Article: Retaining key talent: A road less traveled


Retaining key talent: A road less traveled

Leadership coaching can bring immense value to organisations and lead to retention of key talent by providing a safe platform for top management to share anxieties and clear potential misunderstanding

Till today, inviting coaching and mentoring at the middle and senior management is a road less travelled


A coach helps you see things differently and helps you make the differentiation between what you have an what you value


Leadership coaching can bring immense value to organizations and lead to retention of key talent by providing a safe platform for top management to share anxieties and clear potential misunderstanding.

Retaining key talent, particularly someone who would probably be the next CEO, is a key challenge to CEOs and even the Board. The often followed approach is a delicate blend of pull and push; encouragement and motivation through appreciation and expression of confidence, balanced by demand and push for higher levels of performance.
While there is great merit in such an approach, it neglects one reality; truly worthy talent is largely internally-driven and self-motivated.
What should the CEO and the Board do to retain talent that is internally-driven and self- motivated? Take away the dampeners to enthusiasm and motivation. Put in place catalysts instead. Easily said. But how is it done? Here is a real life case, which possibly holds pointers.
The learnings are self evident. Even the best of professionals can misread/misunderstand organizational cues, develop anxieties, and embark on a course which is a Lose - Lose - Lose for all! Intervention and support of a skilled external coach who helps develop a fuller understanding of reality by opening up their minds to a variety of perspectives and choose a pragmatic way forward, can be a Win - Win - Win for all.
Till today, inviting coaching and mentoring at the middle and senior management is a road less travelled. As this case illustrates, there could indeed be merit in organizations exploring this option; supporting their future leaders with skilled coaches.

Bharat, a talented Engineer / Manager, chose to return to India in mid 2007, after working in the US and Western Europe for nearly two decades, as the CEO of the Indian Operation of his then employer, a large US giant. Bharat’s spouse, a highly qualified professional in her own right, and two school going children welcomed the move. They were finally settling down after a decade and half of moving homes every few years, across the Atlantic. It was wonderful for Bharat too. Leading a young team, developing plans for setting up a green field operation, in a vibrant economy was professionally rewarding. Seeing his family settling was personally satisfying.
Then came September 2008. Bharat’s employer, the US Giant, had to apply for financial support under TARP, from the US Govt. and the nascent Indian operation, had to be abandoned. Bharat, had two options. Move back to the parent in US or find another assignment in India. Bharat chose the latter.
Few weeks later, he joined a medium sized Indian company as Head of Operations, with principal responsibility for all procurement & manufacturing operations, and reporting to the CEO. While it was a come down, from No. 1 to No.2, Bharat accepted it. The company belonged to an Indian Group, which had an excellent reputation of being good, clean and fair.
A year later, Bharat was feeling very good about his choice. The Indian group, true to their reputation, proved to be good and fair. The business was on a roll with big growth every quarter. Demand was strong. His team and he had been able to de bottleneck operations and steadily ramp up output. The family was flourishing. Bharat’s wife had landed an assignment matching her interests. The children had settled nicely and were doing well.
Come April 2010 came the formal announcement; the CEO would be superannuating by the end of the FY April 10 ~ Mar 11, and the hunt for successor was on. Bharat, was assured by the CEO and the Board that he was in the consideration set. While it was reassuring to learn that, Bharat was very troubled.
First, the CEO didn’t seem to be taking much interest in all the things Bharat was doing to de-bottleneck the operation. Bharat interpreted this as coolness towards him. Next, for long term growth, the manufacturing system needed extensive revamping and modernization. While Bharat was developing alternate long term plans etc, the CEO wasn’t getting involved or showing much interest. Bharat interpreted this as lack of faith in his judgment. Finally, Bharat had some differences with the CEO on the kind of organizational motivation systems and culture that needed to be created to sustain growth momentum and the dialogue was somewhat desultory.
Bharat felt himself as being at the cross roads again. Should he continue? Should he seek a change? If he is to seek change, should he do so in India or return to the US? If he were to move lock, stock and barrel to the US, would that be fair to his family? If he were to continue in the present assignment and someone else were to get appointed as CEO, would he be fair to himself?
By the end of May 2010, while on a holiday with his family, Bharat decided to seek help, of a Leadership Coach he knew and had confidence in. He called and set up an early appointment.
Over the next few months, Bharat and his Coach met on three occasions for deep conversations. They jointly explored using Egan’s Skilled Helper framework: 'What is going on?', 'What do I want instead?', 'How might I get to what I want?'

What is going on? These were the questions in Bharat’s mind
1) On the CEO not taking interest in manufacturing: Was it because he was cool to Bharat OR was it because he found Bharat handling it well?
2) On the subject of organizational culture & motivational system: In Bharat’s own view, the CEO wasn’t doing anything unethical or improper.
3) Given that, can’t two different professionals have two different approaches and both be right on a soft issue like this? On the balance wasn’t this really the CEO’s prerogative? Shouldn’t he be respecting the CEO’s prerogative?

Bharat realized that it was perfectly possible that the CEO was in no way inimical or antagonistic towards him. Having got this huge bubble out of the way, they moved on to jointly explored the following.

What do I want instead? And most importantly what could Bharat proactively do to get desired outcome?
1) Most desirable outcome: Bharat concluded that all factors, personal & professional, considered, landing the CEO’s job in the present organization would be the most desirable outcome.
2) Looking ahead & learning for the future: Bharat decided to use the available time to gain relevant insights and learning from the current CEO. After all he had moved the business from a static to rapid growth mode. After all wouldn’t the learning be useful, irrespective of whether he was chosen as CEO or not?
3) Contingency Plan: If, the Most Desirable Outcome doesn’t happen for whatever reason, Bharat would have to make a change. Wouldn’t it be premature and possibly counterproductive to initiate the process till succession decision gets made?

By early August, Bharat had internalized the above four points and was approaching his work with a more open perspective. The focus was on doing his job, learning whatever he could from the current CEO. Initiation of search for a new assignment was deliberately kept in abeyance.
Come November, the Board invited Bharat to take charge as CEO in the new financial year, and formally communicated accordingly to the entire organization. Bharat was of course overjoyed. One of the first few he called to share the good news was the coach. His words “You helped me see things differently. You helped me see the full range of potential opportunities, the value of what I already had, and calmly pursue whatever more I wanted.”

Ravi Santhanam, is a practicing Leadership Coach and Founder & CEO of Meta Drasti Advisory, Chennai. Guest Faculty at IIT Madras and IIM Calcutta, he brings a decade of experience as Managing Director & CEO of large entities, and insights gained over 32 years of professional experience

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Topics: #Culture, Employee Engagement, #Innovation

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