Talent Management Strategies – One Size Doesn’t Fit All

One talent strategy cannot be applied across an organisation when there are so many differences, says Chris MacRae, Head of Talent Management at GlaxoSmithKline

Talent Management Strategies – One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Words: Chris MacRae, GlaxoSmithKline
Illustration: Anna Betts

A blanket talent strategy cannot be impetuously applied across an entire organisation; talent management must understand generational, geographical and cultural differences, not to mention the demand and supply of skills and experience. Chris MacRae, Head of Talent Management at GlaxoSmithKline, discusses the challenges of attracting and retaining talent for multinationals, and why it’s never been more important to consider what motivates your employees

What do you class as talent? Different organisations use the label in different ways. At GSK, we believe talent can be described as individuals with the potential to be successful in big, stretching roles. Across the world, there is a shortage of these high potentials as identifying them proves to be very difficult.

What we have come to realise at GSK is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. We can’t apply a blanket strategy across the whole organisation as each segment of GSK is operating within a unique context. It is vital to interpret our global strategy and identify the key talent activities that each business needs to undertake based on the opportunities and challenges they are facing.

Talent across emerging and mature markets

In emerging markets, organisations see a high voluntary turnover and leaders with very mixed experience. GSK spends a huge amount of time on recruitment, the identification of talent and accelerating employees so they are ready for bigger roles. In Asia, companies are still growing and investing in their business and the demand for talent outstrips the supply of capable people. Take China, for example, where organisations investing in the country require very senior local leaders – the salaries companies must pay are huge as there just aren’t enough local leaders to go round.

The landscape will eventually plateau; ten years ago in places like Dubai, companies were creating hundreds of jobs and there weren’t enough people to fill them, but the situation settles as markets move towards a more mature state. It’s always happening somewhere in the world. GSK is already investing heavily in Africa; big organisations haven’t been on the ground developing people there yet, so there is no experienced local talent pool in many of those countries. You need to start at a grass-roots level and invest in people at the very early stages of their career. GSK works with universities to educate students about the opportunities that exist as there is often a broader range of portfolios open to them than they are aware of; for example, many of GSK’s sales and marketing teams have a medical background.

The challenges in emerging markets are completely different to Western Europe where employees are more mature in terms of their experience and the economic situation means that there is low voluntary turnover. In Europe, we have found it is necessary to give employees the opportunity to do something different and help broaden their experiences, as there are often limited opportunities for upward progression. One of our talent programmes, PULSE, is unique in that employees nominate themselves whereas typically the business decides which high potentials embark on development programmes. Employees are seconded to an NGO or charity either at home or abroad, and the purpose is threefold: employees can use the skills they have built at GSK in charities that are light on those skills; individuals can step back and do something different; and the level of energy, commitment and enthusiasm when employees come back to the business is fantastic. Like many multinationals, we are very lucky in GSK that we have incredible resources, and when employees go to a charity where there are no resources, it encourages them to think and work differently.

The challenges in emerging markets are completely different to Western Europe where employees are more mature in terms of their experience

Treating your talent as individuals

GSK has more than 100,000 employees – everyone from 20-year-old graduates to employees coming to the end of their careers – and they are all driven by different motivations. So, what would a young employee who has no family commitments be motivated by? This may be the chance to do stretch work, quick progression through GSK or volunteering opportunities. Likewise, what are the motivations of someone who is due to retire? In countries where the state pension age has increased, there can be challenges in keeping employees engaged if they are past the age where they had planned to retire.

thumb_HR_p11There are also cultural differences in terms of what matters to individuals. Our corporate social responsibility work is vital in attracting talent in Europe and the US, as employees want to be part of an organisation that they are proud of. When we are advertising for talent in medical, we emphasise how employees can make a difference to people’s health and lives. In Africa, where employees may be the first member of their family to go to university, working for an organisation like GSK means stability and being able to provide for their family.

We have to be careful not to think of our employees as a homogenous group; in big multinationals, you must have a portfolio of benefits for each segment of talent and one that takes geographical and generational differences into account. At the same time, we have thought extensively about what we stand for as an organisation, and what unites our talent strategy is our purpose – to help people. We are very values driven, and believe in investing in the development of individuals. Employees are not under pressure to be something they are not.

The demand and supply of talent

GSK uses a standard talent review process across the organisation, undertaken by each part of the business twice a year. The leadership team assesses talent a couple of levels below them, identifying factors such as learning ability, broad leadership potential and expertise. It’s a collaborative and transparent process that allows us to recognise those employees who can move into leadership roles or become deep experts in the future. Other teams will also look at talent much deeper than this, so it’s continually happening at all levels within the organisation and we are aware of what talent we have, or indeed what talent we are missing.

