Talent management – Are our firms thriving or surviving?

2019 ES&E Consultants’ Forum

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Bill De Angelis, P.Eng., Metrolinx

A key indicator of a malaise in our hiring and development practices in the municipal sector today is the continued movement of staff within and between public and private sector firms. Younger staff want higher pay; intermediate staff want greater opportunity; and senior staff want acknowledgement and respect from their companies for the sweat equity they have contributed to company brand recognition and profitability.

What I hear employees vocalize most often in reference to their firms is: “I don’t know where the company is headed”, and “I don’t know what my career path will look like if I stay here”. These comments don’t impart the notion of a motivated, satisfied and stable workforce.

What exactly is it that makes people want to stay with your firm? Is it for participation in high profile projects for learning and future advancement, and access to senior staff for mentoring and professional development? Or is it proximity to home, a good benefits package, job security or a low stress work environment?

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As you prepare your development and succession plans you need to know these things. You also need to communicate your plans for your staff to your staff so they will know where they stand and what their futures will look like at your firm. What you don’t need is for your high achievers to leave on short or no notice because they didn’t know there was a future with your firm.

Hiring

We’ve all seen the situation where we put a lot of time into a new hire, only to see them leave for a greater challenge, more money or both. That being the case, is it possible that we may be taking the wrong approaches to selection, focusing on the wrong competencies and selecting a new employee for the wrong reasons?

Our position descriptions and hiring processes need to be set up to allow us to find the best fit for the job. We need to ask ourselves what we are hiring for and what talents we value. I have attended numerous meetings over my career where internal high potentials were being considered for future leadership roles. Almost invariably, in engineering focused companies, strong technical skills were given greater consideration than the emotional acuity and communication skills we ultimately need for a leadership role.

We have in some cases been too rigid in our approach to hiring, missing out on opportunities because we preferred to focus on specific skills, while failing to consider transferable skills and equivalent experience from other industries and sectors.

Some recruiting managers won’t take on new staff members unless they meet 90% to 100% of the position description’s qualifications. They set up very specific position qualifications to exclude potential hires from outside of their groups or disciplines. We miss a lot of opportunities that way. My preference is to bring someone in with 60% to 70% of the required technical skills who has the potential for advancement through commitment, work ethic, humility and drive. I have had good success with training people up for future roles using this approach.

On another front, strict reliance on credentialism in the hiring process is often an impediment to promotion and retention of those incumbent key staff that have exhibited the qualities and abilities to perform larger roles. Not providing opportunities for promotion can drive them to other companies (often competitors) who see in them those attributes that are hallmarks of successful individuals.

Assuming you hire right, you still face the challenge of developing, sustaining and retaining those individuals long enough for them to grow company roots.

Promoting too soon

The experience gap continues to grow in the professional and managerial ranks in the public and private sectors, and it impacts our ability to effectively deliver projects. Our firms are full of talented, educated people, yet decision paralysis manifests itself everywhere today. More often than not this is from fear of making a wrong decision due to a lack of experience. If you don’t possess that experiential database, you initiate multiple stakeholder meetings, conduct additional studies and carry out analyses, all of which delay decisions, drag out schedules and add unnecessarily to project costs.

Whether an owner, consultant or contractor, the time value of money in terms of indecision has driven up project and program costs significantly over the past number of years and will continue to do so. Scope, schedule and budget all go out the window.

Structuring employee growth to allow them to gain experience over extended timelines drives better and faster decisions, builds staff confidence and ultimately increases staff retention. Conversely, accelerated promotion early in a career stunts that experiential component, ultimately leading to fewer opportunities for internal advancement, disillusionment and departure.

Years ago, the time to acquire the requisite level of experience from graduation to a senior technical level was in the range of 15 years (or more). I am now seeing recent graduates rise to a “senior” level in their firms within three years. My observation of staffing today is that everyone hired into engineering type roles has a strong technical education. However, few have the necessary experience required to augment their technical training to support placement into senior ranks and roles.

The challenge we as senior leaders face is how to accelerate the experiential component of staff growth in shortened timelines to provide at least some skills to help those staff that get drawn upwards by the vacuum created when senior staff leave our firms. This is worse when they leave without providing developmental opportunities for their charges or take their corporate memory with them.

Staff Development and Succession

Hiring intelligent people who understand that patience, listening skills, humility, and a sense of urgency are key competencies is important. But, they won’t be successful if left to their own devices. When we hire and promote them, we need to commit to growing them.

Having an organizational chart in place with roles, responsibilities and clearly defined reporting lines is crucial as it provides a road map for career planning for your staff. Development plans tied to required competencies at each position need to be in place to support those plans.

We often hire high potentials without knowing exactly where they’ll end up in their careers. Exposure to different disciplines and work areas in early days and careful monitoring of reactions, uptake and general comfort often provide clues to career direction and progression.

In terms of company leadership, how many senior managers have put together plans to replace themselves? I have met senior executives who “don’t have time” or are “too busy” to lay a foundation that will guarantee the future viability of their firms, while smoothing the transition process when they depart.

It is often easier to go to the market to hire new leaders rather than raise them internally. When we do advertise internally at the managerial level, do we tend to focus on promoting those with the most highly developed technical skills, professional credentials or the longest tenure?

In some cases, companies have focused and structured programs that identify candidates for succession or development. Some really believe in the programs and adhere religiously to them, while others merely pay them lip service.

Those firms with highest retention are often the same ones that are committed to rejuvenating, sustaining and growing their teams in all disciplines, age groups and genders.

Celebrating Innovation

Innovators and entrepreneurial sorts don’t thrive well in overly structured environments. They often tend to move to greener pastures when feeling constrained by rules, controls or available project budgets. These are the types of people we need to retain to drive our businesses forward. When they leave, we suffer. They also acknowledge the importance of mentoring and development, as they themselves can usually point to an influential person that gave them the opportunity to learn and grow in their early days. They pay it forward and are therefore crucial to retain.

How many times have you heard an HR person or CFO state, upon hearing that one of these individuals is leaving, that “we will just post the job and get another one (because they are all the same)”? Failing to recognize and acknowledge the contributions of your key performers to long-term company growth and profitability will not see you retain them.

What Success Looks Like

  • You hire for a broad base of diverse skills and potential.
  • The majority of your new hires stay with your firm. They may change roles or responsibilities within the organization, but they stay.
  • Voluntary turnover is low, because employee job satisfaction is high.
  • Employees know where the company is going, and where they fit into it, now and tomorrow.
  • Experiential growth and knowledge transfer are accelerated by partnering and mentoring with committed and dedicated senior staff.
  • Innovation is prized and encouraged.

For companies to remain competitive, viable and profitable in the municipal sector today, they need to pay greater attention to how we attract, develop and retain the next generations of technical professionals. We have an obligation to provide the training and opportunities to prepare them for the challenges they will face, and to enable them to achieve and exceed the levels of success we have enjoyed in our own careers.

Bill De Angelis, P.Eng., is Director, Capital Projects Group, Metrolinx. This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s December 2019 issue.

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