The Top 7 Secret Confessions From The C-Suite About Talent Development

The Top 7 Secret Confessions From The C-Suite About Talent Development

September 2016


Part of the series “Today’s True Leadership”

Talent development today is a highly complex, multi-faceted field that is changing at the speed of light, with new and emerging technology innovations and tools, research and approaches rapidly shifting how we lead, develop and measure performance of our teams and our talent.

To learn more about these complexities, and what C-Suite leaders are most concerned about regarding talent development today, along with proactive solutions, I was excited to catch up with Ann Parker for her insights.  Ann is senior manager of the Human Capital Community of Practice and the Senior Leaders & Executives Community of Practice at the Association for Talent Development. Prior to this position, she worked at ATD for five years in an editorial capacity, primarily for TD magazine, and most recently as a senior writer and editor. In this role, Ann had the privilege to talk to many training and development practitioners, hear from a variety of prominent industry thought leaders, and develop a rich understanding of the profession’s content.

Here’s what Ann shares:

Kathy Caprino: Ann, can you tell us what you know about the top concerns and fears of C-Suite executives about developing their organization’s talent?

Ann Parker: I often talk to executives about what keeps them up at night. I hear tales of specific struggles, continuous challenges, and perplexing priorities. Time and again, several recurring themes arise.

Below are the top 7 confessions from the C-Suite, along with practical solutions to help talent development (TD) leaders meet these challenges.

“I am passionate about developing talent in my organization, but I don’t know how to get buy-in from my C-suite peers.”

For years TD execs have struggled to “get a seat at the table” and convince their CEOs that developing talent is worth the organization’s investment. Understand that the process of gaining buy-in will take time. You must be willing to devote at least a year of market research and business analysis to present a fully formed talent development strategy to your fellow leaders. When you can show your peers a business plan, they will be more than willing to let you pull up a chair for further discussions.

Martha Soehren, Chief Talent Development Officer at Comcast Cable, believes a “consistent learner experience drives a consistent customer experience.” In the Winter 2015 CTDO magazine feature article, “Impact and Alignment,” Soehren describes the journey she undertook to convince her C-suite peers that talent development should be a centralized function given the same strategic consideration that human resources and talent management enjoys.

“I could talk about developing people all day, but I struggle to speak the language of the business.”

Most TD execs have moved into their roles from lower-level training or HR positions and have insufficient business acumen for their new senior-level priorities. Does this describe you? Do you lack business intelligence savvy?

Think about your own employees: When do you appreciate them most? What ideas have they presented that you find groundbreaking and insightful? Most likely you are ready to give your direct report a raise when he presents a solution to a challenge you’ve been struggling to overcome. Likewise, your CEO has several unique priorities that occupy most of her mental energy. Schedule regular one-on-one meetings, and take the time to hear these particular pain points. Get to know the top goals that are most critical for the business to meet, and ensure the TD function is focusing its efforts on those goals.

“Aligning my talent development initiatives with strategic goals is an ongoing challenge that keeps me up at night.”

Talent efforts will not work in a vacuum and need to be aligned with overall organizational strategy; TD execs must ensure such top-level strategy is taking place, or their programs will become irrelevant. Can you name your organization’s mission, vision, values, and strategic priorities? If not, it’s time to learn them. Until you know – inside and out – the direction your organization is moving, you cannot plan TD programs that will have any tangible impact. Your organization’s strategy is the barometer with which your TD initiatives must be aligned.

For example, Comcast Cable, with support from Chief Operating Officer Dave Watson, created a top-level advisory board called the National Executive Learning Council, which drives learning that is strategically aligned with business objectives. Watson identifies his two principal priorities as “alignment of training around business goals, and impact of L&D on the organization.”

“I believe my talent development programs are working, but I don’t know how to prove their success to my CEO.”

Most knowledge, skills, and behavior improvement is qualitative and anecdotal; it’s difficult to use hard data to show evidence of such success. For years, the talent development profession has been promoting a handful of models to evaluate learning programs. These include Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels and Phillips’s ROI methodology.

