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Bench Strength: Developing the Depth and Versatility of Your Organization's Leadership Talent / Edition 1

Bench Strength: Developing the Depth and Versatility of Your Organization's Leadership Talent / Edition 1

by Robert W. Barner
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"The key to sustained competitive advantage in any industry is not size, image, or technology. It’s talent, particularly at the leadership level. Your organization’s future depends on its ability to identify, retain, and prepare a dependable “bench” — its next generation of leaders — continuously. Over the next several years, the “baby boomers” who have engineered some of America’s greatest business growth will be retiring in huge numbers, creating talent gaps and unprecedented competition to fill them.

How can your company stay ahead of the curve?

Bench Strength offers a step-by-step approach to building a powerful talent strategy that will ensure the perpetual availability of potential leaders. Author Robert Barner leads you through important decisions about talent focus, including:

The Make or Buy Decision: Should your talent strategy be focused primarily on developing leadership from within, or on acquiring “ready-made” leaders from other organizations?

The Capstone/Foundation Decision: Should you concentrate development efforts on a few high-potential individuals, or spread resources across a broader section of your overall leadership bench?

The Stream or Pool Decision: Should you identify successor candidates for specific leadership positions, or retain pools of potential leaders who may be qualified for any of a number of leadership positions as they become available?

The Trade-Up or Build-Out Decision: Should you build bench strength by progressively “trading up” from marginally performing managers to high performers, or quickly expand the leadership talent base by hiring a large group of potential managers simultaneously?

The Best-in-Industry or World Class Decision: Is your best talent strategy to focus on your own industry, or to look for cream-of-the-crop talent regardless of particular industry experience?

Each pair of strategic options includes clear examples and all-important “payoffs and pitfalls” that will help you make the right decision based on the organization’s unique needs. Bench Strength also gives you effective methods for continuously monitoring how your company’s talent measures up against that of external candidates, further informing your “make versus buy” and other talent decisions.

The book also reveals the Seven Principles of Talent Deployment, which will help align your strongest players with your most critical and challenging needs. And the author’s “war games” approach to pre-testing of talent strategies will put the organization in fine shape to address both in-house “what-if” issues and new developments in industry or market conditions.

Barner also advocates for the creation of a new position in your organization, that of Chief Talent Officer. A new and increasingly recognized strategy, the hiring of a talent executive is a significant step with lasting implications, so you’ll want to find out as much as you can about the potential talent officer. To that end, the author presents ten detailed questions to ask CTO candidates, the answers to which will illuminate their approach to evaluating talent, their ability to play a “point position” for the organization, their knowledge of your industry and the company’s place within it, and much more.

Leadership talent is one of the most critical needs of any organization. Bench Strength provides a comprehensive, practical approach and specific action steps for making smart talent decisions and putting together a deep and versatile team — for today and for the future."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814408841
Publisher: AMACOM
Publication date: 04/24/2006
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 17 Years

About the Author

"Robert Barner, Ph.D., is Vice President of Management Development for Belo Corp., a media company that encompasses newspapers, broadcast stations a cable networks, and Internet services in major U.S. cities. He is also a professor within Southern Methodist University's Department of Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management. Dr. Barner has more than 20 years of experience in organizational and management development, and has worked on OD assignments throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia."

Read an Excerpt

Bench Strength

By Robert W. Barner


Copyright © 2006 Robert W. Barner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8144-0884-2

Chapter One

Talent Strategy The Key to Organizational Effectiveness

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. -SUN TZU, CHINESE MILITARY STRATEGIST

CEOs and senior executives are quickly coming to the conclusion that a distinguishing characteristic of successful organizations is the ability to identify, develop, and deploy exceptional leadership talent. Research such as the 1997 McKinsey study, The War for Talent, and McKinsey's 2000 follow-up study have made business managers and HR leaders aware of the significant gaps that exist between their talent management requirements and their ability to successfully execute against these requirements.

Since then, these conclusions have been reinforced by several other research studies. More specifically, when we look at the data there are five conclusions that we can draw about the current state of leadership talent management.

1. Many companies feel unprepared to capture and develop the leadership talent that they need to succeed. In one survey that spanned 264 executives from six countries, almost two-thirds of respondents rated the ability to develop effective leaders as critical to addressing marketplace challenges, yet only 8 percent felt confidentin their ability to manage leadership talent.

