A new talent development initiative seeks to change how employees view their careers and redefine what talent strategy means for the organization.
systems or software used to manage everything from performance appraisals to 360-degree assessments, to content development for online courses.
No matter what definition is used, it's safe to say that implementing an integrated talent management strategy is no small or easy feat. Yet it is one that can reap great benefits if done well.
One organization that is tackling integrated talent management head on is PEMCO Mutual Insurance. Headquartered in Seattle, PEMCO is a mid-sized company of about 620 employees serving the northwestern United States. It has a rich 63-year history with roots in the public educator market, which is still one of its largest segments of policyholders today.
Change has not always come easy for the company. Like many organizations, PEMCO has experienced a tremendous amount of change recently, leading to significant organizational, cultural, and strategic shifts in how it does business and what it offers to consumers. Through it all, the company's leaders know that competition for great talent is tough and the climate for existing employees can be even more challenging, so "re-recruitment" is top-of-mind.
What started as putting together some tools for talent management five years ago has now resulted in the launch of a new talent development program that promises to reframe how employees think about their careers at PEMCO and alter the company's mindset of what talent strategy is all about.
At PEMCO, talent management is defined as the activities and processes throughout the employee life cycle: recruiting and hiring, onboarding, training, professional development, performance management, workforce planning, leadership development, career development, cross-functional work assignments, succession planning, and the employee exit process. It has had several building blocks in place for several years, including competency-based position profiles and performance appraisals, an effective recruiting process with use of behavioral interviewing, and a professional development plan (PDP) process.
Formal leadership development programs began in 2009. Although a culture of people development always has been a company strength, it has been more of a concept than necessarily something with a structure. A branding image that conveys who PEMCO is as an employer was lacking, and much more needed to be built.
Through employee exit interviews it became clear that career development opportunities were perceived as few and far between. As a mid-sized company with an employee tenure averaging 12 years, advancing up through the hierarchy isn't necessarily possible within a short timeframe.
New hires and those in leadership roles comprise the two ends of the spectrum. Many employees in the middle are doing the same work they have done for most of their careers because they enjoy the work and have grown comfortable in their roles as experts in their fields. Yet with change and transition comes the need to stay engaged and to stay sharp through continued growth and development. Thus, work on the talent development program began.
About a year ago, a cross-functional team of employees was tasked with developing a succession planning process and tools. The group worked under the leadership of Janice Bozzi, then-director of organizational development, and the executive sponsorship of Sue McNab, the chief people and enterprise services officer. Soon, the goal of having succession plans in place grew into a multifaceted, integrated talent development program that launched on March 1, 2012.
"This was the right time to energize our entire workforce through a renewed focus on professional development," Bozzi says. "For the first time, we would all update our development plans during the same three-month window, helping each other build plans and share our enthusiasm for learning."
The talent development program, which is now part of PEMCO's larger integrated talent management strategy, enables employees to steer their development, with support from their managers, along three possible paths—self-development, talent pools, and succession, with an emphasis on self-awareness of who each is as an employee and a leader to "bring their whole self to work."
Forks in the road
The first possible path employees can choose in the talent development program is self-development. This is for those who are looking to stay the course in their current careers, such as workplace learning and human resources professionals who want to stay in that line of work, or others who want to continue to develop deep expertise. These are the folks who love their jobs and who may just want to learn new skills to prepare for the future. They craft their PDPs in a way that includes activities to support their continued education and skill building in their chosen fields.
A second option is to explore talent pools. As PEMCO defines them, talent pools allow employees to safely explore what is required for supervisory, managerial, or executive roles, as well as career areas in the business beyond their own such as claims, customer service, human resources, marketing, and sales.
Using an infrastructure developed through use of the company's performance management system, employees can go into the system and review the competencies and behavioral traits required for that talent pool and assess themselves against those competencies. They can then use this information to update their PDPs and speak with their managers about possible activities to continue to explore their selected talent pool(s) of interest such as available courses that align with the competencies.
This definition of talent pools provides a contrast to how the concept is used in other organizations in which the pools constitute employees who are possible successors for positions. PEMCO's model allows all employees to "play" and explore their opportunities, something that was critical to McNab's vision for talent development at PEMCO. "We strongly believe in self-direction; the company provides the blank canvas and the employee puts the paint on it," she says.
