Spring 2017
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CTDO Magazine

Going It Alone

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Rebuilding a talent development function on his own had its ups and downs.

In the talent development field, having a positive impact on companies' and individuals' success is what we strive for daily. While working for a Fortune 500 technology solutions and services company, I gained new perspectives on how to be a successful and effective talent executive.


I was asked to join the company to reignite the learning and talent development capabilities of one of its business sectors—in fact, the largest with more than 22,000 employees. In the two years before my arrival, the learning and talent development capabilities had withered away due to cost cuts and departures and was greatly undervalued. What was most telling for me was the difference between my learning and talent development function and that of talent acquisition.

When I started the job, I had no direct reports and no budget. However, talent acquisition had 120 people on staff and a $3 million budget. So, the immediate challenge I had to overcome was to help the sector start to achieve a more balanced approach to talent development and acquisition.

The opportunity I had was to influence senior executives and reframe the internal conversations. To change years of mindset in a company, I needed to effectively communicate and gain the critical support of the sector's business leaders and HR team. To do so, I needed data. Lots of data.

Starting the dialogue

My approach when I'm new to an organization revolves around a single methodology that is structured, repeatable, and easily duplicated by others: I talk to people. This strategy, based on qualitative interviews, is simple and powerful when asking the right questions during these discussions.

It is essential in the beginning to speak to as many business leaders as possible to obtain the answers to several important questions:

  • What is the business strategy?
  • How does the business make money, based on successful execution of this strategy?
  • What are the challenges to successful execution of the business strategy?
  • What are the key metrics that we measure ourselves against to demonstrate successful attainment of the business strategy?
  • What are the critical roles in the business?

The answers to these questions enable me to formulate a learning and talent strategy that is directly and 100 percent aligned to the business strategy. The answers also help to recognize where the business believes it has pain points with respect to the challenges identified.
The company had limited resources, so applying those minimal resources to the right priorities and roles was an obviously sound approach. Disney, for example, looked to identify its most critical role. After reviewing company data, it became clear that the employees strolling around and picking up pieces of trash were critical because they were inherently the point people for visitors' experiences. The same concept applied at my company.

Developing and executing strategy

With this wealth of data from interviews throughout the company, I began developing my learning and talent strategy. As I did this, it became clear that I needed a forum to engage and educate business leaders. As discussed earlier, with the situation I inherited, business leaders liked to acquire talent but not develop the talent they had. I decided that my priority was to create a talent council comprising senior business leaders. The talent council enabled me to collectively set the priorities from the earlier discussions, and what I hoped would lead to allocation of resources, because I had no budget.

The other component was educating members of the council on the reasons why the company needed to take a balanced approach to talent acquisition and development. As an example, while in the University of Pennsylvania's Chief Learning Officer (PennCLO) executive doctorate program, I was exposed to the research of Matthew Bidwell of the Wharton School. In his research into internal promotions versus external hires, Bidwell found that internal staff outperformed external hires. I used that data-driven evidence to help educate the business leaders and position my overall strategy.

Another key aspect that came out of my interviews was the belief that there was a need for a critical role—loosely titled "solution architect"—that didn't yet exist. These positions would be in effect "triple-threat" roles, meaning employees with deep domain knowledge in a specific engineering or science area who would architect technology solutions, market and sell their technology solutions, and create and lead teams across the company to leverage capabilities where needed (breaking silos). This role became the cornerstone of my new company after the parent company decided to split into two separate organizations (another story for another time).

The learning and talent strategy for solutions architects led to a major investment from the business in a new certification program, identification process, and development program to help build the skills that employees in these roles would require to succeed.

These were only two projects coming from my work at re-establishing the learning and talent function. Many more evolved to include a new identification process for high potentials, the company's first development program for high potentials, and the first massive open online course.


Where I succeeded and where I didn't

While I had successes, I still had challenges. For example, I never had a set budget to use on learning and talent development initiatives after almost five years in the company. Some initiatives for which we worked hard to create fell apart due to business challenges. However, throughout this experience, like others I have been involved in, progress came down to a few lessons that I learned and still use today:

Power of questions. New opportunities for learning and talent executives require you to quickly learn about your organization, what it needs, the strategy it will use, and its priorities. The answers to the questions enable you to coalesce where you and your team can have the greatest measurable impact as quickly as possible.

Collaboration for teams of one. In this situation, and having no team initially (a success in the future was the creation of a team of 12 focused on learning, talent, and leadership development), it was an imperative to work with the existing HR teams to accomplish almost everything I did.

Never too large. I never felt that the experience was too large for me. As one leader once told me: "Go for the jobs that you don't feel ready for. These are the roles you will learn the most from over time." This was true for me, and also should be for you.

Whether you go into a new company alone and unafraid or leading small or large teams, success depends on you taking collective experiences and applying these lessons to your professional situation. Learning from each other and applying it defines success.

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

About the Author

J. Keith Dunbar is founder and CEO of Potentious. Dunbar established Potentious to leverage his groundbreaking doctoral research, while at the University of Pennsylvania, that quantified the role of collective leadership capability in successful mergers & acquisitions (M&As). His unique methodology enables companies to more effectively leverage leadership strengths and mitigate risk areas, thus increasing the probability of M&A success. Dunbar, a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, was a human resource executive for more than 20 years focused on talent management and leadership development. He was recognized in 2014 by Alliance of M&A Advisors as the Middle Market Thought Leader-of-the-Year, published in Harvard Business Review, and is a frequent speaker and educator on talent management’s and leadership’s impact on business strategy.

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