The Battle for Great Talent

Developing teams for tomorrow’s economy.

By Judy Braun,VP, Global Talent Development, Heidrick & Struggles

Human Resources (HR) executives know all too well that despite continued high unemployment, one of the major risks to a business is the difficulty in locating and attracting the right talent. When it comes to shaping the future health of a business, the ongoing practice of retaining and hiring top talent is crucial. Recent research from Heidrick & Struggles supports the idea that as the economy improves, competition to find and keep this top talent will only become fiercer.

Heidrick & Struggles recently commissioned a survey in partnership with The Economistof more than 400 CEOs globally to tell us about their attitudes on hiring prospects for the future. The survey results, along with other data and input from global economists, formed the basis of the Heidrick & Struggles Global Talent Index, which shows that the demand for talent across the globe is outstripping supply. Countries and companies are not moving fast enough to prepare workers for the needs of tomorrow’s ever-shifting global economy. What is the demand? What are CEOs and other business leaders looking for? The Global Talent Index reveals that many executives are concerned about the ability to hire and retain qualified talent in today’s changing global economy. In particular, CEOs cite resiliency, adaptability, and creativity as the most important competencies they need in their organizations…and currently the skills gap is only widening.

In addition, half of executives surveyed report devoting more time and resources to bringing employees up to speed, compared to two years ago. A full 41 percent of respondents said that limited creativity in overcoming challenges is a primary shortcoming of management-level hires, with limited experience within a multinational organization.(A recent NBC Nightly Newsstory points to these challenges as well; click here to view the story.)

Many of the executives also said they are relying on developing and promoting their talent internally to meet the needs of the future.

What does this mean for HR and Talent Management executives? What can we be doing now to ensure we have the capabilities needed in the future?

The first thing we have to understand is that this is not a training issue. If businesses need employees to be more resilient, adaptable, and creative, HR executives need to take a holistic approach to the solution. While these competencies may seem “soft” and hard to develop, there are some specific strategies companies can use to begin to develop these capabilities in their organizations.

Organizations should start by evaluating their current recruiting profiles. Do your executives and line managers know what “creative” or “adaptable” means? The Global Talent Index cites the need for employees “to deal with a changing situation and not get paralyzed by it…and are creative in overcoming challenges.”

Are your executives and line managers specifically looking for these characteristics and abilities in new people you’re hiring?

To help build these core competencies, companies should begin to intentionally hire new people with these attributes. Include these characteristics as core competencies in your job profiles and teach all hiring managers how to probe and ask behaviorally based questions about these competencies. Specifically look to hire people, at all levels of the organization, who have demonstrated the ability to deal with change and challenges. Next, HR and Talent Management executives should begin to develop an integrated approach for developing these capabilities within their organizations.

Here are some practical ideas:

Train management first and cascade down. Group-based programs have enormous value in reinforcing key organizational messages about culture and in forging networks of leadership trust. Ensure managers and leaders understand that by their actions, they can foster creativity and adaptability in others through their day-to-day interactions and communications. Make sure your management development programs specifically underscore these behaviors. Managers can have an impact on building these skills in others if they demonstrate the following:

  • Be open to new ideas. Ask others for input regularly, and show appreciation for having different points of view.
  • Take and celebrate risks. People are so afraid of consequences that they don’t adequately explore innovative approaches to problems. Managers have to promote brainstorming, problem solving, and learning from key mistakes.
  • Welcome ambiguous situations. Give teams time and space to work through potential new approaches to problems. Most development happens on the job. Managers can provide a safe environment for this creativity by not having preconceived ideas about what the “right” answer looks like and encouraging employees to challenge their own assumptions.

Accelerate individual leader development. Leaders develop when they lead and when they have to lead in different and unfamiliar situations. Review your succession plans and look to ensure that key individuals are given progressive exposure to a range of experiences that extend their repertoire of skills and require them to be creative and overcome challenges.

Create learning forums on creativity and adaptability.

  • Encourage employees to learn from each other. Set up both formal and informal channels. This could include formal learning through Webinars, informal “lunch and learns,” or creating best practice sites and blogs to encourage open dialogue.
  • Use social media tools to foster learning. You can create a YouTube video series on your Talent Development site with different leaders openly discussing their own lessons learned or tips they would give others on resiliency.
  • Share innovations and solutions company-wide. This encourages people to develop more innovative, advanced approaches and sends a signal that it’s encouraged.

Build “problem solving” into your curriculum. Include more interactive problem solving and activities that require employees to think creatively in your formal curriculum. Include activities or action-learning projects that encourage employees to share problems/challenges across departments to get fresh perspectives on possible solutions.

Foster mentoring and coaching up and down the organization.

  • Identify role models within your organization and encourage them to mentor others, including peer mentoring. People who are role models are often more accountable for their actions. Get creative in finding ways to encourage mentoring.
  • Showcase these role models as “best practice” examples for others to emulate and be inspired by. “Sustainable innovation begins with inspired employees.”
  • Share a suggested reading list. Books such as “Make It Stick” or “Tipping Point are great resources to begin the dialogue about thinking outside the box.

Review your rewards and promotion processes. HR executives also need to ensure these capabilities are reinforced in recognition, promotion, and performance management systems. If you really want to develop adaptability and creativity, you have to make sure you are not inadvertently punishing those who do things differently.

It is not the words that create a culture, it is the actions taken; people believe what they see, not what they hear.Who gets promoted in your organization? What gets rewarded?

 Here are a few ways to visibly send signals to your organization that you value these attributes:

  •  Appreciate those who create new ways to carry out business tasks.
  •  Reward those who initiate projects or solutions by themselves.
  •  Recognize employees who learn new information and abilities.
  •  Value mistakes and failures. Employees learn best from their mistakes.
  •  Publicly reward managers who take risks.
  •  Recognize the difference between best effort/bad results and lack of effort.

Finally, evaluate your measurement tools. Many organizations use engagement or pulse surveys to anonymously gauge their employee population. Companies should be sure to include items about how well the organization encourages and promotes creative thinking, adaptability, and overcoming challenges. And report back to the organization on your results. This, too, sends another strong message that we value this and want to become better at it as an organization.

Each element of an organization’s talent system (including recruiting and hiring, onboarding and integration, development and learning, retaining and engaging, promotion and reward, and leadership planning) is important and integral to building a strong culture and the strategic capabilities needed for business success. It is imperative that HR and Talent Management executives use our best and creative thinking to partner with our business leaders to develop and implement holistic strategies to develop these capabilities in our employees. What a great opportunity for us to demonstrate the same thinking and action in ourselves that CEOs say they need in their organizations.

About the Heidrick & Struggles Global Talent Index:
The research undertaken for the study by the Economist Intelligence Unit consisted of three main initiatives. First, the Global Talent Index, launched initially with 30 countries in 2007, was updated and expanded to include 60 countries.

The Index benchmarks countries on their capacity for developing, attracting, and retaining talent, both today and projected to 2015. Second, to gauge corporate views on the talent outlook for businesses, a global survey of 441 senior executives—nearly half having human resource management responsibilities—was conducted in late 2010 and early 2011. To complement the quantitative research, discussions were also held with senior human resources executives and experts to obtain their insights on the most pressing talent challenges facing businesses and countries.

For an in-depth look on the most pressing talent challenges worldwide, visit






Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.