Peggy McKenna, a project manager and technical consultant at PEMCO, is the architect of the talent pools and the point person who worked with the performance management system to create the infrastructure that enables employees to explore the competencies and traits, self-assess, and complete their PDPs. She also is the creator of the materials and tools used throughout additional aspects of the program, but it's this new take on talent pools that she's most excited about.
"There's never been anything in place before to help employees go another direction," McKenna says. "This is now a place to really help people understand how they can develop. It's for all, and not just a select group."
Anyone can choose self-development as well, and some of those who explore talent pools may decide to opt for self-development instead if they conclude that the pool isn't for them after all.
Third is succession, the only path of the three that is not completely self-directed. Employees still need to answer the question, "Are you interested?" when discussing specific managerial roles with their managers. If an employee is not interested, he can then simply explore talent pools or engage in self-development.
When piloting the program in 2012, PEMCO decided to start with manager through executive roles for the succession piece, with the intent to expand it to other key roles in the future. This approach allows time for everyone to get used to the process and tools available to help identify and document succession candidates.
The succession element also is aligned with specific learning activities such as the leadership development program; continuing education programs or leadership institutes through local universities; a mentoring program; and participation as a volunteer adviser for Business Week, a community program at the high school level that exposes students to the business world. These types of activities can then be incorporated into the succession participant's PDP.
Transparency with succession planning is something that had to be carefully considered since it has not been common for employees to have open conversations with their managers, or vice versa, about possibly taking the boss's job someday. It is a bit daunting to create a culture in which it's OK for someone to voice interest in their manager's role or for employees to share openly with one another that they are succession candidates when these types of interactions haven't necessarily happened before.
According to Patricia Hitch, senior organizational development consultant at PEMCO, the key is to make as much of the process as visible as possible to the degree that it makes sense. "Transparency has helped because then there are no questions left—there's nothing hidden about the process," she says. "Employees have started to trust, and fear is beginning to dissipate because people are looking at it from a different perspective. It's about people's development and business continuity."
Hitch added that there is still plenty of work to do to fully shift the culture toward more transparency, but this is a positive start.
For program launch, it was up to Hitch and her available resources to develop and execute the communication plan. Her approach included producing a series of videos using the technique of fast-motion drawing, which complemented her work in graphic recording and facilitation. The videos tie the talent development program to the company's employer brand, "Your PEMCO," and provide engaging introductions to the program itself and to creating a PDP, which is required for all employees to be eligible for salary increases.
Additional communication vehicles included posters, contests, printed booklets, weekly company-wide email blasts, and leveraging human resources business partners within the company to have conversations with those in the business units.
Although the effect of the program on employees' careers and employee engagement will take time to assess, more than 50 percent of employees participated in talent pools; of those, 88 percent completed the assessment for the pool they chose. Employee interest in succession roles was strong, with 72 participants for 59 roles. An impressive 98 percent of employees turned in their PDPs by a May 31 deadline, exceeding a goal of 90 percent. Executives led by example, all submitting their updated PDPs before the deadline, including CEO Stan McNaughton who also publicly shared some of his development goals.
As with any new initiative there are many lessons learned. For McKenna, communication is important. "I would have spent more time on the communication part," she shares. "Use more sounding boards and try a little more testing in groups [of the process and tools] before going in to the executives."
Bozzi also thinks communication could have been improved with the executives, business units, and the cross-functional team that assisted with the design of the program. "The week before the program launch, we discovered that not all levels of management were fully informed and prepared to support the program. In hindsight, I would've brought the executives together with the directors ... to hear the information all at once, hear each other's questions, and [have] time to talk through it," she explains.
Bozzi and McNab add that it is critical that all the business units participate and that the effort be launched as a complete package, rather than using a piecemeal approach, for it to have the necessary impact. Also, the initiative must not be perceived by employees as a "flavor of the month," which would dilute the initiative and employees' experiences.
McNab has received positive feedback so far, specifically regarding increased openness among employees. "The power has been in the verbal exchanges between people around their future and its possibilities," she says.
With work still to be done for PEMCO's integrated talent management strategy around workforce planning, feeding information from PDPs to the learning group for training development, company-wide talent reviews, and so on, the company is well on its way. As McNab states, "Develop something that is as simplistic as possible but still solves the complex issue of talent." If organizations can do that, any definition of talent management will do.