Talent management special report: Bagging talent

When Kellie Rixon became head of people and development at hotel group De Vere Collection 18 months ago, the situation she faced was dire. The business was losing a massive 70-80% of new recruits in their first 90 days, HR was spending all its time recruiting and, unsurprisingly, the company’s recruitment costs were going through the roof.

Any semblance of people development was long gone as HR staff were firefighting to fill vacancies, and there was also a risk that high staff turnover could be detrimental to customer service.

“We were a large, cumbersome business with a very corporate feel,” says Rixon, who has been with De Vere for four years. “HR had a reputation as a ‘department of ‘no’s’, serving a policing function within the organisation. People would say: ‘No, you can’t do that, because HR might find out’. I needed to change that perception.”

As people development was considered to be a low priority, there was no real talent management in the business and little movement between roles at De Vere Collection’s 12 luxury hotels. Where people did move between roles internally, it was usually by word-of-mouth referral.

Rixon’s appointment coincided with a major structural and strategic shake-up of the De Vere group, following a change in ownership. In September 2006, the privately owned Alternative Hotels Group (AHG) acquired De Vere for £724m, and set about restructuring and refocusing the various businesses, creating De Vere Collection as the group’s luxury hotel brand.

Strategy

As part of the wider change in business strategy, Rixon’s first priority was to reinstate people development. Robert Cook, De Vere Collection’s chief executive, brought 250 senior managers together for a ‘values launch’ to define a new mission for the business and to translate that for employees.

Two key messages emerged: ‘This is the life’, a guest-oriented slogan aimed at creating an outstanding customer experience at all De Vere properties and ‘I belong’, an internal message to build loyalty and commitment among employees.

These messages were then introduced into the business by the ‘key influencers’ – bar, restaurant and leisure centre managers – to all staff through a combination of literature and face-to-face sessions. “Everyone from pot washers to sales directors had a four-hour session about the values of the business, so that they understood the new direction and how they could contribute to it,” says Rixon.

Once the business had defined the employee behaviours required to deliver the new strategy, it began putting new talent management processes in place. It was important for Rixon to get a real picture of the company’s existing talent pool and how it might be developed to encourage loyalty and enhance performance.

To do this, the company purchased a ‘talent toolbox’ from talent retention specialist Learnpurple. It uses the web-based service for competency/skill reviews, appraisals, succession planning, employee feedback and training needs analysis.

Employees’ skills are mapped against roles, which are in turn based on the organisation’s value set. For example, a restaurant manager’s skills might be mapped against the values of charm and originality, which are deemed desirable in this role. ‘Succession functionality’ helps to identify what roles people are capable of, along with their own aspirations.

Finally, the appraisal process automatically generates pre-appraisal forms which both employee and managers complete online, forming the basis for a face-to-face appraisal.

The introduction of the new approach constitutes a major change for both managers and employees and was part of a wider strategic change in the business. Inevitably, there has been some resistance.

“The company has been through some major transitions in the past four years,” says Rixon. “There’s a tendency for people to think: ‘Here we go again.’ You can’t fight that, but it means you have to deliver on what you promise every time.

“With the talent toolbox, there’s greater accountability for people’s development, so if an employee agrees with their manager that they could be bar manager in 12 months’ time and it doesn’t happen, they now have a language to take issue with that.”

But it’s not just employees who are seeing the benefit of a more robust approach to talent management. The business is also reaping the rewards, reducing its 90-day labour turnover measure from 70-80% to 30-40%, and slashing its recruitment costs from £400 to £500 per head of department recruited, to about £150 – in part because of the organisation’s increased ability to recruit from within. The company’s recruitment practices are also now more efficient, drawing on the employee values and behaviours approach used by the toolbox.

Next move

So what’s next for De Vere Collection? Rixon says it will be more of the same, but she’ll be drilling down into the data to be more specific about people’s development needs. The company is also creating high-potential development programmes, not just for top management, but for particular pockets of employees – for example, chefs or heads of department.

Although De Vere Collection has made considerable progress towards its target of recruiting 60% of managers internally, Rixon has her own measure of success. “We haven’t appointed a general manager [of a property] from within for a very long time,” she says. “It will be a real benchmark for the success of our talent management programme if we are able to ‘home-grow’ a general – or deputy general – manager.”

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