performance expectations. Often the hiring manager is too busy to properly welcome a new hire and, even if one does not run into The Office‘s Michael Scott (“Listen, why don’t we just leave that position vacant? Truth be told, I think I thrive under the lack of accountability”) or Dwight Schrute (“Hazing is a fun way to show a new employee that she is not welcome or liked”), peers and subordinates do not always have the time or inclination to help acclimatize a new team member. This can all lead to stress for a new employee.

While a moderate level of stress is good for productivity, the Yerkes-Dodson model shown below illustrates that too much stress has a negative effect on the ability to perform the type of complex tasks expected of a mid- to high-level employee.



Stress in the workplace consists of relationship tension (the tension that comes from working with others: call it office politics) and the tension of the task itself (managing complexity.) Typically, when an employee has a high level of task stress in their job, a good manager can help offset it by easing relationship tension. In the days before a tight deadline, a manager might bring in lunch, give more praise, or help offload less critical tasks so the employee’s tension levels allow for peak performance (the top of the Yerkes-Dodson curve) without tipping over into burnout. With a new employee, however, both the task and the relationship areas are stressed as she comes up to speed on the job requirements and tries to integrate into the organization.

There is a real risk that a new employee will be too stressed to be productive, which can lead to increased relationship tension with a hiring manager who expected the new employee to immediately improve results. The mismatch in expectations can cause conflict and lead to an early exit. According to PwC Saratoga’s Human Capital Effectiveness Report 2013/14, 22% of hires, or one in five employees, leave within their first year. When a new hire does not work out, there is an associated financial loss of half to five times that employee’s salary (comprised of search fees, potential negligent hiring suits, wasted training costs, wasted interview time, and productivity loss from disruption and negative morale.) Plus, the company is still faced with the skills gap they were trying to address in the first place

A coach can be brought in early in the process to help an employee integrate into the new organization. A coach can work as a bridge between the new employee and their team, ironing out any integration pains before they grow into major problems. A coach has dedicated time to spend with the new hire and does not have the bias or agenda of a peer. A coach has the skills to help an employee with task stress (through teaching critical thinking, project management and process improvement skills) and relationship stress (through improving a new hire’s relationships with his manager, team and customers.) There is no perfect hire but a business coach can ensure that a good hire can integrate as quickly into a company as possible and begin to focus on their role and results.

Beware The Borg

Once upon a time there was a group of like-minded people who worked for a major bank. They worked well together, went out for lunch together often, and even their mannerisms were alike. Other groups remarked on their cohesiveness, referring to them (in their less-kind moments) as The Borg, in reference to a group of Cyborgs on Star Trek who, basically, shared a brain.

For a long time, theirs was the group of choice. They had more deal flow, they got bigger bonuses, and they seemed to have so much darned fun. Even the most misanthropic among us looked upon The Borg with a degree of envy, as they seemed to lack the competition and infighting that plagued the other groups.

The last time I’d been struck by such cohesive gang was when I was interviewing with the consumer packaged goods companies right out of school. At one such company, I was taken out for lunch by a happy bunch who spent the hour telling me how they loved working together so much that they also chose to be friends outside of work. They ate lunch together, played ultimate frisbee, and a number of them had even decided to get married. If one of the senior category managers had not waxed on at length about his personal dream of seeing the entire population in diapers (even though his category was baby goods, it still put me off) I might have signed on.

Back at The Borg, trouble was brewing, however. While all of that togetherness made for a tight-knit and happy group, it was also contributing to some fairly significant groupthink.  Groupthink is more likely to occur among groups of people who — no surprise here — think the same way. When there is little diversity of thought, there tends to be little conflict, and people tend to get along really, really well. It makes for a lovely place to work until the wheels fall off. In the case of The Borg, the wheels fell off in a fairly significant way. The group was involved in asset securitization and packaging up, among other things, CDOs. The Borg had morphed into The Big Short.

Now we are not blaming that one little group for the entire financial market collapse of 2008, but a closed culture can often result in blind spots. It is interesting that whenever there is a highly dysfunctional entity, people often remark on how strong the corporate culture was (think of Tyco’s culture of pushing the envelope or the investment banking culture of attempting to offload risk.) Yes-men are rewarded, naysayers are not tolerated, and the very thing that can make companies strong — clear goals and an aligned workforce — can also derail them. Dissent and conflict are not comfortable, but they are necessary for organizations that want to think through issues critically. It’s good to have a few foxes around to point out when the emperor has no clothes.

I’m not suggesting that we fill our companies with iconoclasts — a clear, cohesive culture is an effective way of getting things done — but I am suggesting that whenever we see evidence of The Borg forming, it makes sense to add in some new blood, to recruit a different type of candidate, or to shuffle the  deck chairs a bit.