How to Hit the Talent Bull’s-Eye

Photo By
Adam Rossi

Tune your bow with corporate culture.

In 2010, during the mad scramble from the nadir of the Great Recession, renowned business leader Alfred O. Weber, recently retired, strode into a hotel conference room in Detroit.

In January of that year, Weber had been named co-president and CEO of MANN+HUMMEL GmbH, a global leader in the manufacture of oil, fuel, and air filters. Weber was in Michigan visiting executives from MANN+HUMMEL USA’s location in Portage.

Among the team of executives in the conference room that day was Kurk Wilks, then director of business development for MANN+HUMMEL USA. “It was essentially a meet-and-greet with the new CEO,” Wilks recalls. He and his colleagues had put together a 12-inch binder full of helpful statistics and accomplishments. “We started presenting all aspects of the business—financials, how we were growing the business, our recovery plans.”

For two hours, Wilks and his colleagues regaled their new CEO with tales of success, corporate efficiencies, internal and external synergies, and more. “He sat there, stayed focused, and listened to everything,” Wilks said.

At the end of this marathon session, Weber asked if everyone had finished with their presentations. They had. Weber stood and requested an easel with paper. One was provided. He approached the easel, drew a circle, and said, “If this represents a company, what’s the single most important thing it needs?” Weber asked his executives. They looked at each other and scratched their heads. “Happy customers?” Wilks proffered. Somebody from operations piped up, “Great operations?” Weber smiled and said, “You’re getting there.”

“Inside the circle he wrote, ‘People’ and ‘Talent,’” Wilks recalls. “He said, ‘Start with that. Next time I visit, make me a presentation on that, and then we’ll talk about the rest of it.’ Then he said he had to catch a plane and walked out.”

“That was my first wake-up call about the importance of talent,” says Wilks, most recently vice president and general manager of MANN+HUMMEL USA.

These days, talent acquisition and retention remain a primary focus not only at MANN+HUMMEL USA but across industries.

“The bull’s-eye is talent,” says Ron Kitchens, CEO of Southwest Michigan First, the nonprofit economic development agency serving the seven-county region in the lower left corner of Michigan. “My passion is getting young people—emerging leaders—to move to this community, stay in this community, and graduate from Western Michigan University (WMU), Kalamazoo College, or Kalamazoo Valley Community College.”

Kitchens’s question for area business leaders: “How are YOU developing young talent?”

How They Do It

Wilks said the recruiting philosophy at MANN+HUMMEL USA has evolved since that eye-opening presentation in 2010. “It’s a manufacturing company, and its associates on the floor, the trade workers, tend to be homegrown,” Wilks said. That said, “It has grown by a factor of four in recent years, and the team has gone to other cities like Gary, Indiana, to attract workers in certain trades. It wraps its hiring strategy around a good set of values—leadership, teamwork, excellence, and trust.”

Wilks said MANN+HUMMEL USA also works closely with WMU, where the company “aggressively recruits,” offers numerous internships, and demonstrates the career-defining benefits of joining the company. “As soon as new hires come in, the company gets them off to one of its sites around the world,” he said. “If they choose to stay in Kalamazoo, that’s great. But MANN+HUMMEL shows them it’s really an international network.”

Sarah Mansberger, a partner at Southwest Michigan First, offers a 40,000-foot perspective on talent acquisition in the area. “I see talent coming in from a lot of different organizations—mentorship programs and Leadership Kalamazoo, for example. One of the things I’m interested to see is the focus on strength-based leadership. We’re not starting from a deficit mentality in assessing talent, but rather from a place of strength: Let’s identify what someone can do well and magnify and grow those traits into their strengths and other skill sets.”

This notion of individual development is a prime consideration among the region’s corporate elite. Shawn Premer, chief human resources officer at Consumers Credit Union, said her business tries hard to move employees up the company’s internal ladder. “Our average hire age is 22 years old,” she said. “Our average age overall is only 35. Ours is a really young population of employees. If we’re not focused on their development, they’re leaving for somewhere else.”

Premer said the company takes a three-pronged approach to employee development:

  • Passion: including leadership development.
  • Purpose: allowing individuals to grow in their roles in the company.
  • Strengths: encouraging employees to take an assignment within the organization.

