How many people can you know well? (Guest commentary)

GE’s head of HR says he and CEO Jack Welch knew their top 600 managers intimately — and I believe them
By Dave Crisp
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/14/2010

Among the growing group of us who fight to change how HR is approached in organizations, David Creelman is a staunch thinker who scouts out some of the most thought-provoking pieces. He recently spoke with Bill Conaty (former top HR person at General Electric) about his latest book (with another GE grad, Ram Charan) called The Talent Masters.

Creelman 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 knowing considerably more than their names. In a work sense, it includes knowing their career aspirations, strengths and developmental needs. It should include having enough of a relationship to understand their growth trajectory, not just to pigeon-hole them in a convenient category such as “will never make senior management” as many top teams tend to do.

In his online newsletter, Creelman challenges Conaty about 600 being a very large, if not unbelievable, number and Conaty contends that’s what everyone says — but it’s absolutely true. I believe him and so does Creelman.

What do we make of this? I can’t make the same claim from my days at the Hudson’s Bay Company. My excuse could be the fact 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 per cent to 30 per cent of them annually versus GE’s reported turnover at the time of well under 10 per cent. 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 a poor excuse. It operates quite decentralized, so its need to know people at each location is greater, so perhaps it’s 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.

I suspect several key supports at GE were so taken for granted they fell 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 it helps 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 — a CEO making the choices from a cadre so small you’d almost call them cronies.

If a CEO tries to know more, the team will too. If a CEO makes all decisions on thin information, in an offhand “time-saving” way, among people she happens to know, the team won’t bother with more. But if a CEO regularly wants to hear others’ opinions, they will bring them forward. Discussions will be ongoing and grow in depth and detail.

Of course, the overriding protest is usually “takes too much time.” But really, if a business depends more on people than anything else and the four pillars of success are understanding your people, customers, financials and your process, products or services, shouldn’t you spend one-quarter of your 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. This is because 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 doesn’t have time to be a 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 have more willing participation from more CEOs.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based consultant with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.crispstrategies.com. This column originally appeared as a blog post on Canadian HR Reporter’s website. To read Crisp’s weekly strategic HR blog, and others on topics including employment law and labour relations, visit www.hrreporter.com.

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