A well-executed talent strategy

Designing a durable, delightful, sustainable product is a challenge that takes intense research, tons of failing and learning from failure, and conviction to do what’s right especially when it isn’t easy. Designing a durable, delightful sustainable design team to deliver said product takes all of that stuff — plus a ton of trust. It’s like willing another family into existence. And somehow doing it all with your hands in your pockets, figuratively.

What do I mean by hands in your pockets? Karl Leiberman, the Executive Creative Director at Weiden Kennedy put it like this:

“When you’re a creative, you’re basically trying to drive a 2007 Buick LeSabre that’s on fire down a winding mountain road in a blinding hailstorm.

When you’re a creative director, you’re trying to do the same, but you’re in the passenger seat and you’re not supposed to touch the steering wheel.

And when you’re an ECD, you’re still trying to do the same thing, but now you’re in the trunk and everyone keeps texting you.”

How’s that for an image?

As a designer, you’re tackling complex risky work and you’re doing your absolute best to get it done.

As a manager, your job is to calmly look for blind spots, talk in a reassuring tone, and above all, resist the urge to yank the wheel.

As a leader, you must some times sit, in the dark, and rest assured in the knowledge that you chose your managers for their ability to choose the driver. And provide whatever cover you can by setting clear objectives, clear incentives, and whatever moral support you can — even though often you can't see the driver, the car, or the road.

What is a talent strategy?

It’s actually the culmination of the strategies you use to find, hire, and retain great talent. What do those entail? Let’s break it down.

Finding talent (pipelining) takes a few forms. For early-career talent, Intuit has an internship program where we can test-drive up-and-coming designers by giving them real work (for real pay) to deliver real outcomes for our customers and our business. We also do University outreach where we send our designers, managers, and leaders to engage with students as they learn about design, create their portfolios, and start the hunt for a job. I’ve recently been befriended by faculty at SMU and SCAD — a huge opportunity to connect with students, dig into their work, and build Intuit’s reputation in the process.

For more seasoned designers, we rely on other kinds of community engagement: thought leadership, mentoring, networking, and otherwise making Intuit the most attractive place it can be. Reputations matter.

Hiring talent requires developing accurate, enticing and bias-free job descriptions, and an evaluation process that reduces the errors that might cloud a great hiring decision. And don't forget onboarding — a repeatable process for quickly getting a great hire up to speed on your culture, your business’ mission, values, and objectives. This is super critical as it’s the onramp to your retention strategy.

Retaining talent encompasses three big things: developing and nurturing an inspirational and inclusive culture where designers feel valued; shaping a work environment where designers experience real growth through trust, accountability, and recognition; and a transparent, explicit and managed path to your next role based on setting and achieving personal and business goals and succession planning.

The goal of talent retention is about making designers feel appreciated and ensuring they are doing the best work of their lives. It’s not about trapping them in a role for years and years with handcuffs, golden or otherwise. Retention should be viewed as keeping your best people for as long as it makes sense for everyone.

What does a well-executed talent strategy feel like to a new hire?

It feels awesome. If I’m a new hire, everything from the way I found you and your team, to the hiring process, to the 72-hour onboarding process to the 30–60–90-day plan that gets me up to speed, to working with your team on a daily basis, to my ongoing growth and career development should all feel awesome.

The first 72 hours are huge
From the smile that greets me on my way in the door to the welcome kit on my desk to the introductions to my teammates and peers to the massive job of getting me compliant, those first 72 hours are spent evaluating my decision — did I make a good choice? JUST like buying a very important new thing (a laptop, a car, a house), a hiring manager wants to reinforce my very good decision.

30–60–90 Plan?
The first 3 months are critical. The adoption phase. When a manager intentionally breaks down a new hire’s job into phases of discovery, definition, design, and delivery, I’m being prepared for a long and rewarding journey for a company I’ll grow to love. Without those expectations, and the aircover to learn and experiment and grab quick wins, I’m subconsciously already setting a clock for my departure.

The Long View
Ultimately, I’m expecting you, my manager, to take an interest in my job satisfaction, my career trajectory, and my growth. If those investments are obvious and effective, I’m going from being an empowered employee to an evangelist for your company and your team. I’m pipelining for you now. I’m blogging about my experiences working for you. I’m tweeting about my awesome boss.

Anything less, and I’m probably quietly biding my time. If our most honest career conversations happen the day I get my yearly review, don’t be surprised if I’ve already lined up my next job before the bonus check has cleared.

Talent Strategy Dynamics

I‘ve been asked the question: what’s my leadership style? For my design team, my leadership style IS my talent strategy:

Create and curate a magnetic design culture
Internally that means hiring a diverse multi-skilled team and nurturing that team with inclusive fun, creativity, trust, inspiration, and a high bar of accountability.

We built trust, intentionally, so that the teams feel safe to share work, and criticism, and make each other better. We have fun — from silly slack channels to the now-famous Hot Chocolate Cart.

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The Hot Chocolate Cart — spreading delight and serving others

We developed a yearly Design Week, where we’d invite design leaders from across Intuit to come to share their passions, their work, and their teams with us. And we’d invite local external inspiration in the form of design professionals, students, and wild-card speakers like Chad Houser from Cafe Momentum, George Esquivel, co-founder of Four Corners Brewing and Mandy Price, Co-Founder of Kanarys a platform for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Plus a ton of snacks, swag, and playtime to make sure the team felt connected, engaged, and energized.

And we hold the bar high — no one gets to ride for free. Everyone contributes to the magnetic design culture — from the just-in-the-door intern to the executive assistant to the VP of Design. I have great stories about the kind of ownership that shows up in a high-functioning team. I remember finding my assistant and two facilities workers up on a ladder, with the ceiling tiles in a disarray, trying to figure out how to string garden lights in our training room to create the ambiance for one of our sessions. We sweat the details that shape experiences for our team — which in turn shapes how we design for our customers. IT’S ALL ON PURPOSE.

