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Interview with Alan Lin of PwC

Who Is Keeping Talent from Blossoming?


Who Is Keeping Talent from Blossoming?


How can enterprises train, retain and deploy competitive talent in a fiercely competitive international environment? A senior HR chief takes on this pressing issue.



Who Is Keeping Talent from Blossoming?

By Sherry Lee ,Chia Lun Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 550 )

The "Director of Human Resources" is ordinarily a figure most company staff do not wish to come up against. They are like a high resolution camera that sees everything about a person in high definition, from their Zodiac sign to their personality, seniority and salary, which can easily intimidate employees and set their nerves on edge.

However, Alan Lin, Managing Director and head of Human Resources at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Taiwan, described by colleagues as someone that "speaks sharply but with humor and charm," rarely shows an imposing face or stern expression to staff. He has a way of making a group of people getting together over a social meal for the first time feel relaxed and listened to.

Possessing strong left-brain and right-brain capacity, able to bridge the global and the local, 49 year-old Alan Lin has worked at PwC for 24 years, making partner in seven years, half the time it typically takes others.

Taking advantage of a company exchange program, Lin enjoyed two years of corporate system training at the company's Chicago branch headquarters. This made Lin, in his subsequent position as HR director, work hard at internationalizing personnel, to ensure that at any time one-tenth of the company's talent pool could be assigned to overseas positions.

At a time when people are often heard complaining about how useless today's youth are, Lin notes, "Many employers take the proverbial boiling frog approach, paying out NT$22,000 per month whilst bemoaning the lack of available talent." Meanwhile, businesses remain oblivious of the worsening brain drain. So who is it that is holding talent back and preventing it from blossoming? From an HR director's perspective, what suggestions does Lin have?

When I returned to Taiwan 15 years ago, I constantly lamented the human resources gap between Taiwan and the outside world, which I estimated to be at least a decade. To my frustration, I have found that we have only managed limited improvement over the last 15 years, especially compared to China. Under two forces at work, its own hunger for change and the pressures of the new era, China has undergone simply astonishing changes.

Further, looking at Korea, how much of the government's fingerprints do we see behind Korea's robust strength? I would say credit goes almost entirely to the government there. So who is keeping the roses from blossoming? If flowers blossom richly on Taiwan's soil, butterflies (talent) will naturally be attracted to them. Government agencies should unquestionably take the most responsibility in this area, but business should also be accountable.

The movement of talent is inevitable. People are bound to try to climb higher. Sometimes they're not motivated by money, but the desire for a stage to perform on. In Taiwan we might have a budget for seven people, whilst in China it could be for 70 people, or even 700 people. Which challenge are you drawn to?

One of my good friends, the former head of a boutique brand in Taiwan, later took a similar position in China. One day he called me and said that a young person came in and told him, "Hello, President, this is the offer I have received from such and such a company. I'll give you an hour to confirm the offer I deserve in writing, OK?"

My friend asked me if he should retain this person. I said of course not, because that would be like throwing out all the rules. But then what happens after you let him go?

The phenomenon I was actually stressing was that the entire labor force in China is much more aggressive due to all the opportunities they see around them, and consequently also less loyal.

Stop Falling for Antiquated Workplace Ethics

While we're still attached to those old-time workplace ethics, new forces have already begun to form new professional ethics. In turn, these developments are forcing Chinese executives to respond to and address this issue.

You can sense that not only are multinational corporations deploying talent in China, but local Chinese firms are also starting to think about retaining, recruiting, and training talent. If you don't respond, later when you go looking for people, you could look back and find no one there to answer the call.

The biggest issue with Taiwanese businesses is that, if you ask the head of a company what kind of talent he is looking for, he is unable to answer you. It's not that he doesn't know, really, but that he hasn't spent time thinking over it clearly.

Even more crucially, Taiwanese businesses are extremely shortsighted. Enterprises seek people with instant fighting power, capable of jumping right into the fray, hopefully ones that are inexpensive, ones that can deliver an entire arsenal of talents and skills for just one person's salary.

So from the perspective of corporate human resources, when China starts taking this approach (talent development), do you think those Taiwanese that have gone over to work across the strait will return to Taiwan?

Is Taiwan's Talent Willing to Be Cultivated?

What are my biggest concerns as HR director? First, I've come to find that talent is not diverse enough. We are part of the service industry, and customers' expectations are increasingly stretching beyond accounting or auditing services. Now they expect us to help them solve complex business problems, or even conceive development strategies.

I've found that accounting education in Taiwan has produced a very homogeneous talent pool, one that is very skilled in its professional field. However, professional skills only account for about one-fifth of what we are looking for in employees, as we also want them to have business acumen, communication skills, and leadership skills. But maybe our general accounting education has failed to see to the development needs of those of us in the business sector, or even the development needs of industry as a whole.

Second, recruitment is problematic, because accounting is a very specialized professional field.

Third, training is hard and retaining talent is difficult. We are ready and willing to bear the responsibility for developing talent, but are personnel subjectively willing to be developed? I often find that our younger generation generally lacks direction as well as guts. This is what worries me.

Under the current climate we are encouraged to seek morsels of enjoyment in life. Could we be a bit too comfortable? If I think well of you, I want to cultivate you. But then you say, "Wait a minute, I'm fine just like this. I don't want to have such a hard time."

Or maybe you ask a new staff member if they would be willing to take on an overseas assignment, and they raise their hand and say yes. That's fine, but when the time comes to send them off, they go from volunteering to, "I can't, I have a girlfriend, and I'm afraid she'll dump me," or "My wife doesn't want me to go," or "My mother will worry too much about me." So it turns out that they're the ones who always have a problem. We have the will, but they lack the determination.

This is what I mean when I say retaining and training talent is hard.

The free flow of talent is such that we cannot afford to close ourselves off. This is true for nations, corporations, education, and talent. Future professionals must have the capacity for "being moved around." This is vital. This is the meaning of mobility. Will you be there when I need you? That is the agility that we stress – the ability to accept change.

Institute a Full Set of Measures

This sort of mobility comes in many forms, not necessarily overseas assignments lasting over a year. These days it has steadily become task-oriented, with durations of from three to six months. This way it is both easier to find people and achieves a higher degree of flexibility.

In the past we only considered overseas assignments from the perspective of the corporation, i.e., I need to pioneer new territory, need a European sales office, and I send someone there. But now companies are more flexible, giving more consideration to overseas assignments from the perspective of talent, thinking of talent as more of a "me issue," and moreover taking the issue of returning to the original place of work more seriously in terms of how to maintain continuity and progression. Otherwise, employees are often lost: I assign you a job, and you end up bolting.

I like to say, "Eat a sesame bagel, and sesame seeds will fall off." But overseas work assignments have somehow ended up with everything turned around, where sesame seeds are eaten and the bagel is lost. What this means is that a full set of measures must be put in place.

Taiwan must give thorough consideration to its talent strategy and development policy for different industries, and then get education in line and up to speed with demand. This is the way to create an environment that draws people to it.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman