Attracting the next generation of expert employees

Written by
Hervé Borensztejn, regional leader, Heidrick Consulting in Europe

14 Mar 2019

14 Mar 2019 • by Hervé Borensztejn, regional leader, Heidrick Consulting in Europe

In the final part of our three-part series on managing and motivating technical experts, Hervé Borensztejn, regional leader of Heidrick Consulting in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, advises on how to maintain your expert workforce.

All companies run into similar problems when it comes to ensuring they have the right expert talent as the required expertise evolves. It can take years, even decades, to develop a seasoned expert capable of advising on not only his or her realm of expertise but also how it relates to company strategy.

In practice, many such experts are past the midpoint of their career and perhaps winding down. A common mistake made by corporate leaders is allowing these experts to phase out of their roles and not preparing for the next generation.

Electrical engineering is an example of a discipline that needs to move quickly, as well as one in which expertise investments are high. Today, with the promise of renewable energies, energy companies are moving from a focus on creating energy, such as designing high-efficiency generators, to efficiently storing energy produced by windmills or tidal generators. However, these promising new fields of expertise must be supported by a new generation of experts to become true strategic differentiators.

Whatever the conditions of a specific industry, to attract – and subsequently retain – the best people, companies need to craft their experts’ policies to meet the following objectives: gauge critical competencies, maintain the right number of experts, and increase employer value proposition.

Gauge critical competencies

Competencies almost inevitably become obsolete, and companies will need not only to connect their experts with their strategies but also engage them in strategic workforce planning. Take the aircraft industry, for example. Fuselage experts move from one competency to the next because each is aligned with the company’s strategy: expertise in metallic fuselages was replaced by expertise in composite fuselages more than a decade ago when the strategic target for airplane manufacturers shifted to reducing the weight of planes to limit fuel consumption.

In another example, new regulations or market expectations can alter a company’s portfolio of expertise: some will become obsolete, others will gain importance, and still others will create a new need. Similarly, many cities are concerned with the pollution generated by their airports, whether it be noise or poor air quality. As a result, expertise in developing so-called green aircrafts has become a key competitive advantage for aircraft manufacturers.

Because strategic expertise portfolios are volatile, an efficient way to anticipate critical competencies is twofold:

  • promote interdisciplinary collaboration between experts to keep internal teams in a state of heightened vigilance
  • facilitate innovation to learn about and acquire new opportunities from others.

Maintain the right number of experts

Part of being perceived as an attractive place to work is making sure enticing projects (both scientifically and financially so) are thoughtfully staffed to give everyone a meaningful role. Likewise, it’s important that projects aren’t understaffed, spreading talent too thin.

From benchmarks we established by working with companies with experts’ policies, we found that experts constitute between 5% and 10% of each organisation’s workforce. At less than 5%, investment in expertise is insufficient to manage risks of obsolescence and appropriate succession planning, and more than 10% may result in a lack of focus on core expertise. One way of ensuring that the right number of experts is assigned to a project is to conduct regular performance reviews, focusing on whether the experts feel valued and fulfilled.

We did notice, however, that an excess of experts could still be valuable and work toward generating entrepreneurial decisions or creating new subsidiaries or spin-offs. Depending on the performance review results, the organisation may choose to create a new venture.

Increase employer value proposition

A company that is seen as valuable to experts in both technical and academic fields will have more market value. Having a ‘PhD-friendly’ or ‘postdoc-friendly’ reputation will excite the scientific community and attract new and promising experts.

A few ways of improving an organisation’s reputation with intellectual and scientific communities are to map academic labs of interest, deepen the relationship with them through long-lasting connections, and recruit PhDs. In addition, companies can craft policies that include PhD study as counting toward years of seniority, asking the experts to become company ambassadors to the labs.

Proactively managing and developing your portfolio of expertise and preparing continuously for the next generation gives companies the ability to foresee trends, adapt more quickly, and, ultimately, increase value.


  • This article has been provided by Changeboard’s Future Talent 2019 partners, Heidrick & Struggles. You can see Heidrick & Struggles Partner Scott Snyder in conversation with Avon CEO Jan Zijderveld at Changeboard's Future Talent Conference on 21 March.