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6 Talent Strategy Levers for a VUCA World

This is part 4 of a series on talent management in a VUCA world.

By Scott Erker, Ph.D., Audrey Smith, Ph.D., Matt Paese, Ph.D., and Jim Concelman

If this blog series on VUCA has made one thing abundantly clear, it’s this: To survive in the turbulent environment of change that has become the new normal, organizations must do things differently when it comes to their people.

If you’ve read this series, including John Sullivan’s call for radical change in talent practices and Evan Sinar’s assessment of the current state of leadership relative to the VUCA environment, and also evaluated your organization’s current state of readiness against the VUCA framework tool, by now you understand you can’t sit still while the world in which your business operates swirls and upends.

6 Talent Strategy Levers for a VUCA WorldOur goal with this blog is to offer a path forward, to get you thinking about what you need to do and where you should start.

Our collective perspective encompasses selection, leadership development, and succession management—different areas, but all of which need to be rethought and retooled—and constantly re-adjusted—for the new reality of VUCA.

Based on our experience working with clients around the world to address their most-pressing talent management challenges, we see VUCA readiness as a matter of effectively manipulating a set of six talent strategy levers:

Lever #1—Business agility. The speed of change is relative for every organization—think of the differences between a mature, diversified consumer goods company and a high-tech start-up—but the right response to change is universal: Organizations—and their talent—need to be agile.

Agility, the ability to swiftly change direction, is an organizational behavior requiring alignment of the business strategy, the culture strategy, and the talent strategy. That’s a tall order, but a good place to start is by linking everything you do from a talent standpoint back to the business and what it needs to accomplish.

Lever #2—Strategic workforce planning.  The implications of VUCA on the business and culture strategies must be addressed through the practice of strategic workforce planning. This includes determining what talent the organization has, what it needs, where its talent capability gaps exist, and the external forces to be considered, such as pending retirements, the need to simultaneously ramp up or slow down hiring in different parts of the world, or other factors that might impact the make-up of the workforce. This planning process needs to cover all organizational levels and all key roles, and also take into account the organization’s ability to fill key roles from within and the talent it needs to acquire.

Lever #3—The pursuit of readiness.  Organizational readiness in a VUCA world is more of an ideal than a concrete target. Truth is, you are never really “ready,” but you are dead if you stop trying.

When it comes to your leaders who need to be ready when the time comes to step into critical leadership roles to execute business strategy, readiness not only is achievable, but it must be achieved. Yet, too many organizations get it wrong by failing to diagnose their talent needs, not accurately identifying potential, or failing to develop high-potential leaders properly. Executive involvement in the form of their participation in a thorough, comprehensive talent audit, accurate talent assessment, accountability-driven development planning, and accelerated development that targets future roles are all critical steps in readying your leaders for the future of your business.

Lever #4—Gathering and using data.  The age of VUCA has coincided with the rise of analytics. As a result, measurement needs to become an essential part of everything you do around talent. Your organization needs to have an insatiable appetite for talent-relevant data: How effective are your training programs? What are your talent gaps? How efficient are your hiring processes? What, specifically, are your leaders’ strengths and development needs? How are you trending in time to contribution, engagement, productivity, and turnover? How well are you succeeding at innovation?

When you gather and use the right data you can effectively move beyond describing your current state (sight) to being able to predict your future talent needs and capabilities (foresight). For example, if you need to meet a 20-percent growth objective in emerging markets for the next five years, data analytics can help you determine who in your talent pool can be placed in key positions to match your growth needs, as they arise. That’s foresight.

Measurement also allows you to move faster, because it provides the data, insights, and foresight you need to make decisions in a more timely fashion—and make adjustments on the fly as things continue to quickly change and evolve.

Lever #5—The learning organization.  The term learning organization could refer to the organization’s commitment to developing its people. And that’s an imperative for every organization now, especially when it comes to developing more agile leaders who have the capability to manage anything that comes at them. Leadership courses that target the skills needed for leading change, driving innovation, making rapid decisions, and networking across boundaries are especially well-suited to developing VUCA-ready leaders.

But in the VUCA context, learning organization needs to take on a broader meaning. It needs to be about how the organization learns, grows, adapts, and makes changes. Part of this is about gathering and interpreting talent management data, but more important are the conclusions you draw from the data and the actions you take. It’s about learning and growing as an organization, whether it means abandoning an outmoded or ineffective selection practice, acknowledging and committing to address a talent gap, or reformulating your entire talent strategy when it becomes apparent that it is misaligned with the direction of the business.

Lever #6—Talent management sustainability.  We hear from many organizations about the “half-life” of their talent management initiatives, alluding to the fact that initiatives often prematurely decline and are abandoned. Given the need for agility now, this might sound like a good thing, as the turmoil of the VUCA environment would make it advantageous for initiatives to operate on a shorter horizon. Healthy strategic talent initiatives, however, are built for the long haul as they address ongoing organizational needs—acquiring the best talent, developing strong leaders, managing performance succession.

For an initiative to be sustainable it needs to be built on a strong, articulated business case and have clear accountabilities for action and success; those with roles in the initiative need to have the skills to be successful; the initiative needs to be aligned with both the business strategy and your other talent initiatives; and measurement is a necessity. And perhaps most importantly, they also must be flexible and adaptable!

Are You Ready?

Manipulate these six levers effectively and your organization will be ready to survive and thrive in the VUCA world. The first step, however, is to change how you think about talent management and whether or not the talent initiatives you currently have in place are positioning your organization to be agile for the unknown world ahead.

VUCA is not so much a collection of forces bearing down on your business as it is an overarching source of the complexity and chaos impacting your people. Understand that fact and you will already be well on your way to helping your organization weather the perpetual storm.

Jim Concelman is vice president, leadership development, at DDI.

Scott Erker, Ph.D., is senior vice president, selection solutions, at DDI.

Matt Paese, Ph.D., is vice president, succession management, at DDI.

Audrey Smith, Ph.D., is senior vice president, executive solutions, at DDI.

Posted: 31 Oct, 2013,
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