Getting the best people into the most important roles does not happen by chance; it requires a disciplined look at where the organization really creates value and how top talent contributes.
To understand how difficult it is for senior leaders to link their companies’ business and talent priorities, consider the blind spot of a CEO we know. When asked to identify the critical roles in his company, the CEO neglected to mention the account manager for a key customer, in part because the position was not prominent in any organization chart.
By just about any other criterion, though, this was one of the most important roles in the company, critical to current performance and future growth. The role demanded a high degree of responsibility, a complex set of interpersonal and technical skills, and an ability to respond deftly to the client’s rapidly changing needs.
Yet the CEO was not carefully tracking the position. The company was unaware of the incumbent’s growing dissatisfaction with her job. And there was no succession plan in place for the role.
When the incumbent account manager, a very high performer, suddenly took a job at another company, the move stunned her superiors. As performance suffered, they scrambled to cover temporarily, and then to fill, a mission-critical role.
Disconnects such as this between talent and value are risky business—and regrettably common. Gaining a true understanding of who your top talent is and what your most critical roles are is a challenging task. Executives often use hierarchy, relationships, or intuition to make these determinations.
They assume (incorrectly, as we will explain) that the most critical roles are always within the “top team” rather than three, or even four, layers below the top. In fact, critical positions and critical people can be found throughout an organization (figure 1).
Fortunately, there is a better way. Companies can more closely connect their talent and their opportunities to create value by using quantifiable measures to investigate their organizations’ nooks and crannies to find the most critical roles, whether they lie in design, manufacturing, HR, procurement, or any other discipline.
They can define those jobs with clarity to ensure that top performers with the appropriate skills fill the roles. And they can put succession plans in place for each one.
The leaders at such companies understand that reallocating talent to the highest-value initiatives is as important as reallocating capital. This is not an annual exercise: it is a never-ending, highest-priority discipline.
In a survey of more than 600 respondents, we found the talent-related practice most predictive of winning against competitors was frequent reallocation of high performers to the most critical strategic priorities.
In fact, “fast” talent reallocators were 2.2 times more likely to outperform their competitors on total returns to shareholders (TRS) than were slow talent reallocators.1
Those results are consistent with the experience of Sandy Ogg, founder of CEOworks, former chief HR officer (CHRO) at Unilever, and former operating partner at the Blackstone Group. While in the latter role, Ogg began paying attention to which Blackstone investments made moves to match the right talent to the important roles from the start.
He observed that 80 percent of those talent-centric portfolio companies hit all their first-year targets and went on to achieve 2.5 times the return on initial investment.
Ogg also noted that the 22 most successful portfolio companies out of the 180 he evaluated managed their talent decisions with an eye toward linking critical leadership roles to the value they needed to generate.
He recalled using similar value-centric talent-management approaches in his previous roles at Motorola, Unilever, and Blackstone, and he now had even clearer evidence of their impact. In partnership with McKinsey, he set out to codify this approach for linking talent to value.
Real-world examples best describe our learnings. In this article, we describe the journey of a CEO of a consumer-products company, “Company X,” who recently found herself reflecting on how to achieve dramatic revenue growth.
The effort would demand reimagining how Company X generated value and then redefining critical roles and the people who filled them.
Define the value agenda
The first step in linking talent to value is to get under the hood of a company’s ambitions and targets. It is not enough just to know the overall numbers—the aspiration should be clearly attributable to specific territories, product areas, and business units. Company X already understood its overriding goal: to grow revenue by 150 percent within the next five years in its highly disrupted industry.
When taking a more detailed look, however, the CEO and her team found that some small business units were likely to grow out of proportion to their size, making the value at stake in these businesses greater than in the larger ones.
Design and manufacturing innovation would clearly have a positive impact on all business units, but if the two largest ones were to grow, they would also have to take advantage of international opportunities and digitally deliver their products and services.