Finding the Future's Best Talent Today

Abbott's rigorous leadership succession practices help the company thrive in the long term.

Strategy and Strength|May.29, 2019

Developing talent isn't just about finding the right people; it's understanding what the business will need from tomorrow's leaders and making sure that pipeline of leaders can meet those needs.

The right skills are a good starting point, but it's also important to help prepare tomorrow's leaders to anticipate and navigate rapid change, from digital threats to the company's systems and reputation, to fast-changing complex international markets.

As Abbott's divisional vice president of Talent Development, Beth Miksa helps coordinate a global strategy to ensure that talent management is as integral to the future of our business as our science and commercial strategies. This approach carefully outlines succession at all levels of management, guiding people from college graduation to the C-suite to ensure Abbott delivers for its customers, shareholders, and employees. We've got a long history of retaining and growing our own talent.

Demonstrating excellence in how leadership teams evolve over time has become one of several key measurement factors for investors as they evaluate companies' governance. Increasingly, environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance demonstrates how companies capture growth opportunities and confront potential risks to long-term health.

In this conversation, Miksa shared some insights on how our talent strategy keeps our global 100,000-plus person company thriving.

How do you find young leaders to help feed the company's pipeline of senior management talent?

I think it starts with our purpose; our health technologies transform lives. It's work that makes a difference – which attracts highly motivated and engaged people who are passionate about advancing this important mission.

We take management development and succession seriously at Abbott, and I think our results reflect how we're always building for the future. It starts with early identification of promising leaders and getting them into professional development programs across key areas such as IT, finance and operations.

It's a lot more than just skills training; we place these program participants in real-world, real-consequence assignments that can open their eyes to their own potential and give our leadership team a sort of long-range radar system to identify those who are ready for more challenges and may be ready to lead sooner.

We feel strongly that our leaders should be teaching the next generation, whereas a lot of companies lean on outside consultants to help develop talent. It's a better way to make sure Abbott values continue through the next generation of managers. And it also reinforces the need for your leaders to be closely and directly invested today in securing the long-term success of the business tomorrow.

Of course, culture, benefits and compensation are vitally important too. Our total compensation strategy aims to attract great people and keep them here, with innovative benefits such as the Freedom 2 Save program, where we help graduates with student debt save for retirement even when they can't set aside money. Beyond the big compensation pieces where we stand out, such as our pension plan and other retirement benefits, we keep a high retention rate by letting young leaders know that no matter what kind of opportunity or challenge they're looking for, it's right here – and we'll help them find it.

In terms of succession planning, how do you approach it?

We start with vigorous talent management conversations at all levels, and it culminates in our executive process that identifies the top 30 leaders from each of our businesses. We build a succession plan for each of our businesses' critical roles, and what I think likely differentiates our process is we're very deliberate about it – and the commitment to the process starts at the top. Our CEO, Miles White, is directly engaged in the process and he expects his executive team to do the same to build competitive advantage for the company's future. They sit in every one of these meetings, which last 4-5 hours at times, mapping out detailed plans for each business and geography. This is a 130+-year-old company and we've all been given this amazing legacy of success and growth, and this is how we ensure the company continues to outperform and maintain its industry leadership.

How else is Abbott's succession process different?

We really test and refine our plan. When something changes in the upper ranks of management and we make a change, we look at our plan critically: Did it work like we thought it would when we wrote it? In the end, it's about having the best set of information that helps assure our board members – and the many stakeholders that depend on us – that our leaders can adapt to any disruption or tactic our competitors throw at us. It's not about just putting names in boxes and feeling good about it; we need to continuously test our plan.

How has the business of preparing tomorrow's leaders changed?

We're seeing how approaches such as AI and machine learning are transforming the way our technologies improve health, and they're also improving the performance of our business as well. Today's leaders need to harness the power of data to not only improve our customers' quality of life but also understand how to take those new tools and empower the people around them. These demands will only increase for tomorrow's leaders, as they take the next steps to further realize the potential intersections of technology and people – while also managing its risks.

We make sure our leaders are developing the right skills and gaining the right experiences to lead through these and other changes. The digital piece of all of it – in the development of products and people, in how we sell and even in how employees prefer to communicate – that's the set of skills that the next generation needs to feel comfortable with because the business and the marketplace are going to demand excellence there. We know our leaders need to be ready for anything and it's a key aspect of our succession planning.

Ultimately, we feel that knowing our people as well as we do helps create better planning, and that's why we invest the time of our senior leadership team to build the plan and keep testing its effectiveness. I think the way our company has performed reflects some of the success we've had grooming our own talent and keeping Abbott delivering for its stakeholders. Looking ahead, I think we'll maintain these high standards and keep pushing to raise the bar further.

*Editor's note: After a remarkable 21-year tenure, Miles White stepped down as Abbott's CEO on March 31, 2020. At that time, Robert Ford became the CEO of Abbott. Mr. White remains Abbott's Executive Chairman, serving on Abbott's Board of Directors.