Developing talent portability to maximise managerial success

To build talent density, management’s focus must be on the quality and quantity of talent recruited.
Image used for representational purpose only. (Photo | AFP)
Image used for representational purpose only. (Photo | AFP)

In my experience of management talent development (distinct from specialist talent vis-à-vis doctors or scientists), portability is a very important feature. What does the portability of talent mean? Portability refers to the ability of a successful manager to be moved around the organisation and for that person to depart from his or her zone of comfort to work with different products in different areas and with different teams of people.

To build great talent in an organisation—as Tata Steel, Titan, Infosys and Mahindra have demonstrated—there must be an organised process to: first, build talent density; second, develop talent portability; third, clarify talent responsibility; and finally, hold talent accountable.

To build talent density, management’s focus must be on the quality and quantity of talent recruited. Talent recruitment must be dense but planned well. The sequential step is to develop such recruited talent through portability. This is the subject in this article.

The dimensions of portability are functional, geographic, domain, and team. Portability should be practiced with judgment, intuition, review and common sense, for otherwise, an organisation will inadvertently disable its recruits through a high-speed centrifuge. Timing, frequency and distance of porting are important determinants. Variety is an important test bed for talent, just like a top tennis player should get experience of playing on grass, clay and synthetic courts. Similarly, a top cricketer should learn to perform on different pitches. It is the same with managers too.

Functional portability does not mean testing a biochemist in finance and accounts. It means offering a stint in, for example, sales to an accountant, or offering a stint in supply chain to an HR resource. It is a matter of judgment about how unconventional or long the jump should be while developing a candidate. I recall that in the 1970s, Ashok Ganguly, a researcher in biochemistry, was given a chance in manufacturing. He must have excelled, as he rapidly moved on to become chairman of Hindustan Unilever. In my early career, when I joined as a computer systems analyst and programmer, I was tried as a sales manager for a few years. It so happened that I liked the change, and that gave me the opportunity to switch my career path.

Geographic portability refers to changing the place of work. If you are a good sales manager in Karnataka, will you make a good sales manager in Punjab? After all, the language of doing business differs, the retail and distributor universe is different, and attitudes to credit and trade differ. Some managers perform the same role in the same place for 15 years and may even boast that they “have 15 years of experience”. They have possibly had the same annual experience repeated fifteen times.

Suresh Narayanan was the general sales manager in Nestle India. He was then moved to work in foreign subsidiaries of Nestle. When the Maggi noodles crisis hit Nestle India, Suresh was moved back as chairman of Nestle India. From all accounts, he did a great job of getting Nestle India back on track.

Domain portability is the third vector. It is not essential to switch companies to get domain experience. Multiple domain experiences may be available within a company, but dramatically different domain experiences may be available across companies. I discovered this when I moved from fast-moving consumer goods (Unilever) to industrial manufacturers (Tata). One corporation may have multiple domains, as Unilever has home care, personal wash, food, and refreshments. It is a great development experience to work in more than one domain. For example, the business model and ways are different in home care as opposed to foods. During my own career in Unilever, I moved back and forth from home care to foods. I believe domain moves accelerated my learning propensities.

Before being appointed as president of World Bank, Ajay Banga worked in Nestle India, PepsiCo and Mastercard. Debu Bhattacharya, a chemical engineer by training and experience, successfully headed HINDALCO, a metallurgical behemoth, for the Aditya Birla Group.

Team portability: Every manager is strengthened by his team, and he or she strengthens the team. There is an organic relationship between an individual and how that person gets along with a team, principally because of the dynamics of human interaction. A top-class general manager should be flexible enough to work to the best of his or her capability with all sorts of teams.

I have seen leaders who have worked in the same location with the same product line and with the same people for several years. Such leaders are almost specialists because their ability to gel with an alternative team in an alternative location has not been tested. The best among such leaders may well adapt, but I fear that many may not. That is why companies push emerging managers to work with different teams. When I moved from the comfort of working in Hindustan Unilever to the discomfort of a different and international team while heading Unilever Arabia, I learnt a lot. If one reviews the career of top business leaders, one invariably notices evidence of that person having worked their way up while working with many teams—for example, Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo, Natarajan Chandrasekaran at Tata, Sanjiv Mehta at Hindustan Unilever, to name a few.

Talent density and talent portability are two sides of the same coin, just as planting and harvesting are two sides of the same coin in agriculture.

R Gopalakrishnan

Author and business commentator. His fifty-year professional career was spent in HUL and Tata

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