Verizon’s Sam Hammock On Avoiding The Great Talent Grab

The war for talent is causing panic hiring--which often doesn't work out for the employee or the company. Here's how Verizon created a new framework for strategic workforce planning instead.
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It’s become a familiar story. The CEO of a company, sleepless over talent shortages and turnover owed to the Great Resignation and Boomer retirement, directs HR to go on an acquisition tear to “hire the best people.” They oblige, and permanent (and expensive) hires are made, with the company celebrating its talent war wins.

But six months later, when the company still hasn’t figured out what to do with those Best People, it is forced to announce layoffs—or, in other cases, those new hires, tired of waiting around for the company to map out an inspiring plan for them, are lured away by a competitor.

Either way, hiring without a clear multi-year plan for that individual is almost always a mistake, says Verizon CHRO Samantha Hammock, who oversees talent strategy for the company’s more than 125,000 employees. Shortly after Hans Vestberg took the CEO post in 2018, he announced Verizon 2.0, a new strategy that would reorganize the company around a more customer-facing model, rather than one centered on products, and would require an overhaul of how the company viewed talent acquisition and development.

“It put a whole chain of action into play,” says Hammock. “We spent a full year setting up the process, doing the research, getting the benchmarking and making sure we had the right roles and job hierarchy in place.”

For the past year and a half, Hammock has been working with the new framework for strategic workforce planning that allows her to see several moves ahead—where the company might be lacking talent, when employees should be moved into new roles, which skills will be most needed in the future, and so on. The new framework means Verizon hires very few new employees—and when they do, it’s with the intention of developing that individual’s skills for future roles so that new hires won’t be necessary. “Backfills are one thing, but by far, the majority of all of our moves for growth are made with internal talent, which is a huge nod to the fact that these things are working.”

In the following interview, Hammock shares more about the company’s strategy and how it’s allowed them to avoid getting caught up in the “great talent grab.”

It’s not easy to make sure talent strategy is aligned with the company’s short- and long-term goals—how does your new framework help you do that?

If you do strategic workforce planning right, you actually start with the business vision and mission. At Verizon, we have a very clear five-year strategy as a business and as a company, and it has stayed consistent. So for us, we can actually take the pillars of that piece, and every single one of our business divisions, and then say, what core skills and capabilities do we need to be able to deliver on this business strategy? And then we actually back into it from a talent strategy.

Where this becomes beautiful is, it actually is a direct link into what I would call our ‘buy, build or lease’ of talent. ‘Buy’ refers to those skills that we will need in the future—where do we not have them today because it’s either not a core capability or not something we’re delivering now, but we will need to in the future. So maybe we need to buy that talent, and we should actively be recruiting it because it is something we’re going to need to deliver on the future strategy. So that informs our external acquisition efforts.

Then we have what I would call ‘build.’ That means we have enough of that capability for now, but we’re going to need way more in the future, so for some of those core things—software engineers, skills around data analytics, data science—we want to focus on reskilling and upskilling to keep on top of that trend. So that also goes into informing the investments that we make for development of the future strategy. Using our existing workforce, where do we see capabilities that have to evolve because it’s not going to be linked directly to our strategy? And then we invest in the development of those to link into and build for the future.

And then there’s ‘lease,’ which is like, ‘It’s core today, but it’s not going to be in the future.’ We don’t need the talent in house so we would find a partner, a vendor or an RPO type of model where we can outsource it for now because we need it right now, but we’re not going need it for the future.

Given the rapid pace of change you’re facing, like every industry, it must be hard to plan for the pivot, no? How do you know the hires today will be able to segue into those future roles?

That’s one of those facets that hooks into the umbrella of strategic workforce planning. It’s really the transparency to jobs in your company at large. One of the opportunities that corporate America has today is, do you have true transparency to every job? In the war for talent, if you want to call it that, the most important thing any company should be doing right now is figuring out how they’re retaining their talent. I would argue that one of the best ways is to be able to show career progression and opportunities, and you can’t do that without transparency. So one of the things that we have done in our launching is we actually cleaned up—and this is not super sexy, but—we cleaned up our entire job hierarchy. So I can show any employee in the entire company with clarity, here are the exact jobs that we have, what the responsibilities are for them and the skills that are needed. We have the ability to actually put employees in the driver’s seat of their own career and give them the visibility to the other jobs that they want with real deep clarity around the skills.

How closely do you work with Hans on all of this?

Constantly. If you you’re talking about strategic workforce planning by itself, we have a pretty robust discipline around when we update that, so we look at it twice a year and then we do an annual update to our board, with a full presentation on where we’re at and how we’re looking at the fit to the strategy and what that means for our talent plan.

