Engaging and retaining young leadership talent

Supercharging Serco’s front line

Gavin Pilz, Learning & Development Manager of Serco Asia Pacific, describes his 12 month journey from inception to delivery of a super-successful emerging leader pilot program, and in which the business is now firmly investing in.


Gavin Pilz ImageWhat is your role at Serco, and what does Serco do?


I am the Learning & Development Manager of Serco Asia Pacific and I look after a range of people-related projects including talent management and development, engagement, and corporate leadership development. Serco has 120,000 employees globally, of which about 11,000 are in my region, and 8,000 in Australia. The company looks after government contracts – both federal and state – which the government feels can be executed more efficiently and at a lower cost when outsourced.


What was the driver for the program, and what had been attempted in the past?


The drivers were to build capability and retention. We wanted to take future leaders and put them in a hothouse learning environment to give them exposure to the wider business and other contracts, so they could see the development possibilities available to them at Serco. Networking was also an important feature and we focused on getting 70:20:10 type learning.

In the past Serco had run two previous programs for high potential or emerging leaders and Emerge aimed to build on these.


How did you ensure that Emerge reached expectations when it was first launched?


 Firstly I selected the right provider, that is critical. Secondly you need somebody with the time to internally manage it very strongly, because it involves a huge amount of work. So the combination of right provider and solid internal support at the right level meant it worked.


Emerge@Serco is a program for Australia and New Zealand. Please tell us about the cohort it is aimed at and the work they do?


We have two types of employees at Serco: those in Enabling Services, such as Finance and Human Resources, and operational staff who run the contracts. Emerge was aimed at both groups, and at people who are not yet in management roles but who have been selected as likely future candidates. The cohort was selected by their managers, against a brief I provided. While this wasn’t an overly robust process (we might deploy nomination processes in future programs), it has worked very well.


You mentioned networking was very important as an objective. Why was that?


Several reasons. Serco is an extremely siloed organisation because of its nature – we have many contracts that really run independently of one another, and even if you are in the same contract, those locations are often geographically very separate. Breaking down these silos is a key strategic objective of the company. As a consequence, we had two objectives: get people within the same contracts to network with each other, and get participants to have a wider view of the whole business. In addition, several of the participants had networking on their initial development plans.


How was the program was structured?


There were 24 people on the first program, after I had aimed for about 18, so it was over-subscribed. This ended up being a good thing as it increased the amount of networking and diversity in the room. But it did mean we had to have a facilitator who could handle large groups.


The first part of the program was based on using a self awareness tool and personal development planning. The aim was that each individual should have a really good development plan prior to embarking on the workshop elements. We kicked this off with the Saville Wave norms-based personality assessment a tool. We debriefed this and then fed the results into their early ideas for what should be in their development plan. The plans are amended and added to as participants go through the program.


There are two reasons we focused so strongly at the beginning on development plans. To develop you need focus on good goals. And, in my experience, many people on programs such as this tend to underestimate their potential. We wanted to create a baseline plan so that when they presented their journey to a panel of senior leaders at the end of the program, they could see how far they had come. In particular, they see how they under-estimate themselves and it is a very powerful learning experience.


Undertaking 24 development plans sounds like lots of work. What were the positives, and perhaps negatives?


I decided it was sufficiently important that I do these myself. My experience is that the groups have been extremely varied. Some people were really easy, since they were clear on their goals. On the other hand, I had a couple of people who struggled with it, couldn’t focus on one or two development areas, they tended to arrive with a long list. Helping them understand what they had control over was a big task. Another challenge was occasionally having people who were technically focused, and trying to get them out of the technical space and into ‘how am I interacting with people?’.


The next stages of the program were workshops?


We structured the program into three workshops of three days each, which were spaced about three months apart. During the first workshop they were introduced to the mentoring program, after which they had to find an internal Serco mentor, someone they did not report to.


Often programs like this are designed in a very structured, very cumulative way. But the Emerge workshops were designed to be very experiential. This has proved to be a good thing. Because everyone has a different development plan, the participants are picking up things that they want to include in their own. Emerge has 27 modules and no participant has picked the same four or five development areas. That’s why the modular design has worked well, with varied topics on each day.


Inside these workshops we incorporated two other important aspects: getting access to senior leaders and exposure to other contracts which we achieved via site visits.


We invited member of the Executive Management Team to talk about their leadership experiences and learning journeys, as well as articulating the strategy for the business. This was very popular with the participants since they are rarely exposed to senior leaders, even in their own sites.


