Spot Your Superman: Talent Management in the Hotel Industry
By Pooja Vir
Wednesday, 21st October 2009
This article is about Superman; not the man of steel with a dubious sense of fashion, but the one on a hotel company's payroll.

The perfect combination of skill, experience, ambition, loyalty and commitment – the company's top talent. But do hotel companies know who their Superman is? And equally importantly, does he know what is expected of him? HVS Executive Search decided to play Lois Lane and went out in search of the superhero.

Along the way we spoke to Bruce Harkness – VP Learning & Development, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts; Frank Fiskers –President & CEO, Scandic Hotels; Paul Clark – Group Director Human Resources, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group; and Dr Jim Houran – President, 2020 Assessment.

Top talent, it seems, has always been as elusive as Superman's true identity; managing this talent an equally elusory skill. The concept of talent management has existed for over five decades in some shape or form, yet it is only in the past ten years or so that it has grown to become a compelling basis for success across all industries.

Talent management has been defined in many ways. A popular and pertinent definition is "effectively putting the right people with the right skills in the right jobs at the right time and retaining them".

Untapped Talent

Companies spend months contemplating budgets, business strategy and new products. So how much of the year is spent contemplating their talent? Most companies today lament the depletion of their in-house talent pool, and yet developing it doesn't seem to be a top priority for them. According to seasoned HR professional Bruce Harkness, "The systems in place at most hotel companies allow only a small percentage of talent to rise through the ranks. The quieter players and the introverts get lost in the race."

It should be a logical process: review the talent within, bring in highly capable people to fill in the gaps, develop them quickly and effectively, keep high performers, and remove low performers. Companies are aware that they need to create talent pools so that when the time comes they have the right talent for the right job to hit the ground running. So what is holding them back?

"There are too many clichés on talent development out there and not enough action with regard to truly developing talent and leadership for the future," says Bruce Harkness. "Many brands are not allowing the next generation of leaders to express their opinions at the strategy table; this is a missed opportunity, as it is they who will lead those same organisations in the future. Some leading hotel brands have not seen a change in top management for many years and as long as the same mindset remains, it will be difficult to effect any significant change with regard to how we approach the issue of talent development."

An April 2009 survey by CareerBuilder reports that "six in ten workers over the age of 60 are postponing their retirement due to the economic downturn". Harkness recommends that today's management take some pointers from Jim Collins' Level 5 Leadership which is based on the idea that respect towards people, selflessness by the leader and a strong powerful commitment to achieve results brings out the best in subordinates.

Who is the Talent?

What the industry needs is for present management to sculpt the current generation into tomorrow's leaders. We found one such leader in Frank Fiskers – a CEO who has escaped being branded Lex Luthor to our Superman. One of his main objectives when he joined Scandic was to put together a list of their Top 100 employees and launch a plan to develop them. Helping him in this cause was his HR Director who came to Scandic from GE.

Together they established a system that truly energised the company. "Our talent management process includes 100 employees from the corporate team as well as the General Managers of our top 50 earning hotels. We also have an ancillary list of 15 employees with the potential to step into top performing roles."

Theirs is a performance-based system but also places due importance on the potential of the employees being assessed. But Frank Fiskers admits that it is a balancing act: "Our biggest challenge in this downturn has been protecting the top performers; we have had to scale down our top talent but also had to balance that with the impact on long-term competitiveness." 

Another hotel company taking their talent seriously is Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. According to Paul Clark, when Mandarin embarked on a growth spurt a few years ago they realised that the talent they had would not be sufficient to sustain their pipeline effectively. "We knew we did not have enough talent in-house and therefore put in place a process that would identify key talent and then develop them."

Mandarin has a rigorous hiring process and now it seems they have a thorough system in place that will look after the talent they have hired. They use the employee performance management software Success Factors to identify, gauge, develop and retain highest performers. "Our talent management system includes employees at all hotels from the Supervisor level up to General Manager.

For each of these levels we have a defined set of competencies and the employees are benchmarked against them. We assess each employee to determine if they are at the right level now, whether they have reached the highest level they can or if they are ready to move up." According to Paul Clark it was their talent management system that ultimately helped them recognise their crucial talent and during the downturn they were able to protect this talent.

