The ‘Swiss Army Knife’ Approach to Talent

As firms try to pivot to brand new businesses, leaders may assume they need to hire new specialists. But do they?

With bars and restaurants closed and liquor stores drastically cutting back on inventory, the popular but small specialty liquor marker needed a plan to stay afloat fast. A pivot to producing hand sanitizer made sense, and the company knew it had both the infrastructure and distribution in place to make that happen.

But there was on big question: Where would it find the people to do this? It would need procurement specialists who could find the right supplies. Then sales people to get the product into the right hands.  

All over the world, companies are scrambling to find ways to navigate through the coronavirus outbreak. For many, the challenge isn’t finding a new business model; rather, it’s finding existing talent in its workforce capable of pivoting to new roles and responsibilities. The assumption for many is to search outside its own workforce—at a considerable and HR efforts. But in this crisis, some firms are discovering the answer can come from within.

“People are much more flexible than they or their managers assume,” says David Vied, global sector leader for medical devices and diagnostics with Korn Ferry. “And in a public crisis like this their desire to be productive emboldens them to try something new.”

That said, leaders can’t take a plug-and-play approach to talent, and need to conduct close assessment tests of workers to see who is the most agile and receptive to such changes. “It’s not just a matter of skills, but also of learning agility, motivation, and personality traits, among other factors,” says Nathan Blain, global solutions leader of organizational strategy at Korn Ferry. For his part, Vied calls this process of finding people who can master multiple jobs uncovering the “swiss army knife of talent.”

By any name, though, pivoting talent today is a lot different than the management rotations made famous by General Electric and others. Many of the pivots employees are being asked to make amid the virus crisis, for instance, have less to do with learning different functions and operations within an organization and more to do with learning an entirely new role within an entirely new business. Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, says the focus is less on hierarchy and more on collaborating.  “Business changes so rapidly that people need to be able to acquire new skills,” she says. “The same person who is leading one area may be a contributor reporting into a peer on another project.”

That kind of change requires a mix of emotional intelligence and intrinsic motivation that not everyone possesses. Uncovering who has the right mix and who doesn’t requires deep assessment work, including analyzing the competencies, traits, drivers, and experiences that makeup the KF4D personality assessment, for instance, as well as factors like adaptability, comfort with risk, and more. 

The key to pivoting talent, says Blain, is to make sure the pivot is realistic. A financial analyst, for instance, is more likely to envision success in a new data scientist role than an employee-facing benefits representative in the human resources department. “Identity is a big part of the equation,” says Blain. “Remember that people have to reframe their view of themselves in a pivot. Their identity as a professional will change, and they have to want to embrace their new one. You don’t want the pivot to seem like a bridge too far.”