The strategy has proven effective. “Our turnover rate is less than 10 percent, and the reason is our investment in employee development,” Premer said.

Mansberger also stressed the importance of keeping the job interesting. “The question is, ‘How do you keep people’s professional quest for growth alive?’” she said. “The answer is getting people engaged in roles where they can experiment, where they can fail forward. This is common regardless of the type of industry. It’s also a cultural shift for a lot of companies: How can we embrace a more agile mindset, how can we develop projects that give our talent a chance to grow and shine? It can have an effect on how you arrange your work.”

Wilks agrees, adding that the strategy applies to workers of any age as long as the effort is tailored to the individual. “I remember sitting down to talk with one person who was getting ready to retire in two years,” Wilks says. “It was the best discussion I’ve had with an employee. I decided to keep her on as a consultant. I wouldn’t have known about her ability to help the company if I hadn’t taken the time to have a real conversation with her. This isn’t an approach that would work for a 20-year-old or a 35-year-old. You have to understand what they want in a personal discussion and then act on what you learn.”

A Changing Workforce

“When I started in human resources, it was called ‘personnel,’” recalls Premer. “It’s really interesting to see the dynamics shift. We’re hiring people younger than we were when we entered the workforce. That idea that your parents described where you work 20 years and then get your pension—that all blew up. People today are hungrier. They move faster. They learn quickly and we give them that opportunity. Older office managers may work with a financial representative who is 26 years old. That’s an interesting dynamic. They’re very educated, they work hard, and they’re not afraid to ask questions. The overall dynamic now is so collaborative when [the younger generations] are challenged, working with the team around them, asking questions, and getting smarter and smarter.”

As Wilks points out, even change is changing. Wilks, 47, points to a 28-year-old MANN+HUMMEL USA purchasing manager as representative of this new generation of whip-smart workers. “They can adapt so fast compared to how we can,” he says. “I talk about having to prepare them for changes in business cycles, but in reality I have to prepare myself. According to the old way of doing things, I’d set up a meeting with ‘Brad’ to discuss options. But when I reach out to ‘Brad,’ he’s already collaborated with four other people and is way ahead of me in preparing for change. Change has been wrapped around him his entire career. People are coming out of college as Navy SEALs compared to what I did.”

“Change is so fast everywhere,” he said. “The fight for talent is everywhere. It’s about creating a vision of what the company is and wrapping that vision around our values. We look at the young generation of people coming in and give them something to relate to. ‘Brad’ deals with a $258 million budget per year. His managers knew almost immediately he was ripe with ability to take that position and weren’t afraid to give him that opportunity.”

Pulling Together a Unified Vision

“Trust is the one thing that changes everything, regardless of gender, regardless of age,” Wilks says. “We set priorities and ask everybody to contribute. We say, ‘What are the three things you can do to move the ball forward?’ We need people to think about the company holistically, to be an expert in your area, yes, but we also teach them they can contribute to all areas of the company.”

Premer agrees. “Having an aligned vision of where you’re headed is so important,” she said. Three years ago, Consumers Credit Union stopped handing out employee scorecards. “Now we are able to focus on the same outcomes, the same measurables of customer satisfaction and operations. We hire
and fire based on values; that’s what we’re measuring. Now
we ask, ‘Are you achieving what you need to achieve in order to help us reach our objectives?’ Our success for the last 24 years is a pretty good indication that we’re steering the ship
in the right direction.”

Mansberger is on the same page. “Start with purpose. Emphasize that clarity of purpose over and over again—both individual and organizational purpose,” she said. And authentically assess how employees implement that purpose. “When you have measures on every level, from a neutral third party, the focus on purpose is not going away, it’s only getting stronger. It is imperative to put purpose at the core of how you build your company, how you attract talent. Purpose goes deeper than mission. It taps into individual drive.”

Wilks, too, wants to move beyond the traditional corporate strategies. “Mission-vision-values is a circle, and you put talent at the center,” he said. “As an organization, before you can develop a mission, you need to develop your values, your DNA, what drives you, what’s going to steer others. Start with values—things like trust, leadership, respect, and integrity. These words have meaning. And these values apply whether you’re 62 and thinking about retirement or if you’re 22 and thinking about a career. Then have fun, and feel part of something that makes you feel special.”

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