At 44, Orlando Ashford is in the vanguard of addressing one of the most nettlesome issues facing CEOs today: how to identify, recruit, develop and keep the right talent to drive business success in a globalized world.
The issue is so worrisome that it was high on the agenda of the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland, in January, when leaders from business, government, academia and nonprofit organizations worldwide gathered for their annual brainstorming on ways to improve the world. At that meeting, Ashford was part of the high-level team that unveiled the Mercer Talent Barometer Survey, an offshoot of Mercer LLC’s joint research with the WEF on global good practices in talent mobility and development. No small pea in this field, Mercer is the global human resource consulting subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan Cos., with more than $4 billion in annual revenue, employees in 42 countries, and operations in more than 140. Ashford is president of its Talent business, one of four business segments through which Mercer works with clients to optimize their human and financial resources. The other three segments are Health, Retirement and Investments.
“There’s a war for talent. There’s a shortage of talent — actually, those probably aren’t the right words. There’s lots of capability in the world, corporations just don’t know where it is,” says Ashford, who was head of Mercer’s Leadership and Organization Performance practice and prior to that senior vice president, chief human resources and communications officer at Marsh & McLennan before assuming his current position in January. “I and the twenty-seven hundred colleagues that make up my business are expressly focused on this issue around the identification, positioning of, payment of, enabling mobility of people so that companies can have enough of the right stuff, the right type of capabilities.”
At the company’s headquarters in New York City, Ashford spoke to The Network Journal about this role and how it intertwines with his vision of the world and his passion for enabling access to opportunity for individuals not normally on the radar of blue chip organizations. His vision is grounded in the belief that people — aka talent, aka capability — are a company’s most important resource, and those people come in diverse ethnicities, cultures, geographic locations, experiences and skill sets. That’s something companies have talked about for years but never sufficiently demonstrated and that, Ashford contends, has to change.
“In order for an organization to be successful long term and be positioned for success they have to have the right capability that’s positioned the right way, paid the right way, retained, so that it can do its thing and deliver the outcomes,” he says.
At a time when more than 200 million people worldwide are actively looking for work, 34 percent of companies say they struggle to find talent, according to Mercer research. “It makes no sense. Why are we struggling to find talent?” Ashford exclaims. He answers almost in the same breath. “The issue is, the vehicles we have historically used to determine who is talented, I believe, are inefficient, or insufficient to produce enough of the capable people that corporations need.”
Companies rely on historic ways of validating capability: school attended, grades obtained, companies worked for, references about experience acquired — all of which is good, but not good enough in today’s global business environment, Ashford argues. “Not everyone has the opportunity to go to INSEAD, Harvard or Yale — all wonderful institutions, but they don’t have the cap on all talent. There are people who are equally capable, but we have to filter them and identify them in a different way.”
Indeed, a shift away from the traditional approach to capacity development is increasingly evident. “People need to think of their careers as less of a path and more of a meandering collection of experiences. Technology is allowing people to get those experiences at earlier ages, so you don’t have to get into the corporation and wait fifteen years before you can prove leadership,” says Ashford. “Those of us who grew up more traditionally don’t quite understand it. But in order to get your fair share of the available talent, organizations are going to have to adjust and adapt in order to be attractive to those people.”
Opportunity and challenge
The task, then, is to create the vehicles that identify, assess and validate capability in different, more efficient ways, an undertaking Ashford embraces with zest.
“What’s exciting about my business is, it really aligns with my personality. Helping people, helping organizations identify talent, develop talent, pay talent, position talent — those are the formal things that I sell to corporations. But underneath that, it’s really about providing access to opportunity. As the world globalizes and companies try to figure out how to be relevant around the world, there’s a bunch of opportunity for people who, perhaps, haven’t historically had the same opportunities or access.”
Ashford is the right person to shake up the status quo, affirms Tyronne Stoudemire, a principal in Mercer’s diversity and inclusion space, who reports to Ashford. “His competence, skills and experience give him a great competitive advantage in terms of talent. He’s a well-rounded executive with a global perspective on people, and an ability to think globally and act regionally and to adapt to other cultures. Add to that his technical ability, influence, and social relationships,” Stoudemire says.
A graduate of Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and a master’s in industrial technology, Ashford joined Marsh & McLennan in 2008 from the Coca-Cola Co., where he was group director of human resources for Eurasia and Africa, based in Istanbul, Turkey. Before Coca-Cola, he was vice president of Global Human Resource Strategy and Organizational Development for Motorola Inc. He also held leadership positions in organizational change management at Mercer Delta Consulting, in organizational development at Ameritech, and in change management at Andersen Consulting.
