What Are You Doing for the "High Pros" in Your Organization?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jon Younger Principal of The RBL Group and leads the Strategic HR practice area.

We see an interesting and gratifying trend in our work with leading global companies and their HR departments. Attention to high performers -- as opposed to high potentials -- is returning, and with it is a focus on career development. Who would have thought the global recession would turn this way?

Some context might be helpful. For the last several years, the "war for talent" has been fought on the "high potential" battlefield -- how do we attract, develop, engage and retain high potential future leaders? On the sidelines were technical staff - the "high pros" who were viewed as important contributors, but either had limited interest or aptitude in a managerial role.

That's starting to change. CA Corporation, the IT outsourcer, is investing in the development of a global dual ladder system and the training support that goes along with helping career professionals take informed responsibility for their careers and continuing development. Energy companies like Marathon in the U.S. and Statoil internationally are taking another look at their career development activities to ensure they're as attractive to the new P.Eng or Ph.D. Geology as to the new M.B.A. interested in general management. Maersk, the global shipping giant, is architecting a system of technical career progression. Intel, the computer company, is working hard to build a more strategic approach to talent management, including development and retention of top scientific and engineering talent, but also professionalism in other areas, from HR to procurement and finance.

The common message of this work is profound. More and more companies are evolving in their thinking about workforce strategy, adopting a more sophisticated level of planning in their approach to workforce composition, and recognizing both the importance of investment in technical professional development and reward, and the importance of tying it to workforce plans.

For example, the growth of a well known global beverage company is far less constrained by its marketing or managerial resources than it is by the availability of expert brewmasters.
What can you do as an HR or line executive to attract, develop and retain technical high performers? Here are five sets of questions to ask of yourself and the workforce you manage and support:

1. Given the trends in your industry, what are the critical technical skills needed for the organization to perform, grow and serve customers?

2. For these technical competencies, what is the changing shape and size of need? For example, in what areas do we need to increase the number of resources, or skill levels, or both?

3. How do we best obtain these resources, both the numbers we need and the specific skill levels? What do we "buy" versus "build" or contract for ("borrow") from external partners? What is the project plan to meet the need within the budget and time required?

4. For the resources we need to buy or build, how do the best companies attract, develop, engage and retain these skills?

5. Where are we strong and weak in these areas, and what actions do we need to take to make required improvements?

Download file to view a simple matrix for answering the last question. The point of this last question, and the accompanying chart, is simple but often forgotten: Building the kind of organization that gets the best performance from its technical professionals requires that HR and line executives think strategically and integratively. The magic is in the mix so to speak -- the combination of what the organization does to build and deliver its developmental brand through the actions it takes to attract, develop, engage and retain its technical experts.

What is your organization doing to find and retain the technical talent needed? Share your experiences and reflections.

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a firm providing consulting and executive education in strategic HR and leadership. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area and is also a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles, and last year logged client work in 35 countries.