UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


How to build talent faster and better than the competition


Listen to UNC Executive Development’s podcast interview of Jim Shanley or read the interview below. Shanley, partner of The Shanley Group and one of the most recognized global talent Management Practitioners, had a 20 year career with Bank of America where he led a team of over 1,500 professionals.

Under Jim’s leadership, Bank of America earned a reputation as a benchmark company for their leadership development and talent management programs and processes. Many of Jim’s former teammates are now chief talent officers in large global companies.

Patrick Cahill: Alright let’s jump into the first question here, Jim. How can companies build talent faster and better than the competition?

Jim Shanley: Great! Thanks for having me. I have been looking forward to this. Well Patrick, there are four things that I have found. Those companies that build talent faster and better do four things really, really well. First, they are a recruiting machine. They figured out how to create a value proposition for leaders to be able to recruit the best from any industry and any geography in the world, and they figured out how to keep the best. So it’s a recruiting and retention machine.
Second, the top leaders of the company – so the top 50 – have what I call a ‘talent mindset’. And what that means is, they have a fundamental belief that talent drives performance.

In other words, if you have A players, they will beat B players, who will beat C players every day of the week. So it is just that fundamental belief that talent impacts performance.

Another part of having a top talent mindset is that the executives of these companies know what the gold standard is in talent. So if they are considering filling the chief marketing officer, and they are in the industrial sector, they just don’t say, ‘who’s the best chief marketing officer in this geography in the industrial sector.’ They step back and say, ‘in the world, what does the best chief marketing officer look like, what are those skills and competencies that he or she possesses?’ And that is what they go after, and that is how they calibrate their talent. They calibrate it at a gold standard level.

And a third thing that they do, these companies that have a talent mindset, for some reason, they are relentless about performance and raise the bar every single year and have a meritocracy philosophy.
In summary, so far, the four things companies do: the first is, they build a recruiting and retention machine; second, the top 50 executives have a talent mindset; the third thing they do is, the top 50 executives of those companies that build talent better and faster, have what I call, ‘a culture of candor and risk taking with regards to people.’

And here is what I mean by that, they do three things exceptionally well and consistently. First, they are absolutely candid with their people about their performance and potential. So they are candid, direct and transparent. The second thing is those top 50 executives are candid with each other about their talent. So they are comfortable and competent enough to have great talent conversations about other people’s talents in the room with their peers.

And then a third thing they do, they take bets on talent. They put people in jobs before they are ready, and they take bets on top talent. So the third thing is this culture of candor and risk taking with regards to people. And then the fourth thing those companies do really well is, they have good leadership and executive development processes from recruiting to onboarding to performance management to development to compensation from a reward for performance standpoint.

So the four things they do well: 1) recruiting and retention machine; 2) they have a talent mindset; 3) they have a culture of candor and risk taking with regards to people; and 4) they have good leadership and executive development processes.

Patrick Cahill: Jim, if I could just jump into the talent mindset which you mentioned that the top 50 executives have, how have you found that organizations have driven that mindset across the top 50 executives?

Jim Shanley: Well, at first, more often than not, it is driven by the CEO and his or her direct reports. If you don’t have a talent mindset there, it’s really hard to do a bottoms-up. What I found is in three camps in terms of what companies have done. Either they have a CEO or a COO who just believes it, and just drives it, and demands it of his or her top 50.
The second is the companies get in a crisis, and through investors and others, they are pressured to put in A talent in key positions, and A talent seems to breed that talent mindset. The third is an influx of talent from the outside within the top 10 or so. And that executive, in a top 10 position with a talent mindset, starts building that within his or her unit; and what happens is, performance takes off and the CEO becomes a little bit more of a believer and starts driving that mindset, and the processes to establish it.

Patrick Cahill: Okay, that makes sense. In the idea that maybe the CEO needs to see some examples of the benefits of having that type of mindset, have you seen the process from start to finish, and how long it really takes to get an organization to go from getting that influx of talent to the CEO seeing the results and then it being spread across the top 50 executives?

Jim Shanley: It really varies. If there is a crisis, or immense investor pressure, or the current CEO is fired and a new CEO comes in, that transformation could happen in a matter of months. Because quite frankly what the CEO would do with the top 50 is demand those behaviors that drive a talent mindset, or those executives won’t have a job.
That’s where it happens. In numerous, numerous examples, this is dated a little bit but Larry Bossidy who had been the CEO under Jack Welch of GE, went into Allied Signals which had been an old but established but not a high performing company, and within a matter of months, Allied Signal’s performance started driving up. Larry drove that talent mindset and within a year or two, Allied Signal became a talent machine, quite frankly.

