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Business – How Cisco Created Their Own Talent Incubator

Sylvia Ann Hewlett

While there’s been a lot of discussion about how the recession may be over, to many organizations and their employees, the view ahead is still one tough slog. The zeitgeist says it’s far too early to dream about constructing your ideal job; survival trumps career development.

Yet that’s precisely the kind of thinking that will cause talented workers to tune out, turn off and, as soon as the economy picks up, take a hike.

In researching my upcoming book, Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down, we found that the number one reason that talented people love their jobs — far outstripping compensation and recognition — is having stimulating and challenging assignments. This finding is backed up by our investigation into the commonalities between Boomer and Gen Y workers: Both groups — who together make up 148 million people, or nearly half of the U.S. population — overwhelmingly want their jobs to provide challenging and diverse opportunities to grow both personally and professionally.

It’s an understandable impulse to dismiss such desires as luxuries to be postponed for fat years. Ironically, though, tough times offer plenty of scope for career development. When teams are operating with skeleton staffs, everyone must pitch in. A thoughtful team leader can use straitened circumstances to help strong performers gain access to stretch assignments or cross-functional roles that boost their skills and expand their professional network of colleagues and clients — opportunities that normally would not be available to them. Although managers may not be able to enhance salaries or titles, they can “promote” smart staffers among their colleagues by regularly spotlighting and sharing significant accomplishments, a practice that not only lets people shine in front of their peers but also helps everyone become better at their job.

In addition to encouraging individual managers’ efforts, some organizations are crafting formal processes to turn the economic lemon into a very large vat of lemonade.

Cisco Systems is leveraging the recession to solve two of its most pressing problems — engaging top talent and satisfying the company’s need for strategic innovation. Cisco’s Action Learning Forum (ALF) is a rigorous 16-week program that gives 60 high-potential leaders the chance to strengthen their skills in leadership, strategic management and team development while working on real, high-profile business problems and start-up projects that are strategic to Cisco’s operations. The participants, selected from the company’s top performers in every function, generation and geography, work in teams guided by Cisco executives and faculty from MIT and Stanford.

Although the program costs approximately $10,000 per employee, since its launch in 2007 ALF teams have generated billions of dollars of what Cisco calls “new value creation.” One idea — Smart Grid — revamps energy grids to make them faster and more cost-effective; it is projected to bring in $10 billion of revenue over the next five years.

Equally impressive are the gains in talent acceleration and engagement. Some 20 percent of the 360 participants have been promoted. And Cisco has lost only 2 percent of ALF alumni, reflecting the loyalty generated when high-performers are offered developmental opportunities.

Smart organizations can turn the recession into a talent incubator for little or no extra cost. Don’t lose this opportunity to make a foolproof investment.

Read more about Cisco’s Action Learning Forum
Hewlett_CiscoActionForum

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October 27, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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