Was it difficult to get senior leaders to come along?


No, it was surprisingly easy. I discovered there are two types of leader reaction: those who want a detailed brief and to have planned exactly what they are going to say a month in advance, and those who turn up on the day and wing it, mostly with surprisingly good results. Generally they were all very good and enjoyed the experience - after initial nerves. They were surprised by the quality of engagement and questioning from the group, and have been very happy to come back and do it again with different groups.


And tell us about the site visits?


These were a key element of learning about the organisation and what we do. We organised to take the group to the site and then be able to ask the right sort of questions about what Serco does there and what the challenges are. Serco has very varied projects, so we visited hospitals, a dockyard, a technology driven processing centre, among others.


Any other elements?


Yes, we developed a team challenge that the participants, split into four groups, had to execute between workshop 2 and 3. The purpose was for them to work together across geography and contract. They were to generate ideas and then pick one to develop to the point of a business case. In a previous company I did something similar but I used to give them the topics, and that didn’t work so well. My big learning was to let them pick up the topic so they are very engaged in articulating it. They present this idea to a senior business panel. It isn’t meant to be massively onerous as I don’t think that’s appropriate at this level. Just the fact they are presenting to a very senior business panel – the CEO sat in on the last one – is stressful enough.


Please expand on the process and experience of the final presentations.


I invited all of the participants’ managers and mentors, as well as selected senior executives, to the presentations on the development journeys. It enabled the participants to reflect on their year, and the articulation of where they have come from and what they have deployed – which is in itself a development exercise. It is also an evaluation task to see whether the program has hit the mark. It is also meant to be quite simple. We have banned PowerPoint so that they just talk.


So, overall, how successful has it been and how have you judged that success?


Judged on a number of levels, I would say the program has been very successful. The most important one is that the program has developed a very good reputation in the organisation. Many people now know about it. And I have converted a few people, so some contract heads who had not bought in and didn’t send participants, are now very keen and sending their people. The key change there was that having the managers attend the first set of presentations and see the change in the participants.


Watching the presentations it is obvious the participants have had a positive experience and they have managed to implement much of the learning - and the managers who attend confirm this.


Another factor is the drop out rate, which for Emerge has been zero. I’ve run courses like this in the past where we have had one third of people dropping out because something wasn’t working.


Feedback from the participants also proves the success of the program. In conversations with the participants afterwards, they consistently tell me how they have grown. One person told me her career has just taken off like a rocket. We have also had quite a few people who have transitioned into management even while on the program and Emerge has helped them do that quite smoothly - as opposed to the usual approach of promoting them and hoping they survive.


And the crucial measure is that the business is continuing to invest in it.


So what is your evaluation of what has worked and you would be happy to advocate to your peers reading this article?


For me the most successful element was the incorporation of the 70:20:10 approach into the design. It was the combination of elements that ensured the success: making sure they had a really solid development plan to use as their guide throughout the program and to their final presentation; the networking; site visits; exposure to senior leaders; and then the workshops where they could pick topics that resonated with them.


One of the things we have done very well is ongoing evaluation of the program and continually improving it. I think participants are very impressed when they give feedback at the end of one workshop and see the changes incorporated in the next.


And the obvious question - what has needed improvement?


I am working to improve our interaction with the participants’ managers, particularly around development planning. Their support during and post program is critical, and I think we can do more to better position and increase that help.


We have improved the site visits. Overall they have been pretty successful, and it would be fair to say that we are getting better at briefing people on what we want – I’ve learned to be a bit directive about that. Participants get so much out of the visits - even those that don’t go so well are always valuable because they are seeing the organisation from a completely different perspective.


The mentoring experience is variable. Some people are lucky and have very proactive mentors, while others struggle to get responses. It has focussed me on making sure mentors are well briefed and ready to take the time to participate. This is a critical component of the program so we have to make sure we get it right.


I need to improve my follow on with the groups once they have finished the program. And the problem is that I have to make sure that they are not dependent on support from learning and development, because we have other groups to support. But their managers need to be empowered and encouraged to continue to help them.


Any final words?


One of the things I reflected upon preparing for this interview was that it has been a very good learning experience for me. That’s because I choose the right provider and also because I was able to draw on my previous experiences. So it has been an excellent development opportunity for me providing a development opportunity for others, and I hope my peers out there have the same experience.


Serco Asia Pacific’s EMERGE program was designed and delivered by HFL leadership. In January 2016 we start on the third EMERGE group to go through the program.



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