Among the growing group of us who battle away at changing how HR is approached in organizations, David Creelman is a staunch thinker who scouts up some of the most thought-provoking pieces. His latest reported interview is with Bill Conaty (former top HR for GE) about his latest book (with another GE grad, Ram Charan) called The Talent Masters.
David has an unerring way of zeroing in on the most interesting or controversial points, in this case Conaty’s assertion that he and CEO, Jack Welch, knew their top 600 managers “intimately.” That last word means know considerably more than their names when you see them. In a work sense it certainly includes knowing their career aspirations, strengths and developmental needs. It should include having enough of a relationship to understand their growth trajectory, not just enough to pigeon-hole them in a convenient category like ‘will never make senior management’ as many top teams tend to do.
What do we make of this? I can’t make the same claim from my days at Hudson’s Bay. My excuse could be there was substantial turnover. I might have tried for that number in the 17 years I was there (Welch was at GE for 20), but I’d have been starting over with about 20% to 30% of them annually versus GE’s reported turnover at the time of well under 10%. As it was I have to admit I didn’t try hard for a large number in part because I believed I’d never manage. I probably settled at 150 or so.
We can all make excuses. GE’s territory is far-flung geographically, so distance is poor excuse. They operate quite decentralized, so their need to know people at each is greater, so perhaps they’re more motivated, but surely there were at least 600 critical people mostly centralized at Hbc if one considers who should have been in the grooming lineup for senior jobs. 600 is certainly a number to make you review your own situation.
I suspect several key supports at GE were so taken for granted they fall below the radar. It surely helps if top team members routinely share information about people and solicit input from their reports and key contacts. And if they take those discussions seriously when promoting people, so the best are selected after assessment by several people rather than what many companies depend on – the CEO making the choices from among a cadre so small you’d almost call them cronies. If the CEO tries to know more, the team will, too. If the CEO makes all decisions on thin information, in an offhand ‘time-saving’ way, among people he or she happens to know, the team won’t bother with more. But if the CEO regularly wants to hear to others’ opinions, they will bring them forward. Discussions will be on-going and growing in depth and detail.
Of course the over-riding protest is usually ‘takes too much time.’ But really, if the business depends more on people than anything else and the four pillars of success are understanding your people, your customers, your financials and your process/products/services, shouldn’t we spend a quarter of our time – more than one day per week just on the people proposition? Of course many bosses find it easier to give all their time to technical and financial questions. Customers to some degree and people to a much larger one tend to get only whatever time is left over, which is usually none since ‘work expands to fill the time allotted’ and if you prefer other work, there’s definitely plenty to expand. A CEO who claims no time for people assessment and ‘intimacy’ is really saying he or she doesn’t have time to be CEO, which is why some smart owners hire a CEO as soon as they can so they can concentrate on the parts of the business they enjoy. None of this helps HR, though, unless we convince the business community of these facts and get more willing participation from more CEOs.