Assessing Talent

Superheroes need to be recruited and cultivated before they can begin the business of saving the day. There is a vast difference between potential, performance and propensity and this is where employee assessments come into play.

According to Dr Jim Houran, testing was initially limited to assessing personality traits but has now (necessarily) evolved to include job-specific competencies. Assessment tools such as 20â"‚20 provide objective benchmarking, are legally defensible and afford a structured process for making employment decisions, especially on a global scale. "Managing top talent is a strategic discussion as you are not just hiring for today. In our experience good talent leaves within 18 months if they don't fit into the company culture. Therefore the assessment process must include temperament, attitude and level of adaptability", says Dr Houran.

So now that you know who your Superman is, how do you help him leap tall buildings in a single bound? While these assessment tools are valuable aides in the process of identifying top talent and streamlining the talent management process, technology is not an absolute substitute for the touchy feely stuff that the hospitality industry was built on. All the hospitality professionals we spoke to unanimously agreed that no candidate is hired or disqualified purely on the basis of such a test. These tools can help provide a very clear set of expectations but not at the cost of dehumanising the process.

Additionally, all interviewees agreed that the talent management process demands the involvement of the immediate line manager and the department head along with the HR division. 

Passing the Buck to HR

Talent management has traditionally been relegated to the ranks of an issue for HR to deal with. It is taking longer than it should for management to recognise that their involvement is critical to the success of any talent management programme. You will be hard pressed to find a management team that has wholly adopted the talent mindset. But is it beginning to gain priority with most CEOs?

Bruce Harkness thinks yes. "Talent management is figuring more highly on the executive agenda as more owners/Boards are beginning to realise how important it is to integrate the talent development function in their business model."

Frank Fiskers agrees that talent management is not about better HR processes but, rather, a different mindset. "CEOs need to accept that developing talent is a management responsibility. After all, it is the operating executives and managers that have the experience to best know what skills are needed. We need to view HR as a strategic partner in talent management. People are our most important resource and you cannot make it someone else's responsibility."

HR needs to be resolute about playing a more strategic role than in the past. If talent management claims to have evolved from being just a round of biannual tests for employees then HR needs to prove its lead and establish effective processes for talent management. At the same time, CEOs and top management must provide the resources, budgets and other necessary support to make this undertaking a success.

Hopefully, we will soon see more companies like Mandarin and Scandic who do not have to defend their talent management "expenses"; and where essential talent is viewed as an investment that positively contributes to a company's bottom line.

Listening to Superman

It isn't just the current complex business environment that has motivated companies to take talent management more seriously. Employee expectations are changing too, forcing organisations to listen to their people more sincerely. Increasingly, top performing employees have been alerted to their value and they no longer have the patience for tedious traditional structures and authority.

According to Bruce Harkness, what the employees want is more than just competitive pay. "They want to know they have the opportunities to gain experience, a challenging career path, access to mentors and the possibility of personal involvement in important projects."

Paul Clark agrees, "Intelligent employees think beyond money. They think about where their careers are going and it is the employer's responsibility to strike the right balance." Hotel companies clearly need to develop new approaches to the life cycle of talent management.

What top talent needs to be truly effective is a personalised plan based on individual strengths and weaknesses, and outlining training goals to help bridge the gaps in actual knowledge or technical expertise.

Cutting jobs to save money without assessing the skills of each employee is like breaking down load-bearing walls during a renovation. Tools like the 20â"‚20 system, which reviews an employee from 360 degrees, help a company not only in strong times but also when restructuring is necessary. It is also important to consider the total value of the employee in terms of more than just salary, relative to their actual contribution to the financial success of the company. In the current round of job cuts it is regrettable that often the expensive top talent who would have positively affected the bottom line of the company was probably among the first to be asked to leave.

Excellent talent management can be the competitive advantage hotel companies are looking for in these dreary times. When letting go of important talent, companies need to be aware that much of the work they were doing will still need to be done. We have to ask – are today's leaders able to do more with less?

Let's hope they find (and keep) their Superman – better late than never.

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