Passion and experience aside, his is still a hard task, one that Stoudemire describes as not so much a “challenge” but an “opportunity” to influence others to see the business need for diversity and inclusion. “You’re trying to transform an organization, moving from awareness to integration, from integration to transformation. Companies will be at different points at different times,” says Stoudemire.
The opportunity and challenge, asserts Ashford, is to get corporations to focus more on a candidate’s ability to do the job and be successful than on how the candidate’s capability was assessed and validated.
“That’s the opportunity. When we get to the point where we’re comfortable with a different method of assessing, defining, developing and validating talent, then we’re on course to an open global labor market, where people can pursue opportunities more freely. And it won’t be so much a function of where you started, and whether you got all the perfect opportunities,” he says. “You can envision this ecosystem as I described it, but until people accept it it’s a challenge. When you’re trying to change behavior, change a mindset, change expectations, not everyone is going to be exactly happy about it. If you’re in the existing model, you may not be embracing of the change. Those pressures create some risk.”
Ashford works hard to mitigate that risk. “Part of my strategy is to leverage our wonderful, rich history. Mercer has a sixty-five-year history and my business has a twenty-year history, so there’s a lot that we know and that we’ve learned. But with everything changing, there is a lot that we don't know. So I have to infuse some of the history and experience with some of the new things and mix those things together.”
The makeup of his team is critical. “I believe in the idea of diversity; I believe in the idea of collective intelligence. So no matter how smart I might be, or how great my ideas are, it will always be better if I get different perspectives.”
Out of this diversity he organizes “thinking teams” to work on innovation, based on specific challenges that sometimes come from outsiders he invites to leadership meetings. He has brought in a futurist to challenge his team’s understanding of world trends, as well as large corporations, and even startups, to challenge the team’s thinking about partnerships and acquisition.
“I got some really cool insights from small companies with some really neat technology that we may want to partner with,” Ashford says. “It’s that combination of really tapping into the collective intelligence of the organization, up and down, young and old, senior and junior, external perspectives. All of those things collectively allow us to map out a path to attack the issue that you and I talked about.”
Ashford is so serious about the inevitability of a global labor market that has equal access to opportunity that he is preparing his children to be as globally competitive as possible through language immersion, real-life experiences in different cultures, and exposure to “basic life skills around being competitive” through such activities as sports. In addition to sending them to China every other year to become fluent in Mandarin, the family spends time in locations Ashford deems future “talent hubs,” including Africa and South America.
“I tease both of my sons when we talk about being competitive and being ready for what’s going on in the world. I say to them, ‘Look, you two are both American, you look African, and you’ll speak Spanish and Chinese. I think you’ll be fine,’” he says. “So wherever things are going in the world — and a lot is happening in Latin America, in Africa, in China, and there’s always going to be a lot happening in the U.S. — my charge is to give them access.”
He acknowledges the inherent conflict in “working the game” to position his children. “It’s a bit of a conflict because what I’m suggesting is, I could pay to send these kids to private school, but somebody else can come from left field, who is from this other system, and be equally capable as my two children and could get that opportunity.” That changes the game for his children. “This thing that I’ve talked about does force my children to have to compete differently than they would if I got them into a really good prep school, a really good high school, a really good college. [With that path] I’ve created a much smaller pool that they are competing in, when everyone else that is [from the other path] traditionally wouldn't be deemed in the same light as my children,” Ashford concedes. “I’m thinking and talking about a model that says it doesn’t make a difference.”
A rare situation
An original painting titled “I Love You Madly” takes up a good deal of space on the wall directly across from where Ashford sits at his desk. Created as a tribute to iconic jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, the painting is a statement about the personality of the man who occupies the office on the 44th floor of 1166 Avenue of the Americas.
“It’s big, it’s bright, it’s vibrant, it’s colorful, it’s giggly. That’s kind of my personal energy. It’s reflective of me,” Ashford says.
It’s also a reminder that he must maintain some of his own persona in the course of running a business. “So when someone steps into my office for a meeting and looks at that and says ‘wow!’ we usually end up having a conversation like the one you and I are having,” he giggles. “Immediately, it sets a tone for whom you’re dealing with — how you want to be interpreted and how you function in the workplace.”
Ashford is often asked if his current job is more stressful than what he did before. “I say ‘no.’ I actually find this clear. Yes, it’s a business and you have to deliver numbers. But you’ve got two bucks: you’ve either made your number, or you’ve missed your number but you’ve got an action plan in place to make thinks better. I find that clarity good and less stressful,” he says. He adds. “It’s one of those rare situations where personal passion aligns with your work passion and I can actually build a business that does all the things it’s supposed to do — deliver revenue for my corporation and satisfy my personal ambition to create opportunity for the masses.”