One of the downsides of recessions is that people – and organisations – tend to decide that the best way to navigate the downturn is to put ambition and bold plans to one side in the interests of survival.
UK-based multinationals assessing their competitive position are, however, aware that now more than ever they need to adopt precisely the opposite strategy. Growth through innovation and leadership is the way forward. Organisations need to develop talented individuals capable of becoming leaders who will promote growth and development over the long term.
Sarah McCreath, who works within KPMG’s Audit and Assurance business and is director of the firm’s emerging CFO programme, notes that the high-potential individuals who will become tomorrow’s leaders are, by definition, self-starters, but they still need development opportunities and support from their employers.
Many multinationals have leadership programmes, yet only a few of them grasp the whole-hearted approach that a truly effective scheme requires. “Not everyone recognises the need to retain and develop talent. Leadership programmes are expensive to run and represent a significant time commitment and they need to be bought into by the organisation as a whole. Without full engagement, they amount to little more than two days away for a seminar: an interesting experience, but where is the learning, how is it taken forward?”
Crucially, organisations need to ensure they are capable of spotting and nurturing talent. As a starting point, executive directors need to consider the fundamentals: how do we identify our high potential individuals; how do we ensure we are recruiting the right people in the first place?
Given a pool of well-motivated and talented individuals, companies need to ensure their programmes give the optimum mix of opportunity and support. “Leaders need diversity of experience and challenge and that needs to be gathered quite quickly,” explains McCreath. “Part of the challenge for leadership programmes is how do you ensure people get the organisational challenge they need. It requires commitment and ownership on both sides. If after six months, an opportunity isn’t working out, there is a responsibility to say so. The individual needs someone to say that to.”
The UK is still regarded as an international hub and a centre of expertise in financial services. High flyers working for UK-based multinationals start with an advantage providing they can show they understand both their home market and the role that the UK plays internationally.
They need to recognise, however, that as talent is increasingly mobile, they may face competition from overseas. A willingness to embrace international experience will bring an added dimension to their own career development. “If you’re working for a multinational you need diversity of experience, and not just at a functional level. You need an understanding of how your different markets operate. Businesses look at where their predicted future markets will be and not only mature ones such as the US. A UK candidate will need to go out and experience other territories.”
Organisations need to ensure that someone – a mentor or senior HR manager – keeps in touch with their high potential individuals whether their assignments are at home or in international markets. These mentors need to ensure their best people go on to apply new knowledge and insights to their next role within the business.
The technical skills and professional training that a qualified accountant brings to their organisation are invaluable, but the very top roles in business require broader capabilities.
“This is where leadership programmes can really help,” says Sarah McCreath. “You need technical competence, but you also need a skill set that goes beyond the arena that you came from. High potential individuals will be sent out to run a function completely alien to their expertise, in which they have to learn to act as a senior manager. Diversity is a large component of leadership along with the ability to engage and motivate.”
Leadership programmes also provide the opportunity to cultivate a peer group. “When you get to a more senior level and even board level you have relatively few people around you. Having someone to talk to becomes really important and so the ability to develop a peer group outside of your organisation is vital.”
John Bason is group finance director at Associated British Foods (ABF). The food, agriculture and retail giant has 93,000 employees worldwide and activities in every continent including fashion retailer Primark in Europe, Silver Spoon in the UK (part of British Sugar, one of the world’s biggest sugar businesses) grocery businesses in the US and Australia and a worldwide ingredients business.
ABF’s leadership programme is well established and gives the organisation’s potential future leaders access to business school tuition at INSEAD, Paris. It also has mentoring and interaction with the top tier of ABF management.
A new programme for high potential finance staff begins this year, singling out individuals for experience in other parts of the business and contact with senior members of the finance team.
Members of the finance team have a solid foundation for development in the form of their professional training. The idea of the programme is to assist them as they progress. “With finance, I think it’s worth relying on the fact that individuals with a professional training have already moved from one organisation – a firm such as KPMG in the case of the ACA, or industry in the case of ACMAs – so they are used to that progression and the idea of moving through positions to further their career,” says Bason. “Certainly those early days are well charted for finance people. When you want to start moving people beyond those early roles it is important to provide them with opportunities. The key for me is making sure that people are moved on into good roles.”
Development is taken very seriously within ABF. Bason brings the business’ finance directors together quarterly. Half of the agenda for those sessions is devoted to people development. “We call on them to identify their high potential individuals and think about developing the next positions for them,” he says.
He believes that to be effective, leadership development programmes need buy-in from across the business. “I think that you have to realise that the resource needed to develop your own finance people in terms of input from senior people and from HR is huge. It needs that constant monitoring as well as input from HR so that people feel that they’re part of something and that it means something to be part of a leadership programme.”
What Bason aims for from ABF’s leadership programme is the capacity to ensure the company can fill important roles from within. While he believes there should be a balance between promoting from within and recruiting outside talent, he wants ABF to be seen as a progressive company – a place where people want to work.
Questions for organisations
- Do you have the right people to develop?
- How do you motivate them?
- How do you track their activity and progress?
- What is the right balance between nurturing high potential individuals from within the organisation and recruiting from outside?
- How do you motivate them?
Pre-requisites for leadership
- Technical and professional skills
- Willingness to take on managerial positions in different locations and functional areas
- Ability to apply learning and experience to new areas
- Ability to spot and nurture talent, to innovate and delegate
- A strong professional network within and outside the organisation