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Expertise Is the Golden Ticket

At IBM, increasing workforce quality and performance means equipping staff with the necessary skills and drive to do their jobs.

September 20, 2011
Related Topics: Technology, Performance Management

Leaders at Big Blue understand that driving growth in today’s business environment requires a detailed focus on workforce capabilities. Diane Gherson, vice president of talent at IBM, works with 1,000 employees in HR to serve IBM’s 425,000 employees and is responsible for recruitment, mobility, learning, executive development and placement, and workforce management. These pieces are part of a larger system IBM uses to develop and retain the technical talent crucial to its success and ability to maintain its tradition of innovation.

TM:Describe your company’s approach to talent management.

Gherson: We set out to be an organization operating in an inspiring environment and creating progress for the world. That’s our overall mission. We need to continually create employment and leadership practices that attract, retain and develop forward-thinking leaders and thinkers. We need to create an inspiring work experience where people can do their best and achieve their full potential. We need to be able to execute, to actually deliver what we’re trying to deliver through a performance management program and a career structure that facilitates that.

TM: That’s a hefty mission — how do you start?

Gherson: Starting from recruitment, it’s through selection. We want to be able to attract and select the people who will enable that mission. New employees join a virtual community once they join the company and belong to that community for the first two years. It starts with that and making sure we select against the competencies that we know enable people to be successful in this environment.

We have nine competencies and just went through a process of refreshing ones that were developed 10 years ago. The competencies we have today are: Partnering for client success, embracing challenge, collaborating globally, acting with a systemic perspective, building mutual trust, influence through expertise, continuously transforming, communicating for impact and helping IBMers succeed. Those are the things we look for when we hire, in the way we interview candidates and also in their backgrounds. We get this message out through our brand work as well, so we attract those people long before they apply for a job.

As an example, we have a newsletter that 20,000 people have subscribed to, that we send every quarter about careers in IBM. That’s the way we get out what we’re looking for and what’s distinctive about IBM. We go through the selection process, and then we build career structures and roadmaps for people once they come to help them achieve their potential and fill the very important skills gaps that we have as we chart out our business strategy. Leadership development is a really important part of that because leaders create the environment for people to innovate and for people to learn and be engaged.

TM: How has the organization sustained talent management while growing so much globally?

Gherson: It’s continuous reinvention. That’s a characteristic of IBM. We have a lot of disruptive change inside the company. A great example is, at the end of last year we were thinking about the fact that we were going to turn 100. What would be a way for us to create something of value for the company? We discussed what the future of work is going to be, how we’re going to be challenged, what that’s going to mean for us. That’s the way our leaders think: Never be comfortable with the current, present or past, always think about what the future’s going to bring us. What will be the impact of social networking, will people still want to work for companies or will they want to hide out at home and participate via the Internet? What will be the impact of having a social reputation that’s more important than an internal company reputation?

TM: What challenges impact talent management in your organization?

Gherson: An area that we’re working with quite actively is China. China is a huge source of growth for us, and yet from the standpoint of leadership, it isn’t as developed as many of our other matured, large economies. How do you bring the level of leadership to the level you need for high growth while you’re growing really, really quickly in an environment that is so different from where the vast majority of your leaders come from? We’ve typically used international assignments quite aggressively, but we’ve got to do a better job of accelerating the growth of people who are there. We’ve created some accelerated development tracks that enable employees not to be out of the market for too long because it’s important that we continue to leverage all of the talent that we have, but we’re giving those already in China a break while we bring in folks who share their job from a mature market to coach and mentor them while they’re in learning mode.

TM: Define your company culture. What role does it play in talent strategy and how do you build it?

Gherson: It’s really important that people understand being global is important to their future success, which means traveling, getting to know other cultures, taking assignments in other countries. So, we’ve crafted career dialogues for our managers to have with their employees about that and their skills and how they will grow their skills by working in different environments.

We also have an online survey that employees can do to see if they have the skills needed to operate in a global environment, and what are some of the issues they need to work on to facilitate their engagement to take a global assignment.

Building expertise is also an important part of the culture. We have an enormous amount of virtual learning opportunities for our folks and career tracks so they can figure out where they are in their skills and how to get to the next level. It’s an environment that’s supported by the concept that your expertise is your ticket, and we’re there to help you develop it and leverage it.

TM: How have your talent management activities contributed to the bottom line?

Gherson: While I can’t provide exact numbers, we know it’s an expensive process to hire someone, have them leave and then replace them. Say you left. Instead of replacing you, we would hire someone who’s qualified to take your job through a thorough skills identification. Then we’d find a candidate for the role. There’s more of a sense of, “OK, I got rewarded for building that expertise, and I’m moving up in the organization.” It’s less expensive than hiring your replacement, who we would have to pay market rate, plus a signing bonus and who knows what else. There’s also a productivity curve of someone new joining at that level.

Instead we’re promoting someone who’s getting a large increase, but it’s still not nearly at market level because they’re a level below. There’s a built-in competitiveness to that model, which proves itself again and again.

We’ve analyzed our attrition. We’ve looked at the [tendency] to leave based on characteristics of people who have left. We can actually predict groups who are likely to leave and put together retention programs. That has had a bottom line impact. The cost of attrition is high; we know exactly how much it is for different job families and countries. But it’s not just the cost of hiring and productivity loss, it’s also the difference in pay if you have to pay premium to hire someone from the outside. That way we can justify the proactive retention efforts, the development and any other investments we need to make to retain that person.

TM: How do you integrate different talent practices and make them work together?

Gherson: By having a solutions mindset. We don’t think about practices in silos. As a leadership team, we focus our teams on what we’re trying to solve. No tool, no process, no practice is in isolation. You can’t let it be that way or you’ll get out of touch and bureaucratic. It’s important to think, “What’s the business problem we’re trying to solve,” and “let’s bring all of our tools and games to the problem.”

TM: What’s next for IBM in terms of talent management?

Gherson: I’m working to make sure we have really good solutions to the talent gaps that we anticipate, achieving our 2015 roadmap and reallocating our resources and capabilities to make sure we close those talent gaps. We have a lot of legacy, tools and programs, and we’re not so great about removing the old ones when we put new ones in, so I’m in a spring cleaning mode of creating a blueprint for our assessments and really simplifying the managers’ experience so they can get assessments of employees done in a way that creates value for them.

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