Want to find—and retain—top talent? Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett says it’s time to broaden your worldview.
It’s fitting that Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s latest book, Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets: Why Women are the Solution
(Harvard Business Review Press), starts with a story out of Brazil. Hewlett, who lived in Brazil for two years while working toward her Ph.D. from the London School of Economics, “was fascinated by the interplay between economic growth and social justice in what was then a miracle economy—but one with a great deal of inequality and a huge chasm between male and female roles.”
With the calendar slowly closing in on the end of the first decade of the 2000s, the Brazilian division of Goldman Sachs was in the midst of a serious growth spurt—but the company president was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to find the talent necessary to meet the demand as the company grew…and grew…and grew. The traditional way to fill open jobs in emerging markets: pluck prospects from the U.S. and Europe. But Hewlett says it’s time to upend that practice and, instead, put a new pool of talent to work: local women.
Fifty-five percent of college graduates across emerging markets are female, Hewlett says, and they’re hungry for the work. She notes that the “rates of ambition” are much higher in countries such as China and India than in the U.K. or U.S.
“It’s an amazingly impressive talent pool, and it’s a well-kept secret,” she says. “Entire books are written on India and China, [yet] women aren’t mentioned.”
Hewlett, an economist who has long studied work, attracting and retaining talented employees and gender issues, is founding president of the Manhattan-based Center for Work-Life Policy (CWLP). Originally called the National Parenting Association, the group was renamed in 2004 after Hewlett bolstered its mission with the “Hidden Brain Drain Task Force.” The task force—now 67 companies strong—studies and works to improve the way companies find and retain talent. The companies are “big players...[that] collectively employ four million people” and, Hewlett says, “are interested in talent innovation...and how to successfully utilize all of the new streams of talent in the marketplace.”
Hewlett was determined to make sure the Hidden Brain Drain Task Force fostered a global conversation. Though the task force kicked off with a U.S. focus and, quickly, expanded to Europe, it went global two years ago.
“It was very exciting,” she says.
Now about 25 percent of the task force’s companies are headquartered outside of the U.S. and, to underpin the commitment to international markets and cultural differences, the task force has also been working with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
One of the task force’s flagship projects: “Winning the talent war in the American market, specifically looking at the role of women,” Hewlett says. “As you might imagine, all of this is very close to my heart.”
The task force’s 2010 study, The Battle for Female Talent in Emerging Markets, helped Hewlett and her colleagues realize that it was time to let the world’s business leaders know they were acting a bit myopic. Make that extremely myopic.
“I think the biggest surprise of the study was how impressive the female talent pool is in the new growth market [including Brazil, Russia, India, China, and the United Arab Emirates],” Hewlett says. “I think back in the days that I was doing my Ph.D., for sure, and to some extent today, scholars and policy people in the U.S. tended to think of third-world women as very backward, right? That they are illiterate, that they’re oppressed, that they are the victims of patriarchy, and the best one could hope for is a little bit of micro financing. But that is only a piece of the reality.”
The rest of the reality is that women many thought were in need of rescue are the ones who can do the rescuing. They’re flooding careers traditionally thought of as the realm of, mostly, white guys from North America and Europe.
Hewlett has a more-than-impressive resumé and a stack of degrees. So, yes, that adds up to a rather intimidating first few minutes of conversation with her—or, at least, the perception that she’ll be intimidating. As Hewlett speaks about the task force and her work, it’s clear that she’s genuinely excited to help women get the chance to change the way the world works.
Though Hewlett’s life may seem far removed from the women she now focuses on helping, it’s not. When she was growing up in the mining valleys of Wales, the unemployment rate was 38 percent.
“I do understand what it feels like being in that community where there are no opportunities,” she says.
“Emerging market women, themselves, are delighted by this work because they’re fed up with being invisible,” Hewlett says.
And they’re also excited to set the record straight.
“[India has a] long-distinguished history of women in leadership,” she says. “They want these facts to be known in the world, because they don’t want to be thought of as backward on gender issues.”
In fact, the task force discovered that, not only are many of these countries not backward on these issues, they’re on the cutting edge of human resources and other practices. Of course, that’s a drop easier when you’re starting from scratch instead of trying to rework systems that have been in place for decades.
One of the stars on the HR front is a major industrial conglomerate in India that has an on-ramping program to help women get back into the workforce after taking a break.
“It’s a sophisticated program with, now, a track record of success,” Hewlett says. “It’s the rare company in the U.S. that proactively reaches out and encourages these folks to rejoin [the workplace]. It is a very smart thing to do. It’s the rare thing to do.”
Another practice Hewlett has witnessed in India could, she says, be put into practice without much difficulty in the U.S. and elsewhere: Extended families are involved “in the career trajectory of their key female talent.” Family events help convince the extended family—particularly the in-laws—“of the success of the company, where the company intended going in terms of its growth path, the kind of careers that their daughters or daughters-in-law might have ahead of them, the kinds of benefits that they were growing. In other words it was a kind of…marketing job to the extended family.”
And, in a country where 58 percent of professional women have a household that includes their elders, making nice with the older generation can really help make things easier for the employee.
“That’s a big learning thing for an employer because that helps you figure out how to retrain your female workers,” Hewlett says. “It might not have dawned on you that that’s a very powerful way in. Get that extended family on her side. But it clearly is.”
Hewlett thinks that can be a powerful tool for helping women in cultures which tend toward the traditional on women’s roles.
“In particular [in] the Hispanic and the Asian communities in the U.S., that kind of connection with not just the nuclear family but the extended family would be a very good idea,” she says.
Hewlett believes that putting programs into place and giving women the chance to lead is, basically, where it’s at.
“We’re at kind of a watershed moment in the world,” she says. “Widgets are not driving growth rates these days. It’s innovation and very sophisticated sectors of the economy and, clearly, talent is hugely central to that prosperity. The stuff I’m concerned with is at the center of things so, that’s pretty amazing.
“I think that there is a kind of very healthy shock value that comes with this work. We sure need some new energy and new momentum. I’m ready to provide it.” One+
The recession, as we all know, did not exactly raise the confidence levels or morale of most employees. But studies at the Center for Work-Life Policy make it clear that for most professionals who are looking for meaning or purpose in their work lives, there are a whole bunch of non-financial rewards, Sylvia Ann Hewlett says. One way to lift the mission and morale: Give employees the chance to put their real skills to work for the good of others. So, no, as nice as it sounds, this is not a “let’s build a house for people who can’t afford one” sort of thing. Instead, Hewlett offers up the example of Moody’s.
Because Moody’s had taken such a hit on their reputation after things went awry on Wall Street, Hewlett says, “they decided to make a big statement as to where the company was going to go going forward.” Moody’s asked their staffers to use their real talents and skills—the ones they employed in their regular jobs—to build a new rating tool for the micro-finance community. And they did it for free.
“By doing that well, they will expand the [talent] pool enormously because one thing that has bedeviled that field: there was no quality control,” Hewlett says. “And they had a whole team really totally stirred up about it. It was a huge retention tool, because [employees] were using their very specific skills to reduce poverty in the world.”
future of meetings,
One+ August 2011,
quest for talent,