5 Essential Elements of a Great People Strategy

Leaders often tell me that one of their biggest challenges is finding good people. They lament that the quality of candidates is not what it used to be – that it is difficult to find people who will simply fulfill basics like consistently show up and be conscientious. Superior performers? Hah – they should be so lucky.

I don’t argue with them. I just ask them about their People Strategy.

If you’re an entrepreneur, banker, or investor, you’re likely familiar with Business Plans. For those who aren’t, a Business Plan is an account of all of the elements that will affect financial performance as best as can determined from the present view: a Company Description, a list of Products and Services, a Marketing Plan, an Operational Plan, Qualifications of Management, Necessary Key Personal, Organization Chart (if applicable), Startup Expenses and Capitalization (also if applicable), and most crucial, a sound Financial Plan. The Business Plan is no guarantee of success. It merely shows the savvy analyst the soundness (or lack thereof) of the company’s leadership vision.

Notice anything missing?

That’s right, you guessed it. And when I ask leaders of even well-established organizations about their People Strategy, their answers are also underdeveloped. By this I mean that they do not take full advantage of best practices and latest tools to help them systematically develop their organizational talent. They mistakenly believe that their tried and true hiring and professional development practices represent the state of the art. They do not clearly see how their policies impact the Attraction, Selection, Development, and Retention of their personnel. They fail to establish priorities in their operation with respect to an immutable fact:

An organization’s fate depends upon the quality of its talent.

In other words, an effective consistent People Strategy is not optional. In their book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, authors Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy (colleague of Jack Welsh for over thirty years at General Electric and retired CEO of Honeywell) showed how great organizations need not only a sound business strategy, but an equally well-developed People Strategy. In order to execute plans, they demonstrate that you need the right people in the right situations with the right accountabilities and competencies using the right measurements for success.

If you were to define the word ‘talent,’ that is a rather good description. All organizations, large and small alike, must maximize their talent if they want to thrive over the long term.

Few do. Most take what the market gives them. They may employ recruiters and utilize this program or that service to help them beat the average. They may hit their target, employ better talent than their competitors, but they still miss the Bull’s Eye of a high performing, engaged team. Why?

Well, in a word – it’s hard. It takes time and effort. The right people don’t just fall in your lap. But there is also a hidden answer. There is a systemic force that works against you. It can also be summed up with one word:

Bias.

The people who make hiring decisions fall prey to bias. The people already in the organization, the people with whom new hires will interface, fall prey to bias. Not because these people are bad or incompetent, but because they are people. One survey, conducted by Target Training International, indicated that 82% of newly hired candidates are not well-matched for their new roles.

The only way to overcome these and other limitations is a comprehensive strategy that incorporates objective measures and does not rely upon the instincts of those in the hiring and development chain. Leaders who fail to do this fall short on the implementation of the five necessary components of a complete winning People Strategy:

  • Define Success in the Role (from the perspective of the organization)
  • Identify the Critical Roles (communicate the reasons throughout the organization)
  • Proactively Hire (especially for the Critical Roles)
  • Establish High Ideals (communicate and honor the organization’s standards)
  • Create a Culture of Continuous Learning (full commitment to professional development for the entire team)

Let’s have a closer look at each.

Defining success in the role is also known as Job Benchmarking. When done correctly, it gives specific voice to organizational needs in terms of the Key Accountabilities that lead to success in the role, their measurements, and a basic Time Allocation to set expectations for those who interact with the person in the role. To be most effective, you need to go further. You also need to identify the Behaviors, Motivating factors, Cultural Rewards, and Competencies that are required in the role. Only when you know all of these things are you in a position to objectively recognize the best talent for that role. You can then tailor your message to attract the right candidates and employ psychometric tools to identify the best matches. The insights afforded by the tools are instrumental in formulating effective onboarding and developmental plans as well.

Everybody on the team is important. But there are one or more roles around which the entire operation revolves. Performance in these roles will make or break the organization. It is nearly impossible to devote too much effort in maximizing talent in these Critical Roles. Yet, amidst the vagaries in daily operations, these are often the least likely to receive such support, because the people in these demanding roles have so much on their plates on an ongoing basis. It takes clear future vision and strong commitment from leadership to resist this potential downward spiral.

Critical Roles are so important that leaders should continually search, possibly world-wide, for potential Super Stars. You don’t wait until you have an opening; you make openings when you find outstanding talent. If you can get and keep even one or two more such performers than your competitors, it will be very difficult for them to surpass your team’s performance. Great performers have a way of lifting everyone around them, so this effort pays off with exponential compound interest.

High performance upsets the status quo. It places demands upon coworkers. Humans being who we are, we don’t really like this. In order to keep the crabs from pulling each other back into the pot of average performance, you need to live by and espouse Higher Ideals. By High Ideals, I mean those that appeal to the best in us, the archetypical values that ultimately motivate everyone. You need to attract and select the people who resonate with those ideals. You need to have an organizational culture that acts congruently with them. This often means tough decisions – especially when people fall short in their performance. Establishing and holding high standards means that you can’t play favorites. Your policies need to be clear and they need to be followed. For instance, if you have a three strike policy, the third strike means dismissal. No exceptions. Tough and fair are attributes of leaders who aspire to an optimal People Strategy.

Today’s world is changing fast. The pace strains even the best organizations. Just as an effective People Strategy is not optional, neither is a culture of continuous learning. What we know today has a shorter and shorter shelf-life. The oncoming freight train of Artificial Intelligence will render obsolete more and more current roles in the workplace. New opportunities will emerge. We must attract and select candidates who want to learn and grow. Your culture must live by the motto: “Tomorrow we will be better than we are today.” This ideal is like fertilizer for the right people and like herbicide for the wrong ones. In hiring and promotion practices, you must recognize and reward personal growth. More than that, you must provide the means by which the growth happens and insist that it does.

If you want to lead an organization to its highest potential, you must employ all five of these elements in your People Strategy. It will take hard work, commitment, and require tough decisions. It will also be worth it.

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