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Corporate Strategies

How to Build a Successful Talent Development Strategy in 5 Easy Steps

General Assembly
July 29, 2022

A successful talent development strategy is critical for businesses to remain competitive and bridge the skills gaps within their workforces. Today, the rapid pace of technology development and digital transformation has forced companies to be more nimble and creative with talent development. Gone are the days where learning and development consisted primarily of soft skills training, like people management and conflict resolution. Today, talent development teams must also ensure their workforce has the skills needed to compete in the digital economy. 

In the US alone, corporations spend nearly $180 billion annually on formal training programs. Yet, somehow, businesses still face a global talent shortage. Talent development programs can help address this by unleashing the full potential of a company’s existing workforce. 

This isn’t something businesses can think about in a silo. According to IBM, 120 million workers in the world’s largest economies may need to be retrained due to automation. If companies don’t plan for the future with innovative approaches to talent development, mass displacement of workers could occur—with serious economic ramifications. 

What is talent development? 

In short, it’s fostering employee development and learning that will ultimately drive organizational performance and productivity. Talent development programs build upon employees’ existing skills, while also offering them opportunities to learn new skills so they can advance in their careers. Offering opportunities to learn and grow goes beyond ensuring employees are equipped to do their jobs—it’s critical for retention, succession planning and attracting high-potential candidates. 

Each organization has unique needs when it comes to talent development, and there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. Different organizations have different challenges, goals and opportunities, and each must align their talent development programs accordingly. Depending on the situation, a program might include tactics such as:

  • Upskilling, or building on employees’ existing skill sets so they can advance in their roles or professions. For example, nearly every knowledge worker today needs basic data analysis skills. 
  • Reskilling, or training employees on brand new skills that could put a worker on a different career path entirely. For example, a customer care associate could move into a software engineering role. 
  • Mentorship, or programs that create one-on-one relationships between experienced and junior staff that are outside of a traditional boss/employee relationship and instead are focused primarily on areas like career growth, goal setting and networking. For example, a manager might mentor a junior employee in another department, though their paths don’t cross in day-to-day work. 
  • Job rotation, or the practice of moving employees periodically and temporarily to different lateral roles in an organization so they can gain experience in different departments and functions. For example, an HR employee might rotate to support different business units before ultimately being promoted to an HR partner role for one unit. 

Ready to build your talent development strategy? Let’s look at five steps to success. 

How to Build a Winning Talent Development Strategy: 5 Steps

1. Know your goal, and what success looks like. 

The first step to developing a successful talent development strategy is understanding what you want to achieve. While short-term challenges, like a shortage of IT workers, might push you toward a specific tactic, it’s important to take a step back and consider your organization’s strategic goals. Then, you can map talent needs against those goals not only for the immediate future, but the long term. Talent development programs have the best chance of securing executive buy-in and success when they are closely aligned to a company’s strategic priorities. 

For example, insurance company Guardian Life, one of our clients, strives to help people and families pursue financial security as its organizational mission. But when employees spend too much time on manual work and processes, customers are negatively impacted. Guardian invested in a reskilling program for women and other underrepresented groups to learn tech skills and develop a “digital-first” mindset. The company took people from its customer service operations teams, who are front-lining with customers and have strong business knowledge, for the program. These participants are now thinking differently about solutions and leveraging technology first to solve problems, whether it comes in the form of automation or optimization. 

Once a goal is established, it’s equally important to define what success looks like in terms of KPIs and metrics to hold your business accountable. Demonstrating measurable success will ensure continued investment in talent development, while data and insights into results will enable you to optimize the program as it grows. 

2. Identify your organization’s strengths and weaknesses 

Every organization faces unique talent development challenges. An organization might have a strong brand and offer high salaries that make recruiting easy, but struggle to retain burnt out employees past one or two years. Another might not have the budget to compete with bigger firms to attract existing top talent, but have a loyal base of existing long-term employees with deep institutional knowledge. Yet another firm could be undergoing a digital transformation where tenured employees from the “before times” will struggle to keep up. 

