· 8 min read · News

Talent spotter


<b>Sir Martin Sorrell isnt easily impressed. But he was quick to see Beth Axelrods potential as WPPs chief talent officer. By Sheridan Winn</b>

You would be wrong to mistake Beth Axelrods rather quiet air for shyness. There is certainly nothing hesitant about WPPs chief talent officer. Precise, thoughtful and assured, this is the person who bends the ear of Sir Martin Sorrell, the groups chairman a man not always known for listening.

Since Axelrod joined the company in April 2002, she and Sorrell have been in constant contact in their drive to put talent at the heart of the companys strategy. Their aim is to create the strongest pool of professionals in the industry. Recruitment, retention, career planning, succession planning, leadership development, performance measurement these are all areas she is focusing on, as well as opening up an industry that is traditionally

home-grown. Martin Sorrell and I have a very complementary relationship, says Axelrod. He recognises the significance of improving the way we manage talent, because he sees the clear link between business performance and well-managed talent. He has the vision. I bring the nuts and bolts to make it happen across the whole operation.

So successful has this partnership been that Axelrod was

promoted to the board in less than seven months after her

appointment quite an achievement, given WPPs size. It is one of the worlds leading communications services groups, employing 64,000 people in 103 countries. It services 300 of the Fortune Global 500, over one half of the Nasdaq 100, 30 of the Fortune e-50 companies, and has revenues of around 4 billion.

Axelrods initiation to the group was as a guest lecturer on its executive development programme. As a consultant for 12 years at McKinsey & Co. and leader of its War For Talent research and client development efforts, she was already known widely in the field.

Her theories on the link between talent and commercial success were noted by Eric Salama, chairman and CEO of WPPs information and consultancy division, Kantar. He asked Axelrod to speak with Sorrell, aware that the chairman was then looking for a replacement for former HR director Brian Brooks. I was contacted ostensibly to develop a good candidate specification for the role, she recalls. But nobody was particularly interested in the one I put together. Instead Martin and I started to talk about the business. It evolved from there. We had a good talk and one discussion led to another.

This seems to be something of a pattern in Axelrods career. By her own admission, she is a formidably high achiever a bachelors degree from Pennsylvania universitys Wharton Business School, followed by a masters degree in public and private management at Yale. Her career began in banking at First Boston, where she worked on mergers and acquisitions in New York and London before joining McKinsey. There she rose to principal, advising a wide range of clients on strategy and operational issues before heading up its global organisation and leadership practice.

The big experience that taught Axelrod how to lead occurred early in her career at McKinsey, at the age of 26. She was faced with taking over the management of a real-estate project, working with a large, geographically dispersed team of associates, none of whom she knew, in a subject area in which she had little expertise.

There was a moment of reckoning as she sat down with the client and the McKinsey team on the first day. She knew, she says, that there was no chance that she was going to single-handedly control the problem-solving on the project it was too vast. What I had to do was lead my people to help them solve the problems, she explains. I realised that you have to let go. You have to assess the capability of your people, give them clear direction and assistance and ask them questions to determine where there may be issues. You supply the leadership. It was a liberating experience.

Between the demands of her family a very supportive husband and two young sons and her work, she has never had the time to be constantly planning her next career move. Im blessed with a wonderful family and I derive a lot of fulfilment from what I do, says Axelrod. She stayed at McKinsey for 13 years. It was a hard but extraordinary career at McKinsey, she says, because it was always changing; as soon as you reached a degree of competency, you were thrust into the next role. It was this sense of something new, something challenging that I enjoyed. WPP offers me that same possibility. Thats very exciting.

The challenges WPP offered were immediately apparent from her conversations with Sorrell. He spoke of his vision for the business and his strategy for WPP. It was appealing to me as a management consultant, she admits. Martin is very analytical, very logical, which, because of her background, she believes made it easy for her to talk to him. Do they argue? We debate, yes, replies Axelrod. But it wouldnt be appropriate if we didnt. I grew up at McKinsey, where debate is the foundation to the problem-solving process, so it comes very naturally to me. I feel very comfortable with it.

Shelly Lazarus, chairman and CEO Ogilvy Worldwide, a WPP operating company, has no doubts about Axelrods qualities. Martin Sorrell is extremely respectful of her, she says. You dont get that respect just because of your title. There are people he listens to and some he just gives orders to. The very fact that he is willing to debate with her is a mark of respect.

Integrity is enormously important to her and non-negotiable. Respect, professionalism, trust are three things I put a very, very high value on, she says. Its very much a product of my heritage. It defines a set of ground rules to which everybody should be able to play.

Axelrods background means she is well qualified to talk about talent. She defines it as the special gifts that people bring that enable them to contribute uniquely to the business and help it to perform better. It doesnt come in a standard form: talent for one of our market research companies is radically different to talent for our branding, advertising or PR firms.