2. Executives feel that during the next few years, these leadership challenges will become even greater. Only about 25 percent of surveyed companies were confident in their ability to have in place the high-potential talent that they would need to drive future growth.

3. The projected shortfall of leadership talent is likely to affect ALL sections of our talent pipelines, not just retiring baby boomers. By 2020, executives believe the United States will experience a 15 percent reduction in professionals within the 35 to 44 age group-the age segment that has traditionally constituted a critical part of the high-potential (HIPO) leadership pipeline. 4. Most organizations are just beginning to address these talent issues. Only 24 percent of respondents in one online survey on leadership talent indicated that their organizations had a clear plan for developing leadership talent, and only 29 percent indicated that their organizations were effective in connecting talent management to the needs of their business units. Over half of respondents surveyed in one study indicated that their leadership talent identification and development system had been in place less than three years.

5. The challenge of building a strong leadership team is a global organizational issue, extending well beyond the borders of the United States. A recent Hewitt study cited findings from previous research studies that conclude that management turnover in Chinese companies may be as high as 40 percent, with many other Asian companies reporting that they face critical challenges in developing their leaders.

The Emergence of the Chief Talent Officer

One area in which the new emphasis on talent management is reflected is in the evolving role of the Human Resources department. In many organizations, HR leaders are being asked to outsource or de-emphasize transactional HR activities such as payroll and employee benefits, so that they can take on broader, more influential roles as talent strategists. Some organizations have gone so far as to formalize this role transition under the titles of chief talent officer (CTO), or vice president of talent management. For the more cynical among us, it's important to understand that these role shifts and title changes represent more than a semantic shell game. Instead, they reflect an evolution in the mind-set of corporate executives, as organizations come to understand the way in which talent management can drive organizational performance.

The fact is that executives are looking for HR and OD (organization development) leaders who are able to go beyond managing a set of isolated recruiting, development, and training activities, to be able to articulate a viable game plan for capturing and leveraging leadership talent. For their part, organizational leaders are being expected to play a stronger role as coauthors of this game plan. As a result of these changes, today in almost every organization, executives and HR leaders are being held more accountable for the talent decisions that they make.

It All Starts with Strategy

So if talent management is so critical to organizational success, how do you go about building a stronger leadership bench? The major point that I'll be making throughout this book is that an effective organizational approach to talent management proceeds from a well-considered and clearly articulated strategy. Unfortunately, the term "strategy" is frequently misunderstood. When I ask executives to discuss their organizations' leadership talent strategies, they often start off by discussing their 360° feedback programs, executive coaching, or assessment centers. The truth is that while such talent management tools and tactics can be very valuable, they don't come close to constituting a talent management strategy.

To explain what I mean, let's start with an agreed-upon definition of what we mean by the term "strategy." At an organizational level, a strategy can be viewed as being a flexible game plan that enables an organization to deploy its resources in a way that ensures dominance within a competitive field of play. As it applies to talent management, a strategy is a flexible game plan for acquiring, strengthening, and deploying an organization's leadership talent to ensure the best long-term competitive advantage for one's organization.

The most effective strategies, whether they are formed to guide a sports team, or an organization, share five common characteristics. A review of these characteristics serves as a useful starting point for introducing the concept of talent strategy development:

1. Strategies come into play only in the presence of a competitor.

2. Strategies are defined in terms of the key decisions we make.

3. Strategies require a thorough knowledge of the playing field.

4. Strategies are secured through the use of a flexible game plan.

5. Strategies are realized through effective deployment.

Characteristic #1: Strategies Come into Play Only in the Presence of a Competitor

This is true regardless of whether your competitor is an opposing football team, or another company that is trying to eat your lunch. After all, how much strategy is required for a game of solitaire? With regard to talent strategies, this principle suggests that you can't base good talent management decisions solely on how your managers perform against internal, historic benchmarks. An effective talent strategy gauges bench strength not only against internal standards, but also on how leaders measure up in one's industry and competitive market. To assess your understanding of this point, why don't you take a minute to jot down your answers to the following questions, then compare your answers with the ones I've provided:


1. When you evaluate the leadership potential of one of your managers, what is your basis for comparison?

2. Can you name your top three talent competitors?

3. How insular is your business unit? That is, to what extent does your department or division tend to look inward when identifying future talent or making talent decisions?