Otherwise, we meet multiple times a week. I would say we probably trade notes multiple times, every single day, text or calls or meetings, but we probably have meeting times a couple times a week. The world has definitely changed and the CHRO’s role and support in to a CEO and to the C-Suite in general has definitely evolved and become a more integral part of the entire business strategy than it was.

What helps you stay connected to the company’s talent needs?

We have a pretty rigorous governance process at large. One, we have our own C-Suite meetings, tons of staff meetings that are occurring almost every other week, and I’m at the table for those, but then I’m also a key member of the steering committee of every single governance meeting that we have. So whether it’s the M&A council, the product council, the strategy execution council, our business reviews—I’m in every one of those meetings. And then they all trickle down for the levels. As they get lower, it’s my direct team attending, so HR is sitting in on all of those business meetings.

That’s a lot of meetings. When do you have time to work?

Ha, yes—in between all of that. But I do think that’s a huge kind of acknowledgement to how it’s changing, that you actually can’t effectively do HR anymore, unless you are understanding the needs and the strategic objectives and agenda of the business. So you need to be at that table. Like, I don’t know what talent you need, I don’t know the skills to develop, the way to recruit, the ways to help do org design and org effectiveness—it is really, really important to be in on all of those pieces.

What was it like doing this level of transformation during a global pandemic, when you couldn’t even sit in a room with people?

I am one of those who believes that the one silver lining of the pandemic is that I think it propelled us into a work model that would’ve taken us another 10 to 15 years to get to—and I feel really thankful for that. In fact, I find myself thinking as we’ve been coming out of it the last six to nine months, there’s been a new normalcy that started to be reached. And I find myself thinking, ‘Hey, can we get some of that Covid leadership back?’ And what I mean by that is, during Covid we were making decisions so fast. One of my favorite things to talk about is just this notion of progress over perfection. When you have the time and you have capacity, you will strive for perfection every time. And that creates a lot of this extra governance, the over-engineering, the over-complicating of things. And it comes from really good intention, right? But we don’t need it.

Remember those first six to nine months? People were agile. We were amenable to other solutions. People were super quick, operating on the fly and there was actually a tremendous amount of inclusiveness that was happening. And just the agility that was demonstrated, I loved that. Now that we’re coming out of it, sometimes I see the muscle memory going back to before. Like, let’s add more bureaucracy. And I’m like, no, let’s get back to the old way. But I’m really thankful because I’m one of those—and not every CHRO shares this opinion—but I am one of those that believes it has opened a new door. We should be thinking about talent differently. Like, the idea that it has to sit within your four walls five days a week is—we’re never gonna win that way.

You talked about the importance of retention. When employees leave unhappily, it’s usually because of their direct manager. How do you stay close to that?

Yeah, I am a big believer that people will leave bad leadership. Everyone wants to talk about, Hey, there’s this the crazy wage spike that’s happening and that’s what’s caused the Great Resignation.  I don’t buy into that that’s the only reason. I do think leadership and culture are key for retention. So one thing is, like other companies, we absolutely have an engagement survey strategy in which we use a partner that helps us because we really want that benchmarking to take place. I’m a big believer that if you have that and you do it in a consistent, robust way, you can compare it year to year. So from that I can actually get insights on micro-cultures that might exist. We do everything anonymously. And one of the differences with us is we don’t wait and do it once a year, we do it every quarter, and we have a very high participation rate—89% of all our employees.

And then we have robust action plans for every leader that they submit in to say, ‘Hey, here’s what I read in my results. And here’s what I am committing to as an action leader.’ And then you share it with your team. So there’s a transparency and accountability behind results, and you have to take action.

What would you say is Verizon’s biggest talent challenge?

That’s a great question. I think the biggest talent challenge will always be the ability to do career progression with speed. One of the things I have found is the desire for our amazing high potentials to move jobs more frequently at a faster cadence continues to be growing, meaning they want the cadence to be shorter and sometimes you need to be in the role for a while to actually gain the experience, to make an impact and really learn the business  that touches your role. And so for me to say realistically, ‘Oh yes, we would move high potential talent every 12 months’—I don’t know that that’s the best interest of the employee. So that’s for me very top of mind is how do we manage career progression in a way that is valuable to Verizon and meaningful to the employee.

Any last words of advice for CEOs trying to get better at this?

Regarding talent acquisition, one of the things that I would say is to really think about how you can communicate your value proposition. It’s not just about comp, right? People really want to understand what type of culture and environment they’re joining. I think CEOs have forgotten that. We’re getting really caught up on comp. Is that gonna turn their heads? Yes. But people really care about the culture they’re joining, what’s it like to work there? And I find that a lot of people aren’t articulating that well.

So you’re saying they might come for the comp, but they stay for the culture?

Absolutely.

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