Retaining Human Capital

By Ennio Vita-Finzi

Disappointed by her employer’s increased reliance on impersonal electronic communications and a new policy of doing more with less, a friend of mine took early retirement after 20 years of service. When she had originally joined the multinational, her previous 25 years’ worth of practical communications experience had been the main reason her new employers wanted her. Her hands-on people skills and the ability to build personal relationships had been considered important assets and had, over time, developed many valuable and faithful clients for the firm.

The reality of the company’s push to cut overhead expenses by sub-contracting to third-party suppliers now meant that real-life one-on-one expertise was no longer valued within the company. On announcing her decision to retire, she was not debriefed and her departure details were handled by email.

Another of my business contacts was originally hired by a global corporation for his years of expertise in international business development. He brought to the firm a network of valuable relationships on three continents, as well as superb multilingual people skills. As a result of a restructuring phase, his new boss decided that a centralized CRM program would result in a leaner operation, believing that international clients would easily adjust to the new reality. When the executive argued that an impersonal electronic program could not fully replace human relationships, he was let go.

Seductive immediacy

We are living in a time when management is seduced by the quick solutions offered by internet-related communications, resulting in blind reliance on electronic sources of information. The appeal of immediate results and the easy availability of volumes of supposedly factual information is difficult to ignore and executives do not have time for in-depth evaluations. The result is that quick, often superficial conclusions always trump time-consuming facts, and valuable human capital investments are lost

The fix is in

This ‘quick-fix’ approach is being taken in many areas: for example, when hiring new executives, candidates are judged on their perceived ability to jump into a new job and quickly show results. Often these new hires have to handle work that was previously done by two or three long-term employees. Many of those “lifers” had invested time and effort to succeed at their jobs, including devising new ways to handle routine work, streamlining reports and building client relationships. However, because of today’s preference for doing more with less, long-term middle-aged executives are now perceived to be an expense that can easily be replaced by a few technologically-savvy youngsters. In the minds of many of today’s leaders, getting rid of expensive employees helps the bottom line without considering how much their years of experience may have contributed to a company’s past success.

Automatic translations

The translation world is another good example. Google and its competitors offer immediate machine translation into multiple languages which, to any linguist, is often atrocious or at best hilarious. While machine translation is here to stay, it only takes one wrongly-translated word to completely change the message of a text. While a quick translation is sufficient to provide a general idea of a given message, when a company’s official policy is being publicized globally, or a company president wants his firm’s clients to know his thoughts, the message needs to be absolutely correct in all languages. Unfortunately time-constrained unilingual executives often believe that translation is just a matter of replacing a source word or expression with the corresponding foreign word. They do not realise that there can be dozens of ways of saying the same thing in another language. This is why professional translators and revisers despair when syntax, grammar, colloquialisms and cultural and regional nuances are ignored or overlooked in favour of speed.

Seniors to the rescue

Today’s management needs to recognize the wealth of grey-hair expertise that long-term employees can share with their younger colleagues. Seniors, who have already had the time to try out various ideas, can now have an opportunity to help younger generations learn to appreciate and benefit from past experience.

It can be exasperating to listen to a senior start a conversation with “in my day we used to…” but it is worth remembering that Mark Twain once said that “there are no new ideas – people simply take an old idea, give it a turn and make a new combination.”

Fortunately, current social studies involving groups of seniors who mentor younger executives show that the communication expertise of the past is often appreciated and not entirely lost. While it is true that our ageing population often has a problem adjusting to technology (seniors often have difficulty in learning to cut and paste, to text in real time or search for information online), most recognize that technology has made it easier to transmit messages. Studies show that computer use by seniors is skyrocketing and therefore, if they can adjust, surely younger executives can also learn to take advantage of the experience of past generations by finding a willing mentor.

Mentoring

Fortunately mentoring can be a two-way street. Enlightened managers are now encouraging young professionals to seek out someone with experience to mentor them, perhaps in exchange for advice on current technology. Both parties benefit and often discover interesting ways to improve their day-to-day activities. In addition, for seniors who are no longer striving to compete in the business world, there is the added pleasure of guiding a new talent to succeed.

Two-way mentorship requires savvy managers to broker it, but with a strong commitment from both parties the end result can fulfill both, and provide unexpected results. The lessons, ideas, information, connections and opportunities that mentors provide each other can be invaluable to a company’s performance – and its bottom line.

Ennio Vita-Finzi is a former Trade Commissioner, banker, service sector entrepreneur and College and University lecturer. Retired, he now writes and often mentors others.

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