Companies' Secret Weapon: Underutilized Executives

Managers looking for an edge amid a dismal economy, likely hiring freezes, and even staff cuts may have a hidden resource—their own underutilized staff. According to a winter 2008 Accenture (ACN) survey, which BusinessWeek has an exclusive first look at, 46% of women and 49% of men worldwide believe they are insufficiently challenged in their jobs.

"What this means for companies is that they have a huge opportunity with the talent they own to get more return [out of these] same people, if they just know how to ask them and how to engage them," says Armelle Carminati, Managing Director of Human Capital and Diversity at Accenture. "Your employees are eager to do more. They are capable of doing more. They want to do more. This is a great competitive advantage for you as a company because you don't have to hire new talent in a challenging environment—you have the talent in place."

Accenture conducted the online survey of 3,600 professionals from medium to large organizations in 18 countries. Results of the study, entitled Untapped Potential: Stretching Toward the Future, are being released in conjunction with Accenture's International Women's Day. The event, being held this year on March 6 in Accenture offices around the world, was initiated to facilitate dialogue for Accenture's global female employees. Respondents were evenly split between men and women. Among the areas of focus were: the concept of stretch roles, the purpose of possible success enablers, such as mentors and technology, and a comparison of responses of men and women and of different generations.

Encouraging new Roles

Carminati says responsibility for addressing the phenomenon of underutilized workers must be shared by both employees and employers. "On the one hand, it's about the individual who needs to ask, who needs to be confident enough to offer more," she says. Acknowledging that employees might feel reluctant to suggest they aren't operating at full capacity—particularly at a time when companies are looking at costs so carefully—she advises managers to "be imaginative enough" to encourage employees to stretch and take on new roles and responsibilities.

Companies should shy away from a "one-size-fits-all approach" with workers, advises Carminati: "The art of tailoring a career offering is the new space where employers have to go and will be key to both employees' and employers' success." She says that employers already have "many tools and offerings on the plate—from new positions, training, virtual training, or physical training, inviting people to move geographically."

Carminati says the fact that men and women were almost equal in reporting they felt underutilized was a surprise. "When we [initiated] this research, we were expecting some gender difference [in this area,] of how insufficiently challenged employees are," she says. Another striking—and encouraging—similarity was in the number of respondents who feel confident in their abilities: 76% of men and 77% of women.

Less positive for women were the findings about use of technology and mentors. Men are far more likely to consider themselves innovators or early adopters of technology, 70% vs. 58%. And only 14% of female respondents cited having a formal mentor at work. While that is higher than the findings for men (13%), Carminati noted that she'd like to see those numbers rise for female professionals, because mentors serve as key success enablers for women. "The low usage [of technology] and low utilization of [formal] mentorship was a surprise," she admits. "Women need to harness the power of technology."

Men and women are equally interested—58%—in either developing new skills or expanding their current skill set to stay competitive, which is also good news for employers looking to leverage their current talent pool. "The ability to propose the right thing at the right time to stimulate engagement from an individual is going to be crucial," Carminati says of employers.

Her advice for women is more straightforward. She notes, for example, that they are less likely than men to ask for raises. "It's better to ask for forgiveness than permission."

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