Question 1: What is your basis for evaluating a leader's performance and potential?

Answer: While many managers base their answers solely on a comparison of other leaders within their organizations, it's possible to go beyond this measure to assess talent against the best performers in one's market. Put another way, how would your best internal candidates fare if they were forced to compete for their jobs against the best performers in their field? If you don't know, a little research is in order. Later on, in Chapter 8, I'll outline several methods for calibrating your talent against external performers.

Question 2: Can you name your top three talent competitors?

Answer: By this I mean not only market competitors, but also those companies that would be most interested in stealing your best people. A few years ago, I worked for an international logistics company that began losing a few key people to a small business start-up in a noncompetitive field. We quickly traced the defections back to a former executive who had left his position to help form the start-up company. Staying on top of this issue enabled us to put together an effective plan for retaining other likely targets for this poaching activity. How about you? If you were to take a look at the last series of voluntary terminations that have occurred among your high potential leaders, would you see a pattern of defections in these losses? If you don't know, investigate.

Question 3: How insular is your business unit?

Answer: That is, to what extent does your department or division tend to look inward when identifying future talent or making talent decisions? In conducting leadership talent reviews across multiple divisions and operating companies, one of the things that I've discovered is that those business units that have the weakest talent pools tend to be those that foster excessive "in-breeding." In other words, these business units erect thick barriers between themselves and the rest of their organization, and they attempt to keep their leaders tightly cloistered behind their walls. One of the best ways to not only accurately assess talent, but also to build the capabilities of your leaders, is to continually place them within settings that force them to calibrate their performance against other companies and organizational units. Task forces and mixed project teams are examples of techniques you can use to see how your leaders perform within a broader, more expansive context.

Characteristic #2: Strategies Are Defined in Terms of the Key Decisions We Make

If a strategy is one's overall game plan for obtaining and securing competitive advantage, then the essence of strategy lies in the ability to take actions that support, and align with, that strategy. There are a variety of different talent approaches that can be put into play to build leadership capability, each of which revolves around a different set of decisions. A good strategist not only makes the right decisions, but also learns to delineate, from all potential decisions that could be addressed at any one time, those few that are critical to maintaining competitive advantage.

A clear illustration comes from the airline industry. As I write this, most airlines are struggling to stay airborne. One of the few exceptions is Southwest Airlines, which was smart enough to hedge its bets in 2004 by locking in fuel prices long before the onset of the fuel crisis brought on by Hurricane Katrina. In this case, someone at Southwest was astute enough to look ahead and spot the build up of this change wave before it came crashing down on the industry, then take the next logical step to understand the long-term financial impact of this particular pricing and contracting decision.

In the case of talent management, one of the pivotal questions that talent strategists face is the "make or buy" decision (discussed in detail in Chapter 4), in which an organization opts to focus its bench-building efforts around either making leadership capacity through internal development, or buying extra leadership capacity through the large-scale importing of outside talent. Once set into the play, this decision becomes a very powerful force for determining how an organization frames its leadership talent strategy, and sets into motion certain critical tradeoffs in the commitment of time, resources, and executive focus. In this way, the decision to follow a given "make" or a "buy" strategy carries with it the implicit willingness to forego, delay, or minimize other competing alternative bench-building activities.

Characteristic #3: Strategies Require a Thorough Knowledge of the Playing Field

Any student of military history knows the truth of this statement. One of the most famous historical examples of this principle comes from the Battle of Agincourt. In this decisive battle in 1415, Henry V of England led his small group of foot soldiers to a dramatic defeat over a much larger French army that was largely comprised of armored cavalry. Henry won, in large part, because he took full advantage of the unique conditions presented by that battlefield. By positioning his troops in a narrow gap that lay between two thickly wooded areas, Henry forced the French cavalry's attack to be compressed into a narrow area. This action limited the full abilities of the French cavalry and exposed their horsemen to a rain of arrows from Henry's bowmen. In addition, a heavy rain had soaked the field, making it difficult for the heavily armed French knights to fight against Henry's more lightly armored and nimble soldiers. The French lost despite the use of a much stronger military force because they failed to adapt their plans to the realities of this particular battlefield.

