"When I used to go out and say Cobham, no one knew who we were," explains talent and strategic resourcing director Pauline Howel (pictured)l.
"To attract talent to the organisation people needed to understand the incredible breadth and opportunity it provides. The brand didn't represent this at all from a recruitment perspective - and if it didn't do it from this perspective, what did it do from a customer perspective? Customers could be knocking on the door and saying they want to buy antenna but there might be a whole raft of other things they did not know we could offer them."
Creating a unified brand and developing a graduate scheme are just some of the steps the company has taken to overcome this. But Howell also wanted to identify the latent talent within the business. However, given the business had 12,000 employees on five continents (3,500 in the UK) and had grown through acquisition (in 2006 it comprised 87 different business units across the world), this was not an easy task.
"Finding where talent was proved to be very difficult across such a number of businesses. We have all worked in organisations where the same names come forward when you have a requirement - you can't go on like that," says Howell.
In addition, the company was defaulting to looking outside first when it came to filling senior roles, rather than growing from within. As well as the expense this created, this approach meant Cobham was failing to identify clear development paths for its best performers.
To change this Cobham undertook a programme to identify the leadership competencies it desired - and then brought in external partners to deliver development programmes to the leadership teams.
Global business psychologist firm Kiddy & Partners was approached to create a development plan for executives across the UK, US, South African and Australian businesses. The idea was to select those executives with the most potential to lead the company in the future. Participants on the programme were typically already running businesses with turnover of between $100m-$500m turnover.
Kiddy designed and ran assessment centres to benchmark Cobham's talent in the top 200 executives globally against the new competencies. Individual divisions nominated candidates for the assessment centres and these candidates then either joined the group senior high potential or a divisional programme. The candidates received in-depth one to one feedback after the assessment centre, which formed the basis of their development plan. Line manager input and sponsorship was an essential aspect of the approach.
An 18-month development programme followed the benchmarking and included both individual and group development events and activities.
So far about 75% of participants have been placed into more senior roles since attending the assessment centre and employees report increased motivation and engagement in their own development.
"Our succession plans two years ago had a lot of gaps in them," states Howell. "They won't be like that now. By growing people internally we are deliberately changing this. My aspiration is for a 60% internal fill."
The company is now working with Kiddy on what it calls its Mission Critical workforce.
"Do we want our really great engineers to be leaders and managers, or do we want them employed in engineering?" Howell asks?
The answer is that it depends on the employee. If they want to remain a technical specialist they will be given a development route that recognises this and enables them to be rewarded and developed appropriately.
Howell says the challenge now is to keep the momentum going. Metrics have been established and in December Cobham undertook its first employee survey. Three core issues came out of this: communication (appreciated but could be better); greater visibility for the opportunities the development programmes will present and more visibility of the talent programmes that are in the pipeline.
Improvement plans are now being put in place and will be reviewed in two years but overall Howell is happy with progress. After all, as she says: "The programme is being pulled rather than pushed."