She acknowledges that motivating art directors and copywriters and meeting their needs in terms of professional and career development, is very different from helping the account managers, planners and market researchers. Again her own background has been instrumental in helping her understand and deal with the needs of this group. Her family in rural Connecticut provided a good mix of creativity and analysis her mother is an artist and her father a judge. She believes that the way to incentivise creatives is to give them the opportunity to do more of what theyre passionate about to take the client to new places they may not even have anticipated they could go.

But how do creatives react when faced with, for example, a set of performance metrics? Our senior creatives are business leaders and we treat them like grown-ups, replies Axelrod. There are a number of metrics to assess creative talent and they vary from company to company. They include award and business wins, positive press coverage, measures of leadership such as the ability to attract, develop, retain talent and sell work to the client. Exercising sound judgment is one of the leaders responsibilities, along with that of the overall financial performance of the business.

There isnt a single WPP way to grow and develop people, she says: We have to work at our different disciplines. The cultural differences are more clearly felt at the brand level, she explains. An individuals first affiliation tends to be with their operating company. WPP knits it all together and helps people to feel part of an institution that can provide long-term career opportunities.

So with a role that has such a broad focus, where did Axelrod start at WPP? Its a matter of having manageable priorities, she replies. She has tried to concentrate on the things that will have most impact. She recognises, she says, that this is the start of a journey not that, tomorrow, WPP will be significantly better at managing talent than we were yesterday but that well move down a path and over time become much better.

There are two ways in which she is doing this. The first is through extending executive development training, which was put in place before her arrival. WPP partners with London Business School and Harvard Business School, running courses all over the world. But training isnt of course the sole, nor the most important, source in development, she says. I dont think you go into a classroom and walk out a leader. What you gain in a classroom is some self-awareness. We have 360-degree feedback: one-on-one coaching is an important part of the executive training we have on offer.

Her second area of focus is to put more thought into the movement of WPP people into new roles. This means the company has to provide experience that will help them grow, she says. The way to achieve this is through better performance assessment and improved succession planning.

In September 2002, Axelrod completed a survey of WPPs top 1,000 people. Around 50% of the executives who responded said they would be interested in moving across operating company boundaries in the remainder of their careers. She believes that thats part of what is special about what WPP can offer. She is mindful, however, of ensuring against an unmanaged free-flow of people moving across operating company boundaries to maximise their careers not least because of issues of client confidentiality. It needs to be managed sensibly. We have the chance to ensure we dont lose talent to the outside world, because we certainly have an abundance of opportunities.

Analytical as she undoubtedly is, there is a strong human side to Axelrod. You get the feeling that she really listens to what people say. Im inherently optimistic, she says. I look at a situation and immediately try to find the resolution. I can be very tough, but I dont think Im ever mean-spirited. There is, she believes, a tremendously human element to any organisation. What is it, after all, but a collection of people, systems, cultures and processes, that all come together for some kind of shared purpose? she asks.

What Axelrod hasnt done in any way is standardise the HR functions across WPPs operating companies. Split between New York and London, the group HR function reports directly to her. Operating company HR functions report to their business leaders, but are expected to make independent decisions.

The parent company is becoming more aware of the role of HR. At the operating company level, a number of HR executives have been recruited, who she says have already had a tremendous impact. Theyre business-minded professionals who happen to have expertise in this particular area of HR, so they are able to understand the qualities of the business and translate that into implications for people side. This makes a real difference in terms of the business achieving its overall goals.

That business-mindedness enables HR professionals to be very effective, continues Axelrod. They can take responsibility for ensuring that businesses have the right resources. Across our operating companies wed like people to network with people of other disciplines. We also need to network the parent company with the operating companies. When I think about what helps me to be effective in my role, I realise its the ability to influence

people without being controlling.

More training is on the companys HR agenda and Axelrod hopes to expand the breadth of the executive level curriculum and the number of courses offered. She gave herself a deadline of the end of March to develop a blueprint from the parent company perspective. Much of the emphasis will be on leadership development. If our leaders walk out of our training with better self-awareness, they may not know exactly how to handle a particular situation, but theyll have the consciousness to say, I should probably think about a number of areas, which they wouldnt have considered before they went on that course.

There are plenty of opportunities for feedback. Axelrod hops constantly between London and New York, as well as visiting company leaders on a global basis. She attends the executive environment programmes to hear whats on peoples minds. Then there is the annual WPP strategy session, where the operating company chief executives come together. They dedicated three hours to the topic of managing talent when they met in November and debated a number of critical issues and what the resolutions should be, she says. Our CEOs should at least leave with some sense of what they would like to do differently in their operating companies. Theres already alignment of our respective goals, which are simply to attract and develop the best talent we can.

And the future? As Kantars Eric Salama says, WPP has a genuine ambition to attract and grow the best talent. Theres still a gap between the ambition and the reality. Beths challenge is to close it. If she can do that she will have made a great impact.