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses will help you focus your talent development efforts in areas where they will be most effective, instead of spinning your wheels in an area that’s already working. 

Take Google’s famous “20 percent” rule, for example. Google’s founders established a policy allowing employees to spend up to 20 percent of their time outside of their core jobs to experiment, work on passion projects and be creative. This enabled employees to come up with and work on ideas that ultimately evolved into major revenue-drivers for Google, like AdSense, Gmail and Google News. Not only has this approach been successful for company performance, it allows Google to better retain its mission-critical engineers, a group that are often seeking to continuously learn and try new things on the job. 

At a smaller organization, a better version of the 20 percent rule might be more structured. The company could dedicate a day or two each quarter for a team of engineers to ignore their day-to-day work and participate in a hackathon where they have free reign to tackle a problem they see in the organization and present their solutions to leadership. 

3. Find your champions

The HR team alone can’t drive successful execution of a talent development program—it needs to be a company-wide effort. Support from influential stakeholders across the organization is key to success. Once you have a goal identified and an understanding of the areas where you can most effectively drive change, it’s time to find champions within the organization who can help bring your plan to fruition. Building trust and partnership with the teams you are hoping to develop is crucial. 

Investment management firm BlackRock, for example, created a Human Capital Committee to guide its talent management policies and practices. The committee is composed of 35 senior line leaders from across the firm’s businesses and key geographies, and only one member is from the HR department. The HCC’s existence signals to line managers across BlackRock that they are accountable for ensuring they are recruiting, retaining and fostering the right talent. 

Champions might not only be internal. If you’re launching an upskilling or reskilling initiative, an external partner could be key to long-term success. Find a provider that has deep experience helping organizations with similar challenges to yours. 

When it comes to learning and development, the right partner is worth the investment—the cheapest option is likely cheap for a reason. Ask for references and case studies (with results metrics) of how that provider has tackled a problem similar to yours. 

4. Start small

If your organization doesn’t have a talent management strategy today, it’s unrealistic to think that next quarter you’re going to launch a company-wide upskilling initiative. It’s important to start small, and iterate on your program, before you launch it widely. For example, you could pilot your idea with a small group of employees or one department. As you start to see the impacts of the program, you can adjust your strategy and take away key learnings to inform a larger rollout in the future. 

Sage, a leading accounting and business management software company and one of GA’s clients, did just that when they decided to upskill their internal engineering resources on AI and machine learning. The company’s initial pilot included a small group of participants over a 10-week program, which allowed them to work closely with participants and gain a deeper understanding of their experiences and the program’s content before rolling it out to a larger group. 

Eventually, the company launched its first full cohort post-pilot that brought together engineers from different Sage product lines and engineering teams that wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to work together. The result? Outstanding feedback from participants, and engineers who are already contributing in new, meaningful ways to their products’ AI-driven capabilities. 

5. Invest in continuous optimization

So your program has finally rolled out to the whole company after testing and learning with a small pilot. Congratulations! Your work doesn’t stop here. In today’s economy, the workforce is changing rapidly—as are the skills employees need to compete. This means continuously optimizing your talent development strategy, indefinitely. 

For example, if you invested in an upskilling or reskilling program, you should collect feedback from both employees who participate in the program and its sponsors. This information can be compared to metric-driven insights, such as how talent retention or mobility has improved, to inform tweaks to your approach. 

Get Started With Your Talent Development Strategy Today

Building a winning talent development strategy isn’t easy, but when it works, it will propel your company to new levels of success while ensuring an engaged, highly skilled workforce. Remember, the work you do can set someone up for a long and successful career—and there’s nothing more rewarding. 

General Assembly has helped hundreds of enterprise businesses like Disney and BNP Paribas Cardif upskill and reskill their workers to take on today’s digital economy. We’ve worked with talent acquisition and talent development leaders across the globe, and we want to help you too. 

If you’re interested in working with General Assembly on your talent development strategy, get in touch

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