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Design Week 2019 — a theme of growth and gardening and some kickass lighting from Sherri.

Externally, our magnetic culture shows up in how our team engages with prospective hires. It means creating environments and engagements that are welcoming and interactive. And it means role-modeling the energy, the fun, and passion we have for our customers, for design, and for each other.
An example of this is our yearly engagement with Big Design, a conference held here in Dallas. We designed an experience meant to stoke curiosity, and invite designers to come to have conversations with us about their career aspirations and their passions for design. In a room full of folding tables and branded banners, our experience took the shape of a design living room. An inviting place to come hang out and chat with us.

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Our crew at Big Design, 2019 — chilling in the Design Living Room

Transform employees’ careers through experience, relationships, and accountability.
So much of a career path is shaped by stretching in uncomfortable new ways. Taking on projects outside one’s wheelhouse. Working with new people. Owning those outcomes and owning up to your failures as learning opportunities. Remember — the manager is there to set goals and to coach against those objectives. NOT steer the car. Or provide turn-by-turn directions. Growth comes from wrong turns and the occasional fender-bender. Deviating from the happy path yields surprises and lessons. Letting employees experience failure is a gift, even if it looks rough or feels bad. There is no failure without accountability.

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Working publicly is a behavior that creates accountability — inviting questions, criticism, and collaboration

Create transparent and explicit goals for career growth and transition
Assume that everyone is on their way out. Assume everyone wants a different role every 2 years. Build that into the plan. Plan for the fact that at any moment someone might get the call to join another company, discover they’re having a baby, or have another experience that requires them to leave the team. As a manager, consider which people could take over for you. As a leader, hold your managers accountable for assessing their team and having a succession plan. Once you have a successor, let them know. Make sure your plans line up with theirs.
My philosophy is: celebrate the exits like you celebrate new hires. They are doing you a favor. They are creating space for the team to grow and change.
It takes about a year for an employee to get their head wrapped around a new role. It takes another year to really execute that role at a high level. By year 3, they should be ready for more, different, and new. Build-in rotations. Swap people out. Pair people up differently, in ways that address their career goals and the business’ needs.

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Some of my proudest success stories are people that no longer work for me. Tiff and JB among them.

The Key Benefit of a Talent strategy: Resilience

Resilience is a combination of strength and flexibility. A team must be staffed to achieve excellence. And that team must be nimble and able to grow and flex to new goals, requirements, and situations. It must be able to stand up to intense pressure AND it must be a self-sustaining organism that learns to feed and organize itself.
Resilience comes from empowerment and accountability. As a leader, it’s my job to set a vision with clear goals. As an employee, it’s your responsibility to align with the vision and deliver on the goals with urgency and excellence.
As a leader, I hire and incentivize you to do your job, and I expect you to get better in the process. I accomplish that through trust, respect, coaching and equitable compensation. As an employee, you should expect to do the best work you possibly can and advance your career in the process. You accomplish that through trust, respect, and applying your skills and expertise to solving the biggest business problems. It’s a simple value exchange. If the value is unbalanced, if one link of that value chain isn’t held accountable, the resilience of the organization is at risk.
Resilience is not just nice to have, it is a business imperative. As a leader or manager, one of your responsibilities is to manage risk. If you’re not planning like this, you’re not doing your whole job.

When it’s time to say goodbye

As a manager, if you find that there’s someone on your team that isn’t cutting it, you should let them know. Immediately. The number one regret most leaders and managers express — to me — is that they wish they’d acted faster on employees that were underperforming. It’s a hard job and it’s one that most of us would prefer to avoid. But your employees deserve to know that they aren’t meeting expectations. They may be afraid or mad. They may disagree. But they deserve honesty. It’s part of holding your team accountable.
It's one thing to take a big swing, fail, and learn from it. It’s quite another to consistently under-deliver — or deliver unevenly. If you’re not sure, gather feedback from that employee's peers. Be specific on the areas that you’re focused on (but don’t lead the witness by asking about an outage).
As a manager, this is a place where you are held accountable. You must be able to make hard decisions with imperfect data. Those decisions impact real lives. But they also impact your whole team’s ability to thrive and grow. If you can’t make them, your leader will find someone who can.

If you have lost faith in your manager or interest in your job, you should consider letting them know. Often you have an opportunity to help them with their own blindspots. Sometimes what you are feeling is you, not them. Either way, it’s a hard spot to be in and there is understandably a lot of fear about being honest with your boss about this stuff. Good bosses tend to understand and try to help and support you, even if it’s to transition out of the company. Other bosses may be less understanding — and that may be part of the problem.
We live in a time when sometimes having a job — any job — is important because it equates to health insurance, and your ability to pay rent, bills, etc. But it’s not uncommon to feel trapped in a job with no growth and a lack of respect and inspiration. If you feel trapped, find someone you trust who you can talk to about it. If you feel you are being targetted or abused, you should reach out to your HR person to see what your options are.
If you feel depressed, unchallenged, bored, or fearful that you’re not appreciated — you should reflect on the role you play and what actions you might take to change your trajectory — many times we falsely blame our managers for our lack of personal accountability and direction. Self-awareness is a powerful thing. Get some.
Remember, one person leaving the team may mean the ability to bring in someone new. A chance to refresh the team with new energy, passion, and experience. And many underperformers admit that being let go was a wake-up call that helped them grow and move on to their next great thing.

Whether you are a manager or an employee, you are accountable for knowing and participating in the talent strategy. You are in it. You are accountable for the culture and the growth of your team, your own goals, and those of the folks around you. Own that. It will make you better and it will make everyone around you better.

Written by

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.

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