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CTDO Magazine Article

At the Table and Everywhere Else

Nancy Altobello and the talent function at EY not only have a seat at the leadership table, but also a valued role throughout the organization.

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Wed Jun 15 2016

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Staid and stately as an ocean liner, the professional services firm Ernst & Young undertook, at age 167, a transformation to something more akin to a fleet of speedboats running in close formation. In 2013, under the leadership of a new global chairman and CEO, Mark A. Weinberger, the firm shortened its name to EY, unveiled a snappy new logo, and embarked on a rapid reinvention. Guided by a plan called Vision 2020, EY set about to be first among global professional services firms and to become a $50 billion company in just seven years. The firm believed so strongly in what it had to offer that in addition to a name change, the company reframed its overall purpose as "building a better working world."

There were plenty of challenges for a large, established, global company to confront: new technology, new markets, pressure from newcomers in its space, and thousands of employees needing new skills to help achieve the Vision 2020 goals. EY needed to become more strategic globally and better able to execute centrally—to do fewer things better and faster to keep up with a changing marketplace.

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EY's lifeblood

From the start, talent acquisition and development have been a driving force of the EY metamorphosis. With 230,000 people deployed worldwide in teams that had become more diverse (33 percent of 2015 partner promotions are from emerging markets and 31 percent of partners are women) and increasingly virtual, the firm needed a new way of operating supported by a robust talent function tied closely to the business. EY's top leadership group, known as the Global Executive, now includes a vice chair for talent, Nancy Altobello. In her role as EY's top talent executive, Altobello reports directly to Weinberger. According to Altobello, the CEO "has a tremendous interest in what we do around talent, so it's a natural reporting relationship."

Weinberger, who served under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and also held several leadership roles at EY, understands the critical role that talent plays in achieving his organization's goals.

"Talent development is a vital part of our Vision 2020 strategy. We have worked hard to integrate talent into our strategy, as developing our people is not just an initiative—it is the lifeblood of our organization," Weinberger says.

He continues: "One of our innovative programs is EYU, which provides a rich blend of experiences, mentoring, and education as a means to attract and retain the best people. It's our people who engage with clients every day to solve complex issues, and it's our people who bring to life our purpose of building a better working world for our stakeholders and communities. Our global talent strategy has become fully integrated with business objectives throughout the organization as a result of Nancy's leadership."

Altobello is one of 18 members of the Global Executive. Notably, she arrived at this position not through an HR or training track, but via such key business roles as audit partner, global client service partner, and managing partner for assurance—one of EY's four lines of business.

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"My background is on the business side," she says, "and I think you're going to see more of that among talent development executives. I'm a big believer in muscle memory. When you've done the work and been in the field working with clients, it really helps make sure the talent agenda is aligned with where the business is going.

"But I also very much respect the significant science and learning of professional talent development people, so our talent team is seeded with people from the business as well as senior HR professionals. That teaming is really essential to our success."

Altobello believes that talent has a much different, more strategic seat at the EY leadership table than it used to. "High-performing teams are at the heart of our Vision 2020 strategy, and the talent function is a key part of that."

Delivering value

The EY talent organization mirrors the organization as a whole. All heads of the business lines have a senior talent person reporting directly to them as well as to a leader in the talent function. "It's very necessary," says Altobello. "We feel a tremendous responsibility, because we have a seat at the table, to be responsive. We need to be delivering value by recruiting and developing the talent that helps EY bring outstanding service to clients and achieve our ambitions. The talent function has moved well beyond creating a nice place to work to being a critical differentiator and a critical imperative in the business."

Altobello works not only with the CEO but closely with several members of the Global Executive group, especially the heads of EY's four service lines, and the heads of the company's four major operating "geographies"—the Americas, Asia Pacific, Japan, and EMEIA (Europe, Middle East, India, Africa). She has less everyday involvement with the heads of the finance and regulatory groups, but has regular daily contact with the leaders of the client-facing parts of the business. She communicates regularly with Carmine Di Sibio, the global managing partner of client services.

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Di Sibio says, "Building diverse, high-performing teams is at the foundation of everything we do—and it's even more important in an increasingly global, interconnected business environment. That's why I work closely with Nancy and her team to ensure that we can both attract and retain the best people."

Altobello is responsible for efforts to build an "exceptional experience" for the company's 230,000 employees and recruits, she explains. "EY offers professional services through partnerships. We hire over 80,000 new people a year and whether you're with us for your whole career or just for the short term, we want that experience to be exceptional. We built our whole talent agenda around delivering on that proposition."

Developing "highest-performing teams" is another role for the talent function. "The way EY serves its clients is very team-dependent," says Altobello. "We were bringing more people into the organization with different backgrounds, so how we work together as teams needed a lot of thought and effort. We no longer talk about teaming and hope for the best. We no longer believe that simply being collegial and working collaboratively is enough. We've developed a methodology for working in teams. There's a science behind it."

Recruiting also is critical to a company that puts so much employee brainpower into its product lines and services and relies heavily on virtual teamwork. Recruits need to be comfortable using technology to work globally. Of the 80,000 people EY hires each year, some will be interns, but about 60,000 are full-time hires.

"That's a massive effort and it's so important to us because we've found that recruiting the right people makes all the difference to our success," Altobello explains. "To recruit well, we need to stay at the cutting edge of using social networking to connect with people. We also have a world-class employee referral program, which helps us bring in top-quality people."

Integrating talent into the business

The talent function at EY has a complex matrix structure, with teams embedded in each of the company's four service lines and four geographic areas. Talent and learning personnel also serve in EY's 28 regions. All have talent expertise, but act as business partners.

The main components of the talent function are talent development, recruiting, diversity and inclusiveness, and HR. Each function within talent has a global team. Talent development is headed by Paul Feeko, EY's global talent development leader, who is responsible for all of learning, performance management, and teaming, as well as coaching and succession planning.

The chief learning officer, Brenda Sugrue, provides strategic direction and operational leadership of learning globally. She calls it her "dream job." Sugrue, like her counterparts in other sections of the talent function such as recruitment or performance management, leads the implementation of global programs and processes, and makes sure local needs are met.

"EY is the most globally integrated of all the professional services firms. That means talent is kept close to the front line, enabled by common systems, processes, and content," Sugrue says. "The goal is to "strengthen global and empower local."

Across all of talent, the goal is to standardize as much as possible to ensure a consistent experience for all employees, and to run an efficient operation. The EY talent function is very data-driven. It reports globally on a wide range of metrics and uses a combination of talent and business data to make large and small decisions.

Results

EY had a good year in 2015, with revenue of $28.7 billion, putting it more than halfway to its goal of being a $50 billion company by 2020.

"This year we realized strong gains across both developed and emerging markets, despite volatile conditions in many individual markets and a slowing global economy. We are proud of this year's results, which saw fast-paced growth across all of our businesses and in each geographic area," says Weinberger. "Under our Vision 2020 strategy, we have been very explicit about our purpose of building a better working world and this has given us great momentum both inside and outside the organization. It has helped us attract, retain, and motivate our people. Our purpose has also been valuable as we engage with our clients and in guiding our successful work on their complex issues."

EY's 230,000 global headcount is an all-time high. The organization invested $535 million in training and delivered 8.2 million learning hours to employees in fiscal year 2015.

About this performance Altobello says: "Our growth is a result of our people and their ability to deliver exceptional, high-quality service around the world. Our purpose—building a better working world—has helped us attract, retain, and engage the most talented people around the globe—people who share our belief that by asking better questions we can get to better answers and build a better working world."

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

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