The evolution of big data and the advent of human capital analytics have spurred newer approaches, such as The Center for Talent Development Reporting’s Talent Development Principles, and predictive analytics. Learn seven practical steps for using analytics to improve the evaluation of learning here.

“Leadership development is failing, and I don’t know what to do about it.”

As a general practice, leadership development is not effectively growing high-potential employees, despite much investment and prioritization by CEOs. In Leading in Times of Disruption and Ambiguity, authors David Dotlich and Raj Ramachandran say that in the next 10 years, “effective leaders will need to be able to adapt to such a wide variety of different contexts, conditions, and situations that it will be increasingly difficult to simply teach ‘how to lead.’

What we can do instead is develop leaders who have the skills to flourish in complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments.”

Focus on the following six leadership development best practices used by leaders who are driving lasting organizational change:

  1. Put disruption front and center
  2. Discover, uphold, and live a definitive purpose
  3. Develop and demonstrate authenticity and agility
  4. Use journey-based immersion experiences to accelerate transformation
  5. Bring the ecosystem into the room
  6. Drive lasting organizational change

 ”I have trouble keeping up with the pace of change in my organization.”

Today’s VUCA  (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world leaves little time for TD execs to develop deep specialization in any new learning trend; constant change requires ongoing employee recruitment, training, and development. While it may be difficult to detach yourself from day-to-day operational tasks, it’s critical to make strategic learning a habit within your TD function. Strategic learning includes anticipating future skills needed by your workforce and committing to building those within your employee development plans.

Rahul Varma, Chief Learning Officer at Accenture, shares this: “We want to help our clients be high-performing and successful, which means we need to be looking forward to where the world is headed…We’ve been thinking about how people will learn in the future, how to bring physicality and the human connection into a digitized environment, and how to do that at scale.”

“My CEO wants me to develop our employee bench strength, but I can barely keep talent here long enough to identify high potentials!”

The younger generation in the workplace has very little loyalty to an organization and tends to leave a job after a few years; as a result, succession planning is difficult and never-ending. Anne Davis Gotte and Kevin D. Wilde of General Mills describe their organization’s succession planning mantra as “More talent! Better talent! Ready sooner!” (Check out Gotte and Wilde’s descriptions of several practical ways to find more and better talent and prepare that talent to be leaders here.)

First, set clear expectations and metrics for success. Communicate this roadmap to all leaders so they have a common understanding of what succession planning efforts should achieve. Next, identify common barriers to and systemic patterns for spotting high-potential employees. Consider if your leadership assessment practices are objective and valid and whether you are using assessment outcomes to effectively inform succession planning. Finally, ensure talent development approaches are customized per individuals’ needs.

Caprino:  Ann, what about new technology? How are C-Suite leaders keeping up with it all?

Parker: From virtual reality to the latest social media app, it is nearly impossible for TD execs to understand technology innovations deeply and leverage them effectively for talent development. First, learn your audience’s needs. Do they prefer classroom training? Then continue to deliver it. Are they interested in receiving learning opportunities in bite-sized, mobile “chunks?” Then research mobile learning best practices and software that will enable you to build such sought-after development experiences.

Either way, it’s important that you, as a TD leader, stay abreast of such technology trends. Even if your employees aren’t receptive now, it’s your responsibility to lead them to the future of the profession.

Caprino: Finally, in this new era of personalized learning, social media, and crowdsourced knowledge, what are leaders finding about the formal employee learning programs they’ve utilized at their organizations?

Parker:  In-person classroom training is still practiced in many organizations, but the modern learner shows an affinity toward collaborative, social, and on-demand learning. TD execs must evolve their programs for this new environment. A practical way to increase collaboration and build relationships among the different generations in your workforce is to form project teams with diverse members of various ages and tenures. Before jumping into the work at hand, allow at least one team meeting for members to get to know each other and the various work styles represented. You could use a personality assessment, such as Myers Briggs or DiSC, or a skills assessment, such as Gallup’s Strengths Finders, to build understanding and camaraderie.

Mentorship programs are another tool to build understanding between generations. Offer an open program where employees can apply to be mentors or mentees based on the skills or abilities they can impart and the knowledge they wish to gain. Then match employees based on these needs.


This article was written by Kathy Caprino from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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