Patrick Cahill: Interesting. The other thing that caught my attention beyond the talent mindset is the idea of taking bets. Given that we are talking about the people that are reporting to the top 50 executives, they are really driving this mindset, and they are going to be the ones probably taking some initial bets which means those people are going to have a lot of responsibility. Can you tell me about the process to take responsible bets, and how you ride that line?

Jim Shanley: Sure, an easier example that people can relate to sometimes is Athletics. Let’s do football – you might have a team that hasn’t won the division championship, but they are doing pretty well. But, they’ve never reached the division championship. The coach and owners are in a dilemma. Let’s say they have a good quarterback that’s performing at the 60th percentile as opposed to other quarterbacks. The dilemma is: two great quarterbacks are coming out of college and the coach and owner are convinced they can get a draft pick. Do you take the bet and draft the best athlete, and give that new best athlete coming out of college a shot at the starting quarterback position?

It’s an unknown quantity. All you have is, you can look at that quarterback’s past performance in college, you can look at the character, the person’s drive and some innate abilities. But it’s a big bet and it either can go really well, really bad or somewhere in the middle. It seems that those executives who are comfortable taking the bets, have come to a decision that mediocrity is not acceptable. And they’ll take the bet and take a person – this quarterback – who has been the starting quarterback for 5 years, and again as compared to other quarterbacks in the NFL, he is pretty good. But they take that bet saying, ‘I will take the bet.’

Now, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it works, it’s marvelous and the general manager, the coach and the owner are geniuses. When it doesn’t, the coach gets fired. So it’s basically, how comfortable is that executive with mediocrity?

Patrick Cahill: And I wonder, and I don’t know, feel free to tell me this is going beyond the scope of how you see building talent faster and better. I start thinking about, if you have this A player that you are pushing. Do you ever run the risk of damaging this person’s potential by putting them too far ahead too quickly? And I was just wondering, is there some type of back-up plan to make sure that you are not in the long-term damaging this person and retaining that A talent?

Jim Shanley: Well, that’s a great question. The idea is, how fast can you accelerate the development of talent? To a position where you can take a bet on him or her? If you believe that the building blocks of A talent are a couple of things: first, it’s raw materials. So the person has the cognitive skills, the smarts, the ambition and the ability to relate to people. That’s one, and if a person has it, that’s a pretty good starting point. The second in terms of developing talent is, how do you give that A talent the variety, the diversity and intensity of job experiences?

If there is something I see in the corporate world is executives not pushing their A talent fast enough and hard enough. I believe a person who is really good, if you put them in a job, in most cases – not all cases – but in most cases, they can learn the lessons they need in that job within 24 months, maybe 30 months.

So, in terms of what you have to evaluate is, is that person learning lessons? If I move him from a small district into a large multi-functional regional manager role, the skills I have got to learn pretty quickly are: How do I move from a micro-managing into a general management mode? How do I quickly learn the disciplines enough that I can be knowledgeable of picking the right people? How can I set up the systems and processes to run multiple functions? Can I do it well, and can I create the team under me?

So, if I were the executive I would be watching to see if this high potential is learning their lessons. Once they have learned the lessons, I move them to a new job. I am amazed when I do work in Silicon Valley. The mindset there is, put people in big jobs over their heads and see how they do. If they do well, give them more – and I think one of the big diversity issues in corporate America, quite frankly, is we are not pushing young talent fast enough.

Patrick Cahill: Alright, Jim. This has been really helpful and I have really enjoyed your insight, and I think we should be wrapping it up here. So do you have any final thoughts as organizations really think about how to build their talent faster and better than the competition?

Jim Shanley: You bet. I really fundamentally believe that every manager or people manager or HR executive can do things in his or her unit that they don’t have to wait for the executives to do. So my challenge to the listeners and readers would be four things: 1) Are you recruiting a great talent and retaining the best? 2) Do you have a talent mindset? 3) Are you being absolutely candid with your people, and are you taking bets on the right talent? 4) Do you have some good processes in place to accelerate the development of leaders?

Patrick Cahill: Alright. Thank you so much, Jim.

Jim Shanley: You bet!