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SECURING EXECUTIVE TALENT NOW ESSENTIAL TO AGRIBUSINESS' FUTURE
A recent study from the McKinsey Group, a New York-based organizational consulting firm, indicates that companies are engaged in a war for executive talent that will remain a defining characteristic of their competitive landscape for years to come. Three-quarters of corporate officers surveyed by McKinsey said their companies had insufficient talent at times or were chronically talent-short across the board.

"If you were to raise this issue with any agribusiness company, I'm sure you would hear the same response," says Kelly Kincannon, president and CEO, Kincannon & Reed, Vienna, Va., whose executive search firm serves the food, agribusiness and life science industries worldwide. This is why it is important that companies seek out new executive talent, as well as retain those existing high performers who will positively impact their bottom lines now and in the future, suggests Kincannon.

It is also important that companies be more committed to growing talent within. This fell by the wayside when many agricultural companies reorganized and reduced their management layers a decade or so ago. At the same time, many cut back or even terminated their management development programs. "Now when they need high level managers, there is little, to no, bench strength," says Kincannon.

To regain this bench strength, companies need to re-establish management development programs, and work to identify the best talent in their organizations by promoting people based on merit rather than seniority. Companies also must give their people greater responsibilities earlier in their positions, hold them accountable and give them the resources necessary to be successful says Kincannon.

As agribusiness companies consider their strategies for the future, however, they are increasingly seeking new, outside talent with numerous attributes. Anthony Padgett, who manages Kincannon & Reedís Continental European practice from Lyon, France, says companies worldwide are looking for integrity, vision, intellect and knowledge of the sector. Companies also seek executives with exceptional communication skills and creativity (e.g., the ability to create new alliances or new pricing strategies).

"This sounds like a description of Superman or Wonder Woman, but to succeed at the top, one must possess most of these attributes today. I would emphasize creativity and vision, and also what is described today as emotional intelligence," says Padgett. Emotional intelligence includes self awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills.

Stewart Baker, who manages Kincannon & Reed's UK practice in London, believes that executives, particularly those in agribusiness, will need to be more able to initiate and handle change in a less certain, quicker and constantly-changing environment. He suggests that executives also will need better, more formal business education, and that they may need to take the time to refresh themselves on particular business skills. CEOs and other top executives should also have the courage to carry a vision through despite difficulties, says Baker.

Kincannon agrees. "Organizations want people who think big and consider the global view." He adds that companies are attracted to executives, new and old, who can distinguish one's company and one's product, identify niches and add value. "Companies need people who understand the ultimate customer and who can anticipate that customer's needs. But, a lot of people fail to look way down the chain," says Kincannon.

Again, when it comes to agriculture, the state of executive talent has significantly declined across all industry sectors. However, there is still quite a bit of talent in the agronomic sector due in large part to recent consolidations. "Ideally, a company would be well served to find executives who have survived the tumultuous times at some of the major companies and who understand both the trauma and the excitement of such processes," says Padgett.

"HOT" CAREER AREAS

Where are the "hot" career areas in agribusiness? Genomics is hot in the seed and biotech industries. Another area with significant demand is in e-commerce as it relates to agribusiness. This is because e-commerce requires many skill sets and functions, says Kincannon. "Courage and entrepreneurial spirit and drive, high energy, creativity and innovation will be the hallmarks of executives joining these ranks," he adds.

The need for executives with international experience is not new, but there continues to be strong demand for executives who have an intimate knowledge of offshore business practices and who understand the differences in cultures, markets, management style and other ways of conducting business, says Kincannon. He adds that these executives are characterized by their significant ability to adapt to changing conditions.

People with experience in the licensing of intellectual property, as well as the protection of intellectual property, are also in great demand. To help fill key posts in these areas, many agricultural companies are recruiting talent (particularly MBAs, lawyers and scientists) from different industries (e.g., pharmaceuticals, computer software and consumer soft goods).

RECRUITING AND RETAINING TALENT

Companies should make securing executive talent, from outside or inside the industry, their top priority, says Padgett. "There really is no more important long-term subject in ensuring a company's viability."

A company's senior managers should pay attention to the precise definition of the executive position to be filled. "The interview process must be scripted, reviewed and made a top priority for all of the participants. The process should be swift, clear and fair to ensure that the company can land the best candidates," says Padgett.

Companies also should focus on retention once they have made the hire, adds Padgett. "A significant percentage of new executive hires will not work out unless the company pays continuing attention to incorporating that person into the life and ways of the company."

"There is no substitute for at least one senior mentor and at least one peer mentor during the training," Padgett continues. "Otherwise, it's simply too easy for the new hire to become isolated, frustrated and political prey for people who would benefit from his or her failure. To ignore this reality is pure folly," he says.

Baker observes that many agricultural companies do a reasonable job of recruiting. "But, there are always some that you feel haven't considered the future with a critical eye," he says. Baker accepts that the numerous demands of today's ag sector make it difficult for companies to spend as much time as they should anticipating what they will need in the way of new leaders, let alone recruiting and training them. But, he stresses that executive talent is so critical to a company's future that a significant amount of time at the highest levels must be devoted to these efforts.

COMPETING WITH THE BROADER MARKET

Agribusiness also must recognize the broader market for talent, states Padgett. Not only will the number of 35 to 44 year olds (potential executives) decline in coming years due to demographic trends, but the nature of jobs at the top will demand even more sophisticated, trained and emotionally intelligent people. Adds Padgett, "To attract people from this shrinking pool of talent, agricultural companies will have to compete with the best of class out there. If this means the Fortune 50 or Internet start-ups, then so be it."

To retain the best talent, agribusiness may have to be "slightly more adventurous with remuneration packages," adds Baker. Standard packages may no longer be appropriate for tomorrow's executive.

Companies may also need to allow more unconventional working arrangements. "Executives will increasingly demand a better work and personal life balance," says Padgett. "'Family friendly' policies are not often taken seriously from the start, or they are marginalized over time due to the pressure to make the quarterly numbers", says Padgett. "But companies must recognize and formalize the need and demand for a better work and personal life balance. E-mail, videophones and mobile phones can make this possible by giving people the flexibility to work where and when they want - provided all sides ensure that ease of access doesn't lead to abuse of private and, particularly, family time."

Recruiting and retaining highly qualified people is not easy in any industry. But the current ag economy and the tremendous amount of change affecting this industry makes finding and keeping talent even more challenging. Given this, companies should consider that professional search firms can greatly help increase the chances of finding (and retaining) the best person for the job. "Even if a search firm finds a candidate who can deliver only one percent more to the bottom line than the best candidate found by the company acting alone, it will have paid for its fees many times over. There is no substitute for professional guidance when the situation demands it," says Padgett.

Of course, not all situations require an executive search firm's assistance--for example, when the talent pool is very small, and all of the candidates are known to the executives of the hiring company. "But, for the vast majority of searches," says Padgett, "the stakes are too high and the competition for talent too intense to proceed without guidance." AM

 

Lynn Grooms is a freelance writer located in Middleton, Wis.


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