Take charge of talent – Bill Huffaker of General Motors on diversity

15 December 2015

Talent management is a key part of business strategy for any large organisation but there are some that have taken it a step further by recognising its importance to the long-term growth plans of their business. Attracting and retaining the right skills in the finance function – and every other part of the organisation – is central to Bill Huffaker’s role at General Motors. Jim Banks speaks to him about the company’s talent plan.

People are the lifeblood of any organisation no matter what industry sector it inhabits and many companies are facing a potential shortage of skills in some vital areas. The competition for talent is intense, and companies have to develop a keen understanding of what motivates suitable candidates for key positions and how to keep them engaged with the business in the long run.

Bill Huffaker, global director of talent at General Motors (GM), has the task of ensuring that a company with a history that spans more than a century brings in the right skills to maintain its growth on the global playing field. The needs of the company are constantly evolving and the needs of its new recruits are changing too.

"At GM, the challenges we face are similar to many other large organisations. There is global competition for talent that is especially severe in STEM areas - science, technology, engineering and mathematics," says Huffaker. "Generally speaking, however, if a company can put money into it then the problem is not insurmountable, although you can no longer just post a job and hope that the right person applies. You have to advertise and then woo talent by offering opportunities for development.

"The right strategy depends on taking a long-term view that allows the employer to expose people to a variety of opportunities. Millennials in particular want a 'tour of duty' that encompasses a variety of experiences. GM is a finance and engineering company and many people who come to us like our vehicles, but they also like our global scale and the opportunities that provides," he adds.

GM is the company behind household names such as Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, Isuzu, Opel and Vauxhall. It takes a workforce of over 200,000 employees to keep GM rolling and the scope of skills on which the business relies ranges from designing and engineering to marketing and finance.

Although it needs a lot of people to drive the business, GM has a clearly defined approach to finding the right talent. It does not simply cast the net wide and see what gets caught. Its targeted recruitment strategy is based on a clear understanding of the specific skills it needs.

"When we hire, we recruit around 2,500 graduates and interns. We screen them on campus and we invite them to a two-day even at our headquarters in Detroit, and we talk to them about what life is like here. They get to meet senior leaders from the company. We decide who to hire very quickly, and we give them offers right then and there. We are busting the stereotypes about GM being a slow-moving company or Detroit being an undesirable place to live and work. We are honest about the company and about the opportunities candidates will have," Huffaker explains.

"We are very selective about the college campuses on which we recruit, for example, and we have a clear model based on a rotational programme of 18-24 months that takes new hires through finance as well as the rest of the company. Research has shown that millennials usually stay at a company for only 2.6 years, so we must constantly work with the people we hire to offer travel opportunities and career development, which is why our rotational programme works well."

Tours of duty

In many parts of GM, but particularly in the finance function, a broad understanding of the company's many facets is extremely valuable.

"The rotational programme we have in place not only benefits the individuals, but also the finance function. We end up with people who have more experience and who know the business better. They have collected a portfolio of experiences, which is what they want - as well as opportunities for promotion," Huffaker remarks.

GM's talent strategy benefits the finance function partly because finance is intimately involved in defining how the company approaches talent management. Chuck Stevens, executive vice-president and chief financial officer, is directly involved in talent strategy planning.

"Every year, we review our talent management strategy and finance, HR and group managers are all involved. The strategy is reviewed by committee and recalibrated. Each business CFO presents to Chuck [Stevens], who in turn presents to the CEO, who presents to the board. Also, every employee is reviewed once a year, so we are always looking at talent at the individual level as well as the business level. I've only been at GM for three years, but that process has always been in places," Huffaker says.

An equally rigorous approach is taken to tracking the development of employees and forecasting the company's talent needs.

"There is a strong trend towards talent analytics. For instance, we look at tracking a group of high-potential employees and we have developed a set of metrics to monitor promotions from that pool. If not enough of those people we have identified as having high potential are being promoted from that pool then it might show us that we are not identifying people's potential well enough," Huffaker says.

"We also track other key metrics such as retirement rates so that we can plan our talent needs in line with the growth of the company. We need to be certain that we can plan for the future in terms of the talent that we need. We are always tracking success factors for our employees using a system of record. We have also integrated our finance and accounting systems more closely with our CRM solutions, for example, and that could be extended to our talent management. Success in talent management is all about development and knowing your employees."

Richness in diversity
When Mary Barra took over as GM's CEO in January 2014 - becoming the first female chief executive of a major global car manufacturer - she brought with her a new set of priorities, and in terms of talent management, these included ramping up efforts to promote diversity. The company already had chief diversity officer Ken Barrett [see 'Single-minded about diversity', right] but Barra wanted the company to do more.

"We have filled many openings with diversity candidates, and diversity can simplistically be defined in terms of gender and ethnicity - both of which are factors that we track carefully - though it also includes other groups such as LGBT people and veterans," says Huffaker.

"We also have resource groups that people can join to sponsor the development of diversity within the company. One example is the group for women in the manufacturing part of the business. Diversity is something that can be improved by radical change, but some issues are deeply systemic and need to be addressed with long strategies. As an example, we might tackle unconscious bias - such as the egregious belief that women cannot be good at science or mathematics - that can often be a factor when selection or promotion decisions are made. Even a slight bias can make a big difference over time, so we have to make a big effort to tackle it."

Diversity is a key element of training across all divisions of the business and there is a specific focus on unintentional bias.

"I show a video of the kinds of things people say that show unconscious bias that may seem quite innocent on the surface but they make a big difference to people's perceptions. It is the kind of thing that shows the importance of having a short-term and a long-term multidisciplinary approach to diversity," Huffaker explains.

"As a result of the company's efforts, there has been a lot of improvement. Gender diversity in the finance function looks pretty good, but in STEM and in manufacturing there is more of an issue in terms of gender. In finance there is a subculture that can make it feel like a man's game - it is very competitive and attracts assertive people and, therefore, fits a male gender stereotype, just as HR would fit a female stereotype, but we have shown that we can break out of that kind of thinking."

Regardless of what industry it may operate in, any organisation can drive meaningful change in its talent strategy by looking at GM's example, where long-term planning, engagement with employees and providing a broad spectrum of experience are the key factors for success.