Just as battlefield commanders attempt to exploit the advantages offered by their particular playing fields, in much the same way it's important to ensure that the leadership talent strategy that you design fully exploits the opportunities offered up by your organizational playing field. This means understanding both the external business environment and the internal organizational structure in which that strategy is enacted. It also requires that you know how to make an accurate assessment of your leadership talent capability-the extent to which you have in place the leadership talent needed to successfully execute against your organization's goals.


Do you know your playing field? To find out, take a second to answer the following six questions:

1. Among the most important members of your executive team, which leaders represent your greatest retention risks? (If you don't know, you need to take a closer look at your executive team.)

2. How many times during the past two years has your organization been caught off guard by the sudden defection of high-potential talent? (Frequent, unanticipated losses can signal a lack of understanding of leaders' career goals and market-based compensation requirements.)

3. Have you ever been surprised by seemingly small talent management problems? In other words, are you quick to recognize the first warning signs of emerging talent problems? (An example would be the "stellar performer" who, upon closer review, is found to have significant derailment issues that had been readily visible to his team, customers, and peers, but which were repeatedly ignored as representing an important leadership issue.)

4. If you were put on the spot right now to identify someone to head up a new business project, do you know who you'd select as your top three candidates? How comfortable would you feel if you were called upon to defend your recommendations? (Anyone can make talent recommendations, but are they defensible? Do you know how to match leadership strengths to changing business requirements?)

5. Continuing with this last question, suppose you were given unlimited financial resources and asked to conduct a raiding party for external talent to head up this project. Could you name two organizations that would be at the top of your raiding list? (The ability to answer this question is usually an indication that you know how to calibrate your leaders' performance against the best in your industry.)


Excerpted from Bench Strength by Robert W. Barner Copyright © 2006 by Robert W. Barner . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Talent Strategy: The Key to Organizational Effectiveness

Chapter 2 Selecting the King's Advisor

Chapter 3 Framing Your Strategy

Chapter 4 Evaluating Strategic Trade-Offs

Chapter 5 Starting Out: The Talent Focus Decision

Chapter 6 Talent Development Decisions

Chapter 7 Talent Acquisition Decisions

Chapter 8 The Art of Deployment

Chapter 9 Conducting War-Game Scenarios

Chapter 10 Keeping Score

Chapter 11 Making Mid-Course Corrections


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This book provides all the right stuff if you’re ready to get down to the hard work of strategic talent management. Take advantage of well-thought-out questions, challenges, and guidelines for designing and executing with confidence. Barner does a superb job."

— Janet S. Steinwedel, Ph.D., Director Leadership Coaching, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals

"This book serves as an insightful guide for both executives and development professionals. By presenting a balanced perspective of the different strategic approaches, it provides a thoughtful analysis of the options (and trade-offs) associated with implementing various leadership development initiatives. Organizations interested in attaining a competitive advantage through people (specifically a strong leadership team) will learn about the subtlety and creativity needed to do it right (one size does not fit all.)"

— Christina D. Williams, Ph.D., Managing Director, RHR International

"P&L owners and HR practitioners alike will find this book easy to use and highly applicable to their joint cause of winning the sustained talent war. Barner’s blend of cases, theory, models, and questions of self-discovery is a perfect balance."

— Samir Gupte, Vice President, Human Resources, Bahama Breeze

"Bob Barner presents a highly cogent and comprehensive guidebook for HR professionals, managers, and CEOs for building an effective talent strategy. Focusing on key talent decisions ‘Make versus Buy’/‘Capstone versus Foundation’/‘Build Out versus Trade-Up’ this book brings clarity to the most vexing and perennial HR challenges, helping managers not only to understand the options they have, but how to think through these choices and specifically when and how to respond. Distinctive throughout is the book’s unwavering focus on business impact and alignment with business strategy."

— Jean Martin-Weinstein, Managing Director, Corporate Leadership Council

"Bench Strength is the only book on talent management I have read that is practical and actionable. Barner not only outlines a well-defined path for success, but also provides examples and experiences that bring the words and recommended actions to life. This book will be of immense value to any organization seeking to develop a talent management strategy that is aligned with and supports the business direction."

— Tracy South, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Mosaic Sales Solutions

"Follow this comprehensive, practical road map — complete with toolkit — to the land of an energized and high-performance work environment."

— M. Cass Wheeler, CEO, American Heart Association"

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