Likewise, the process helps us to understand what our talent requirements are for the future, particularly for succession planning – so how we best develop people in terms not just of individual development but also of career development. So, if I’ve been identified as a potential deep expert in the future, what role should I be considered for? Or if I was identified with broader potential, which roles should I be on the succession plan for?

Within our talent strategy we also use a strategic workforce planning approach, which helps us look forward to the next five years to understand what capabilities we are going to need, whether this is for a new geography or therapy area. The talent review process feeds into this, so we can identify our gaps, and sometimes we may need to look externally and recruit. Understanding the demand and supply of talent means we know whether we can build talent internally or we need to recruit because the timeframe isn’t long enough for us to build internally or we don’t have the capability.

Challenges unique to leadership

It can be a challenge to retain employees in certain markets and pockets as some functions are highly sought after. Medical is often problematic as you find that those who qualify as medics want to practise medicine and only a small number want to work in a commercial environment. What we are also seeing at the moment is an increase in demand for senior female talent as there has been a big push for all companies to increase the number of women in senior positions.

speaking-bubbleMany multinationals face problems in identifying people with potential to fulfil senior leadership roles in the future, and in healthcare you typically find that employees motivated by becoming specialists don’t want to spend time managing big teams and budgets as what they love is the science. Identifying people who have a real depth of expertise as well as leadership skills is like finding a needle in a haystack.

Another factor you have to be really thoughtful about when looking at senior leadership is your company culture and values. If you decide to bring in people at very senior positions, they need to be aligned to your company culture and values as they will be setting the tone for that part of the organisation.

An incentive to stay

Incentive schemes contribute to employees feeling that they have ownership of GSK and the overall business. It’s recognised as part of your package in the developed markets in Europe and the US, where employees believe they will work for the business in the long term. For those very junior employees coming into GSK, it’s not high on their shopping list of what they want and for those in emerging markets, many are still more motivated by cash now rather than shares later.

In saying that, we think incentive schemes are an important part of our whole portfolio. Share ownership fits in with our philosophy, mission and values about long-term commitment to doing the best for patients. Just look at how long it might take to develop a new medicine – our malaria vaccine has been 30 years in development.

For people in the business for a long time, it is a strong retention tool, as they can take pride when the business does well and financially benefit because of it. What you class as the business doing well can vary – whether it’s sales or a new drug becoming licensed – but it creates a feel-good factor and has an impact on the share price. It is part of feeling proud; the business is making a difference by doing the right thing and you see that not only in the share price but in your own personal investment.

Multinationals need to think about all the different segments of their population and really acknowledge and understand what employees are motivated by. The talent strategy at GSK is always aligned with our values, and what we stand for, but we need to increasingly think about different generations, cultures and geographies, as well as our future employee population.

It is vital to interpret our global strategy and identify the key talent activities that each business needs to undertake based on the opportunities and challenges they are facing


Chris MacRae is Head of Talent Management within the Talent Leadership and Organisation Development Centre of Excellence at GSK. In this role, she is responsible for the development and implementation of talent strategy and approaches across all areas of the business. She is also accountable for managing the talent management processes for the most senior leadership cadre. Her main focus has been to establish an enterprise approach to understanding the demand for and supply of talent within and across the organisation, including a focus on the future capability and leadership requirements linked to the business strategy. Prior to joining GSK in 2011, Chris held the position of Global Talent Director at Unilever.

Retaining talent

Mike Rothery, Relationship Director at Equatex, discusses how incentive schemes can contribute towards attracting and retaining talent

For talent in an organisation, incentive schemes can help contribute to a sense of ownership. When employees start thinking about the company as if it’s their own, it can encourage them to think outside of the box and come up with new improved ways of doing things, rather than only focusing on their daily tasks. They are no longer only receiving a pay cheque every month; they have a stake in the business and can feel their contributions are more meaningful. Being part of an incentive plan can therefore change people’s attitudes and the employee–employer relationship.

Incentive schemes can be a strong part of an overall employee benefits package, while they can also act as a retention tool. Equatex manages several voluntary employee incentive schemes for large multinationals that have been implemented as part of a company’s HR talent retention tool. So, I think there is a direct correlation between incentive schemes and attracting and retaining talent.

Participating in a scheme encourages employees to think more about their long-term future at an organisation. For younger people, it may make them more aware of the importance of financial security. For older generations, something that brings financial security is very appealing, and schemes can help in wealth creation and planning for retirement.

At the same time, incentive schemes won’t work as a retention tool in isolation; companies also need to ensure that they are offering further development opportunities for employees, and company culture is important in contributing to a feeling of ownership. It’s also worth remembering that different countries, markets and cultures have different values, so what may work in one market might not work in another.