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The current crisis presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to acquire top talent. Will your organization be ready and able to seize it?

Generally speaking, organizations have been dealing with the 2020 pandemic in three ways:

  1. Fighting for survival: These companies are in an existential battle to stay in business.
  2. Managing through the crisis: These companies have been seriously impacted but they are managing to stay afloat.
  3. Thriving in the crisis: These companies are providing products and services to help deal with the crisis and, therefore, are in pretty great shape.

Unfortunately, organizations fighting for survival have little choice but to consider job cuts. This is tragic and not the fault of these organizations or the people in them.

Most organizations are in the second category, impacted by the crisis but managing through it nonetheless. Not ideal, but they are in the fortunate position of being able to plan their way out of crisis. Unfortunately, data shows most of these organizations are considering workforce reduction in the coming months.

In my experience, this is often a big mistake. Reducing the workforce in a crisis can lead to loss of top talent, which is very difficult to replace when the crisis is over. Instead, I recommend stepping back and undertaking a strategic workforce plan, looking out at least 12 months. Projecting the number of employees and the skills you will need in the future allows your organization to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to a crisis and often shows a good business case for keeping your workforce intact.

When Times Are Tough, Invest in People

For example, when I joined Accenture as a new partner, the firm had just separated from Arthur Andersen and rebranded from its previous incarnation, Andersen Consulting. Then, literally out of the blue, the firm was plunged into a crisis as the terrible events of  September 11, 2001, unfolded.

The next day, our clients paused or canceled many of the projects we were working on. This was a blow on top of the heartrending loss of several employees and clients in the World Trade Center, where Accenture was holding a conference that morning. Suddenly, we had a shocked and grieving workforce and thousands of consultants not earning fees. No one could have planned for this tragedy and disruption to business. It was an unprecedented challenge for the company leadership.

I participated in global leadership conference calls to decide how to address the challenges. The amount of uncertainty was significant: Would the business stoppage get worse? How long would it last? Were we headed for a depression? There were no ready answers. However, one thing was certain: Andersen Consulting was renowned for attracting and developing top talent globally. At Accenture, we carried this core value forward from our Arthur Andersen days. The firm made enormous investments of time and money in finding, acquiring, and developing talent, as this was the firm’s core offering to clients.

The question put to leadership was: Do we find a way to retain this talent during business disruption, or do we reduce headcount to preserve profit? It’s the same question organizations face today. It did not take long for us to settle on the right way forward: We would take the hit to profits and hold on to our talent, using the time to invest in more training and development to keep people busy for the foreseeable future and reap the benefits down the line.

A Market Full of Top Talent

We also recognized an opportunity: Many of our clients were shedding jobs at a great rate, and some terrific talent was suddenly available. With permission from these clients, many Accenture offices around the world embarked on a modest but targeted effort to assess the available talent and begin recruiting people with skills the firm knew it would need, thanks to its strategic workforce plan. This effort proved to be spectacularly successful, as the downturn was a V-shaped one and business picked up again by the end of 2001. Not only had we retained our talent, but we had also added a new pool of experienced people to our growing firm. Unfortunately, most organizations did not follow the same path; they regretted it sorely, losing talent that took years to replace.

Which brings us to today: The 2020 pandemic is a similar crisis to 9/11 in that it came on suddenly; was not something organizations could anticipate; and is a tragedy, with hundreds of thousands having lost their lives to date. Fear and anxiety are at all-time highs. Once again, organizations that can manage their way through the crisis could easily make the knee-jerk decision to let talent go to preserve profit. While completely understandable, is it the right course of action? Probably not.

If your organization is fortunate enough to be in a position to manage its way through the crisis (or is an essential business and is thriving in the pandemic), you have a unique opportunity to craft a strategic workforce plan, look to the near future, and make an investment that could pay off handsomely, like it did for Accenture nearly 20 years ago. Will you take the opportunity, or will it pass you by?

Tim Ringo has more than 30 years of experience as a senior executive in HR consulting and HR software. Author of Solving the Productivity Puzzle (Kogan Page August 2020), Tim is also a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD.

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