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Simon North

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Should you train new staff when you have the talent already?


Forget acquisition, retention and retraining of current staff could be the key to success in your organisation. Simon North explains.
Why is the issue of finding new roles for individuals who are already within your organisation worth discussing? Clearly the issue of keeping what we typically call 'talented people' is an increasing challenge as the demand for really good workers continues to grow. In spite of many economies being under pressure to grow and the problem of high unemployment levels, acquiring and retaining good people is a constant challenge.
The cost of bringing in new people is high, both in terms of recruitment costs and getting the new recruits up to speed in their roles. The risk of bringing in new staff to the organisation and hoping they’ll adapt also needs to be taken into account. We would much prefer our training investment to be put into employees who are staying with us and helping us grow the organisation rather than to be put into new starters wouldn’t we – assuming of course that those we are investing in are good people?
"In spite of many economies being under pressure to grow and the problem of high unemployment levels, acquiring and retaining good people is a constant challenge."
Organisations still have a tendency to use extrinsic rewards to retain staff. There's an assumption that employees who are paid enough money will not look elsewhere for a new challenge. Additionally, organisations are in a continuous search for greater efficiency, which in turn equates to cost reduction, which in turn means increased profit margins, or in the case of service, value for money.
The way that this drive for efficiency has transpired over the last 20 years has been an increasing focus on outsourcing, offshoring, IT contracting, interim management, more temporary work, more flexible work and the hiring in of expertise on an ad hoc basis. Many organisations have utilised some or all of the above approaches.  One impact has been, at the very core of the organisation, that the costs of permanent employees are being cut. This was forewarned by the celebrated business management thinker Charles Handy, who has been writing on this theme for 40 years. Handy recognised also that organisations would shrink at the core and realised they would need to become more flexible. Indeed it becomes ever more obvious that the whole world of work will need to become more flexible.

Talented employees

Some organisations have learned that treating their people as expendable is not the best way of retaining any individuals; let alone your most talented employees, particularly during recessionary times. This idea of “RORO” - roll-on roll-off - is fine for a flexible worker who has predetermined that they want to take on short term contracts for their labour, but the same attitude for permanent members of staff is not attractive for them. That type of culture will be a barrier to any organisation that seeks to hold on to their people and to find them roles within their organisation.
There will always be people who want to stay in the organisation forever. However, the organisation may not feel the same way about them. During their career tenure, organisations need to change shape, as all organisations need to do, and sometimes employees don’t keep abreast of those changes. Individual workers need to understand that their personal and professional growth is a pre-requisite for their ongoing professional capability.
Whose responsibility is it to find new roles for existing staff within an organisation? Surely the individual worker themself has a responsibility for thinking harder about what contribution he or she may make and where in the organisation they might make it. Since the dawn of modern industrial society, organisations have taken on the responsibility to find new roles for employees. Those times are now changing and the challenge of career shifts is moving increasingly onto the individual worker’s shoulders.
How clear an organisation can be about its future - be it one to two years or five to 10 years – is important. If it is possible to be clear at the organisation's level, it is possible to identify the shape of the teams that the organisation is going to need, as well as the individual contribution that will be required within those teams. In recent years, some of the most mature and sophisticated organisations have analysed their organisational capability to identify what skills and experiences they’re going to need on board to achieve their future plans.
Having thought through that strategic issue at whatever level it was possible to achieve, the next key challenge is how much you understand about the individual strengths of the resources that you actually already employ. These strengths are not always obvious either to the individual or to the organisation.
Mostly when we recruit, we hire for a specific need/role. How much we know about someone tends to be a discrete area of their contribution. Many people are frustrated at how few of their talents are actually utilised in the workplace. Each person has a better chance of being aware of their specific strengths but they may well need assistance in identifying just what they’re capable of in terms of their contribution to the future. It can sometimes be a confidence issue.
Strengths that individuals have can be the driver for identifying roles that they can undertake going forward. In other words, only when these strengths have surfaced and can be articulated plainly is it clear what role(s) would be suitable for an individual to perform. Clearly it's a more cost-effective way of getting individuals into new roles, as 'growing your own timber' is a much more efficient and effective proposition than buying in new resource.

Innovative thinking

Another key challenge can be what you do about blockers—those employees in key positions whom the organisation feels are not now optimal for that role. Finding new roles for the up-and-coming talent can often be as straightforward as removing the blocker. The challenge, however, is where does the blocker go? This is often a valuable, probably senior, person with very useful skills and experience.
The organisation will need to think innovatively about where this individual will fit in the future shape of the overall team. The more senior a blocker is, the more innovative one will need to be in the thinking about their future career and contribution. For example, they may be more inclined to start planning their glide path towards retirement (the end of their economic working life) and will be willing to work, potentially, less on a full-time basis.
They may wish to change their contribution into supporting younger, up-and-coming employees in a mentoring or coaching capacity for example. Depending on their stage of life and their personal situation, taking on a more advisory and consultative role can satisfy their own individual agenda (with regards to their family and more personal issues) together with a continued and valued contribution to the organisation.
One of the key concepts here is the level of innovation within organisations regarding talent, succession planning and investment in learning processes. Again a key element is often missing. When organisations have a challenge with an individual, why would they not engage the very same individual in the analysis of, and the development of, the solution?
"It's inevitable that some people will choose to leave. The organisation's response to finding new jobs is going to be a key determinant of how many of the most key and most talented people they will be able to retain."
In the future, organisations will need to assess the continuing contribution of the late-career executive or professional and how much longer they'll be able to retain the wisdom of these key workers in their organisation. How these individuals plan their later years and how they continue to align with their work is going to be an increasingly crucial management process. One of the challenges  is that organisations hitherto have tended to focus on a limited pool of talent--maybe just the top 5 or 10%--whereas the opportunities for existing staff will require them to look much more widely throughout the organisation, both in terms of role and of people.
In order to do this well, organisations are going to need a more diligent and sophisticated broking process to ensure that individuals are kept on a growth track. This process will find them roles that entice them to stay rather than to leave. It's inevitable that some people will choose to leave. The organisation's response to finding new jobs is going to be a key determinant of how many of the most key and most talented people they will be able to retain.
The underlying shifts in the world of work are more obvious as every year goes by. The way organisations are structured and the way they engage employees, as well as the way that workers want to work, are going to change the traditional way organisations have been able to hire and retain workers. In recent years, organisations have matured in the way that they've focused on the more sophisticated areas of people management.
Organisational development, talent management, learning development and people engagement - these subsets of the modern HR agenda - will be key to the strategies for enabling organisations to find new roles for existing staff. Shifting the balance of responsibility away from this being purely about the organisation, and allowing individuals to take more control of their careers will also help significantly.
Simon North co-founded Position Ignition for Organisations to help organisations with risk management, succession planning, change management and the effective management of senior workers. He also launched, which helps individuals with executive career change, career choices, job search and other mid-career challenges. Visit their Executive Career Advice Blog for more career articles


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