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Best in front: Getting your people strategy right

Getting your people strategy right is one of the best ways to ensure business success.

After researching 1,435 organisations for five years, management guru Jim Collins concluded that what makes good businesses great is not their business strategy, execution, or timing—it is their talent management. These businesses have the best possible person in every role, act when they don’t, and maintain this approach regardless of market conditions.

As he puts it, “High performing companies have the right people on the bus, and the wrong people off the bus.”

This sounds self-evident. However, it is surprising how often, as a leadership coach, I encounter someone who is clearly wrong for their role and is under-performing, frustrated, or relentlessly negative—often, all three.

Maybe they were promoted to reward their loyalty, or for being a star performer. Perhaps it was a logical career move, or they ticked all the skills and competency boxes for their role. However the mismatch occurred, one thing is apparent: whoever signed off on the appointment did not really know this person.

To create a high-performing organisation, you have to put your ‘best in front’ by filling every role with the best possible employee.

I am not just talking about skills and experience, but attributes and attitudes—the whole person.

Sometimes this involves thinking beyond the obvious: does a brilliant engineer have what it takes to lead a team? You won’t know unless you look past their performance record to the person beneath: what drives them, excites them, scares them? What do they love and hate about their current role? What are their passions outside work?

In an organisation that puts its best in front, managers at all levels, including the CEO, have these insights into every member of their team.

Matching your people to your market

Market awareness is the foundation for building a best-in-front workforce strategy that matches your people’s capabilities with what the market asks from your business.

This may involve expanding formal role descriptions beyond competency-based criteria to include key attributes such as flexibility, creativity, and problem solving.

Once this strategy is in place, there are three possibilities next time a role vacancy, new project, or other opportunity arises.

  1. Develop staff with potential.

    This addresses skills gaps, increases staff satisfaction, and improves performance. However, development takes time, can be out of step with business rhythms, and some attributes are impossible to develop—for example, an obsession with detail, interest in people, or facility for languages.

  2. Appoint an external candidate with the necessary characteristics.

    New people bring a fresh perspective and add to your bench strength. The downsides are that a learning curve will affect their productivity; you do not knowhow well they fit the role until they do it, and you risk alienating existing talent.

  3. Find the perfect person in your ranks.

    This individual is already familiar with how things are done in your company, is a known quantity, and their loyalty will increase ifthey are promoted.

Option three is the easiest, quickest, lowest risk choice—but many leaders overlook it because they have incomplete information about their people.

Holistic people management

We all know it is cheaper and easier to grow existing customers than to recruit new ones. Yet few CEOs think about the benefits of optimising their internal talent in the same way. Staff are hired to fill a role based on a certain set of skills—then they are pigeonholed, often for years. Yet, people mature; they have hidden talents and they change their definition of success.

Before dismissing a candidate as unsuitable for an opportunity, why not dig deeper to see what they could offer and what their aspirations are? You might be surprised. Better still, be in a position to immediately pinpoint the right person because you have already taken the time to get to know all their facets.

Great leaders look outside their own egos to the people around them. They know each team member’s values, interests, drivers, and full capabilities—and seek out opportunities for others to grow and develop. As a leader, executing a best-in-front strategy means knowing each person well enough to motivate them with awards that resonate, and offer them opportunities that excite.

Here are my top tips for being able to do this.

Look beyond formal skills.

It may seem irrelevant to a role that someone is a keen triathlete, yet their dedication to training speaks volumes about their commitment levels, passion and positive approach to goals.

Make achievement a learning opportunity.

Look behind the measurable outcomes of an employee’s tangible success and ask him or her how they did it (the process), so you can understand how they think.

Find informal opportunities to talk.

What does this person aspire to? What do they like about their job, and what type of projects do they hate?

Remove organisational obstacles.

Look for procedural and systemic roadblocks that are preventing some staff from reaching their full potential, such as convoluted decision-making, and risk-averse managers who stifle creativity.

Treat mentoring as a leadership responsibility.

Always be available to answer questions, offer honest advice, and share your own experiences with people in the formative stages of their careers.

Make the hard decisions.

If someone needs to leave the bus, steel yourself to have that difficult conversation; for the good of the person and the organisation, you must tackle this issue quickly.

Seek an external opinion.

An objective, independent assessment of your company’s people and process needs can lead to greater self-awareness and meaningful, non-threatening conversations with staff.

Model and champion best first behaviour.

Build employee awareness into your organisational culture so all managers apply flexible definitions to success and potential, and know how to take a holistic approach to managing their teams.


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