EY's talent director on how to develop senior leadership skills

How does HR encourage senior management to reflect and improve?

EY's talent director on how to develop senior leadership skills

It’s not surprising that one of HR’s top learning and development professionals began life as a teacher. Elisa Colak, Oceania talent director at EY, still has a burning passion to bring out the best in people and share knowledge. Often teaching and learning specialists want to arrive with a solution in the bag, to have all the answers. However, as Colak discovered, that’s not true and it was something she needed to unlearn when she moved into L&D.

“My greatest learning has been through my mistakes and my haste to provide solutions. There have been times when I haven’t quite hit the mark. I came in with a view that I had to have the answers [which wasn’t the case]. Getting feedback on that was very difficult but the reality is that is when I have learnt the most,” Colak says.

HR professionals need to do a lot of listening to establish the mindset and thinking of individuals; where they are in their growth and development – and then asking the right questions to help that person discover what it is that they don’t know about themselves, Colak says.

This is especially true in leadership training.

Research from the Australian Institute of Managements shows that performance and productivity are stymied by inefficient and under-skilled managers, with 83% of employees rating their leadership skills as average or below average. Colak says the biggest challenge for HR in developing a senior leadership team is getting them to recognise that “they don’t know what they don’t know”.

“We need to get better as L&D professionals at diagnosing the problem and helping leaders recognise the problem which we can then work together to co-create a solution,” she says.

Having something to offer that a senior leader needs but either doesn’t know they need, or they know they need and they’re looking for a solution, is a way in. The best approach is not prescriptive, such as: “We think you need some strategic training as you’re a bit short-sighted in how you go about things.” It’s inquisitive. Ask questions says Colak, such as: How are you doing? How’s your team? What’s working for you, what’s not working for you?

“You may not have an answer going into the conversation, but you have a willingness to listen and understand the problem. Then you can present ideas as suggestions, such as: Have you thought about that? Would this make a difference? Providing some good stories about what has worked for other senior leaders is also a powerful tool,” Colak says.

It’s also HR’s responsibility to hold up a mirror to the business and its leaders, she adds. To say, here’s some 360 feedback; here’s some results from our people and culture survey that indicate there are areas for growth in the business. How you have good, productive conversations is by developing a rapport with the CEO and the C-suite team.

Obviously, this will depend on personalities and the willingness of a CEO to be vulnerable and listen to criticism, however nicely it’s packaged.

It may be a reason why learning and development is often outsourced – so that internal relationships are kept friction-free.

Colak doesn’t subscribe to this approach.

“I think the best thing we can do at EY is to start with ourselves and the relationships we have with our senior leaders and help them uncover what they need and then we will provide. If we can determine what that solution is, we can help take that pain away,” she says. “As an HR professional, you have to back yourself and your expertise. You shouldn’t be having these conversations unless you come well-equipped. In L&D we have to be learning and developing ourselves as well as our senior leaders. We are leaders in our field for a reason. The CEO has appointed us for that reason, so why would we hold back when we have something that they don’t have that they need? It’s wrong.”

EY is also heavily invested in developing its current workforce and the leaders of tomorrow. There is no doubt that the war for talent has made critical the need to look inside organisations as well as outside. Colak says it’s a big focus for her team to explore how they leverage internal expertise, build confidence, build knowledge and business acumen. The company recently introduced a “career concierge” into the talent team expressly to help people discover what is available to them at EY. Transferring across some of the latent talent could help align with skills currently lacking in the business.

Another solution to upskill the workforce has been self-service learning, accessible at any time. EY has introduced a badge system that has a learning element, experience element and application element to each badge and applies to three skill categories: technical, leadership and business. Employees can dip in whenever they want and work their way through from basic up to platinum level.

Matching increased employee expectations and reality will continue to be a challenge for HR, Colak says.

“We have a generation coming in that has very high expectations of the workplace and we have to be all things to all people,” she says. “We have to provide wellbeing, support, benefits, development. The demands are only going to increase. For HR to remain relevant, we have to read the environment and respond accordingly. Agility is going to be something that we have to be very good at.”

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