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It is critical is to set expectations and not over-promise: Marie-France Van Vooren

Interview with Director, Asia, Dow Corning Human Resources

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Seven per cent of Dow Corning’s workforce has been identified as high potential employees, including around 20 people from its 250-strong Indian team. They are the ones making up the talent bench for succession planning at the multinational company specialising in silicones and silicon-based technology. A key part of their development is cross-functional exposure and one that involves sitting next to the CxOs at the company headquarters. Director (Asia) tells Sayantani Kar how it differs from regular best practices and its import

In your grooming for high potential performers, what role does cross-functional training play?
It is a development programme. We get 60 per cent of our knowledge from experience, 30 per cent from interactions with others and only 10 per cent from listening to a teacher. This helps to give our high potential candidates the experience they would need to navigate the business.

We realised the need particularly for employees in our emerging economy markets. In a place like India, for example, employees don’t see the big production plants. It can be quite a task to grasp the work that goes into turning quartz into an emulsion to put on one’s skin, for example.

How does the cross-functional programme work?
Cross-functional participants are nominated. Once they are nominated, we start with their self-assessment, peer and manager assessment. They are then debriefed with a coach, who is mostly from outside the company to encourage some comfort and openness.

Assessments done, the experiential part begins. These people are taken twice for about 10 days to our corporate headquarters in the US and engage in project work and direct interactions with the senior management. The young talent receives assignments which they have to do on their return. Again, the coaches are always available on the phone and they can share everything with them — even discuss failure — without the fear of being reported.

Feedback comes in every three months when all three — coach, manager and candidate — assess the new behaviour traits picked up as lesson from the activities assigned. It also gives the manager a chance to create situations where the person can further hone those skills.

Does this make it more experiential in nature?
I once was a manager to one such participant. But he had the problem of being too energetic and tended to go for battle in every argument, which is dangerous especially if you are in HR. While I had pointed it out to him and tried working on it, it did not sink in till he experienced it himself. In the sessions with senior leaders, the workshops yielded a similar feedback and he got a confirmation of this. That instantly made him serious about addressing it. Upcoming union negotiations in his country ensured that there was a ready project for him to manage differences in opinion peacefully, which he worked on with me and his coach. He wasn’t judged on his previous behaviour as long as he made progress.

Why do you arrange meetings with senior management as part of the programme?
Senior leaders are usually from a much older generation. They can sometimes lose track of what the next generation of young talent is like. The senior management has an important duty to know the high potential people from around the world in their company. Through these interactions, they learn about their hopes, behaviour, dreams and potential to take the company to the next step.

How does that help?
We had five high potential people from a country who would complain that they did not have the tools to develop the market. We asked them to put together a presentation for the senior management with recommendations. They worked hard and came up with a suggestion that needed to altogether change how the business was run in that country.

When they left the room, the bosses asked each other if they should do what the team wanted. They decided that these comprised the senior talent in that country so they had to trust them with it.

What the team thought would take hours, took just five minutes of deliberation and they were asked to go ahead with implementing their suggestions. In fact, when the magnitude of their new responsibility hit them, they were scared to start with.

But what is cross-functional in these programmes?
A veritable part of these programmes is people coming in from different functions. At these workshops, senior executives share the priorities of each of their functions to give a better view of how they contribute to move the company forward.

When you are relatively early in your career, you know one function and may not realise the complexity of running an enterprise like this one. You are on a production plan, and forget that the commercial team has to sell what you produce, or vice versa.

For example…
We had someone from India in marketing and sales, who was great at his job. But he was always upset about products not being on time and his clients not supplied on a priority. I explained to him that an enterprise is much like a restaurant. If he was handling the dining room, serving meals to the customer, he couldn't forget the kitchen. If something went wrong in it, he could go nowhere even with a perfect dining room. We moved him to a supply chain planning role, where he understood capacity utilisation and how customer orders were worked on in the plants. He realised that it was not enough to get the product out of the door but to do it productively for the enterprise to be profitable. From a great commercial person, he became a much better business manager after this.

So the goal is to turn specialists into generalists?
It depends on the appetite of the people. We try to let the people choose. There are brilliant specialists in silicon science, and we need them. But at a certain point, some people start to be interested in leading others and go beyond themselves. They are the ones honed for leadership positions.

At what stage do employees get picked up for cross-functional programmes and deemed high performers?
People are chosen typically when they are 35-40 years, with a certain number of years in their functions already behind them. They are usually ready to represent the company beyond themselves by then. One criterion to choose is their potential to climb two or more rungs. The managers will assess, and sometimes give a small leadership task such as leading a couple of people.

Are you just following best practices or putting your own insights in these programmes?
The stress put on experiential learning rather than class training is different from usual practice. But the key to these programmes is the involvement of the executive leadership. You cannot fox these guys - if they don’t want to do something, they won’t, no matter what yarn we spin. Their involvement in the various interactions means that they deem it important enough to pick it over other activities in their busy schedules. Ten of the senior-most functional leaders, including the CEO, sit at the same tables as the band of young talent during the projects. The projects we give are not fictitious either but real projects with a bearing on the business.

Can these be replicated by peer companies or other industries?
The more you are in innovation, the more space you have to use this because there will be a lot of projects for people to work on. In such scenarios, a controlling culture does not work either and hence, such companies are already tuned to giving more responsibilities to the lower rungs of leadership talent.

What else do you line up for the high potential performers apart from cross-functional programmes?
We swap two people with the same job, one in a mature geography and the other in a developing geography. Or, send them on short-term assignments that are not as expensive as long-term repatriation. These have clear objectives, say, develop a customer base in a new geography, and allow more people to get such a chance.

How do you retain those in your high potential talent pipeline?
It is critical is to set expectations and not overpromise. The higher they go, the more we need to make them aware of the competition because there are fewer jobs. The promise we make is to work on their development and not of a particular promotion. If they miss an opportunity and have not been complacent, then it is our duty to tell them why they missed it.

What is on your plate next?
To handle the ambiguity and complexity in developing markets like India, we need to look at collective leadership, rather than individual leaders. I have to come up with ways to calibrate the process to promote such leadership. It will be relevant even in mature economies which are not going to be what they were anymore.

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