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Business, Corporate Strategies

How to Cultivate Top Tech Talent: What Every Exec Needs to Know

General Assembly
September 27, 2017
How to Cultivate Top Tech Talent: What Every Exec Needs to Know

Our recommendation is simple: Companies need to invest in learning.

The following is an excerpt from 6 People Strategies for Successful Digital Transformation, an exclusive white paper from General Assembly. Download the full paper here.

The digital landscape is evolving at a rapid pace, and it’s essential for companies to harness wide-ranging technical expertise in order to stay ahead. Today’s marketers must be able to analyze massive amounts of data, IT workers must be able to design compelling mobile app experiences, and a “product” is no longer only a physical object but could be a website, a piece of content, or even a training curriculum.

General Assembly’s recommendation for keeping up is simple: Companies need to invest in learning. The Economist magazine recently issued a special report that highlighted the importance of “lifelong learning” as a habit that both skilled and unskilled workers must incorporate to keep pace with a rapidly developing economy. They profiled GA’s approach to tech education — including upskilling promising individuals and reskilling those with outdated competencies in data, web development, and design — as an effective way to ensure employees’ skills were kept up to date.

Investing in learning should happen both from an institutional and individual standpoint. The former has to do with the tools, mindset, and organizational structure that will drive the business agenda forward, while the latter has to do with the reskilling that each individual will need to use these tools and thrive in the new organizational context.

Based on a framework for corporate growth developed at INSEAD, the leading business school, and Duke University, we’ve created a three-part framework for your talent strategy:

  • “building” new skills for your existing team,
  • “borrowing” capabilities through innovative exchange programs, and
  • “buying” them through hiring and acquisitions.

Below, discover how you can create a culture of continuous education, leverage young and promising employees in creative ways, recruit employees with the right digital skills, and more.

For even more insights and strategies, download our exclusive white paper, 6 People Strategies for Successful Digital Transformation. In the report, executives from top consumer products companies — including L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, and Nestlé — share the key learnings and experiences that have given their businesses a technological edge with today’s connected consumer.

Build an Ongoing Learning Strategy

GA’s experience training teams at hundreds of large companies and tens of thousands of individuals around the world has demonstrated that both basic and advanced digital skills — like coding, data, user experience design, digital marketing, and product management — can be effectively taught to existing workers, given the right motivation and environment. Simple online lessons can help build a basic vocabulary for the digital age, whereas intensive months-long courses develop the next cadre of job-ready web developers and mobile app designers. Regardless of the path, chances are an existing workforce can be “radically reskilled” to meet today’s demands.

A successful “build” strategy must be ongoing. Developing new skills as a one-time investment may meet a short-term gap, but that gap will reappear in the future, given the pace of today’s development. Instead, companies must enable and encourage a habit of “lifelong learning,” and offer training that can be intertwined with daily responsibilities.

Nestlé is one company that has embraced this philosophy. The consumer products giant regularly puts emerging leaders through months-long intensive training programs in leadership skills, supply chain management, and more. Recently, the company has embarked on an eCommerce training initiative aimed at both sales and marketing practitioners. The series of 13 workshops aims to cultivate a toolbox of digital skills including metrics, search, and social media.

According to Sébastien Szczepaniak, VP Group Sales and eBusiness at Nestlé, “As eCommerce blurs the lines between sales and marketing, an organization has to respond accordingly. This means a new set of skills, a new vocabulary, and a new mindset for our sales and marketing team members around the world.”

Borrow Talent From Inside and Outside of Your Organization

One way to transform the way your organization works is to look outside your company’s walls for inspiration, capabilities, and assets — and effectively “borrow” the talent you need to move forward. You can often do this internally, too, through practices that pair promising young employees with company veterans.

Here are three ways companies can “borrow” talent (download the complete white paper for more):

  • Student projects: General Assembly’s Immersive courses regularly partner with companies large and small to build and deploy custom projects that students work on as part of their course curriculum. These projects save companies an estimated $20,000 per project in free design, tech, and data resources, while also being valuable practical learning experiences for our students.
  • Reverse mentoring: Bureaucracy, structure, and rigid culture can often mean that some of the freshest ideas rarely make it to an executive’s desk. When done right, reverse mentoring programs, wherein high-potential junior talent expose more experienced managers to new ideas, technologies, and ways of working, are an effective way to skip levels, break down silos, and enable fresh ideas to permeate the organization. This was effective at Procter & Gamble, according to Deb Henretta, the company’s former Group President, who helped design a program like this while running P&G Asia. “Each leader on my Asia Leadership team had a millennial tech mentor who they met with on a regular basis,” she says. “In these meetings, leadership could learn about what’s new in the digital space, experiment online, and get answers to all the ‘silly questions’ leaders may otherwise hesitate to ask. My wonderful tech mentor helped take me from ‘near dinosaur’ to ‘near diva’ in the digital space. He made it safe, fun, and insightful to learn.”
  • Accelerated promotions: Similar to reverse mentoring, accelerated promotions can help bring new perspective and capabilities to leadership teams. While heading up the Asia region at P&G, Henretta decided her group needed to accelerate their moves into the digital world. “I needed to augment my leadership team with someone who was both skilled and knowledgeable in the digital and eCommerce space but also business savvy,” she says. “I found that person in a young mid-level level leader who was significantly younger and less experienced than the president- and VP-level folks on my Asia leadership team. When I said I wanted to bring this individual on, I got significant pushback by nearly all of my team — category heads, country heads, and function heads. And yet, this may have been the single most important decision I made to advance our team knowledge and capability, which was a key driver in our Asia business acceleration.”

Buy the Talent and Resources Your Business Needs to Grow

Large companies have a range of opportunities to bring new talent into their organizations. However, before any tactic is deployed, it’s critical to create the right environment in which new team members can be successful, one that is rewarding, clear, and open to experimentation.

We recommend three specific steps toward fostering this environment:

  • Train your recruiters. Traditional recruiting teams often lack the vocabulary, understanding, and networks to attract qualified candidates with the right digital skills. It’s important to train your recruiting team in the structures, motivations, backgrounds, and ways of assessing digital talent. General Assembly offers a number of online lessons and in-person workshops to help HR teams understand the basics of digital concepts and practices such as coding, user experience design, and data science. “As the primary points of contact for new hires, recruiters have significant influence on a candidate’s perception and experience of your company and the role for which they’re applying,” says Kathryn Minshew, CEO and founder of The Muse, a leading career development platform. “Particularly for emerging roles in the digital space, recruiters could benefit from focused training and development to ensure they’re representing the role in an exciting and accurate way.”
  • Create projects that digital experts will love. Faced with the option of joining a young startup or an established behemoth, most emerging digital talent will opt for the former — the chance to work on something truly novel, coupled with the appeal of flexibility, innovative benefits, and open workplans is hard to ignore, particularly as well-funded startups are often able to match or even exceed salary offers from larger companies. Large companies should consider establishing separate digital units, free from some of the structure and restrictions of the overall entity, to attract top talent and incubate new products and ideas.
  • Actively consider acquisitions. Brand and product acquisitions have always been an active element of portfolio-building in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) world. But with the growing number of new consumer products players and the increasing speed of digital transformations, there have been many more such purchases in both CPG and retail. One significant example is Unilever’s acquisition of Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion. Though Dollar Shave Club was not making a profit at the time of its purchase, its benefit to Unilever can be significant and multifold. The company represents lessons in branding, distribution, and, of course, an accelerated entry into a category dominated by just two rivals — the irreverent but highly authentic ads that went viral on YouTube are a particular manifestation of why this brand become so valuable so quickly.


Get more powerful strategies for motivating teams, galvanizing leaders, and leading a successful digital transformation at your organization. Download 6 People Strategies for Successful Digital Transformation, and discover the clear habits, practices, and investments that drive success. Learn how to create a leadership agenda for change, embrace agility, bring data to every conversation, and more.


At General Assembly, get the crucial skills your company needs to make a digital transformation. We upskill, reskill, and benchmark teams by training them in today’s most in-demand skills in web development, design, data, marketing, and business. We also provide on-boarding and hiring strategies to solve hiring gaps within your organization.


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