It’s easier to start with great people than to make people great

Top firms have recruitment, and deployment, down pat

All leaders from all walks of life have always known that the secret to success is those behind them, those talented people who aren’t in the limelight.

Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez with the New York Yankees in the 1930s was once asked his secret. He replied, “Fast outfielders.” The late, great Alfred Sloan of General Motors once said, “Take my assets, leave my people, and in five years, I’ll have it all back.” More recently, Bill Gates said of Microsoft, “Take our 20 best people away, and I will tell you that Microsoft would become an unimportant company.”

“If I were sitting down with a colleague from another company who wanted to build what we have,” says Tom Weidenkopf, Honeywell’s senior VP of human resources, “I would say start with getting great people, don’t start with process. The CEO has to personally be involved in setting the standard.”

Leaders at Top Companies have a good sense of who they want. They settle for nothing less. While that may seem obvious, many companies are not clear whom they’re after and are unsure where to look. Conversely, Top Companies have the hiring process down to a science. Libby Sartain, the former vice-president of people at Southwest Airlines and now senior vice-president of human resources and chief people officer at Yahoo!, is often asked how Southwest got its employees to be so nice and service-oriented. Her response: “We didn’t. We looked for nice, service-oriented people and prepared them for jobs. We hired the person first, not the resume.”

The search for the best people and the intolerance for mediocre performers in leadership positions set the standard and pave the way for Top Companies to build an organization of great leaders. Honeywell’s senior vice-president Peter Kreindler says, “Great leaders have to be great individual performers. You become a great leader only after you become a great individual performer. This eventually flows through the corporation… great leaders are chosen and learn from other great leaders… ‘A’ players hire ‘A’ players, and ‘B’ players hire ‘C’ players.”

Procter and Gamble, the Cincinnati-based consumer products giant, does not hire any senior executives from the outside. None. “With that practice,” says Dick Antoine, global human resources officer, “we cannot afford to get (the hiring) wrong. There is no alternative.”

Deb Henretta of Procter and Gamble, one of Fortune’s “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” in 2002, describes the interview process she experienced right out of college 18 years ago. “It was the most rigorous process of any… requiring multiple steps, multiple meetings, and documented leadership experiences.” Asked what convinced her to join P&G, she says, “I was incredibly impressed with the people; they were very dynamic, and I could tell that they were movers and shakers that really made things happen.”

There is an interesting dynamic between Top Companies and the people they hire. The rigorous screening process and the company’s emphasis on the importance of talent breed an intense desire not only to succeed, but also to succeed at that company. New hires feel they have passed a difficult test, that they’ve joined an elite group — they’re proud to say they work for IBM, GE, Southwest Airlines or Johnson and Johnson. And they intend to excel, to demonstrate that they belong, that their hiring wasn’t a fluke.

“Great talent finds me,” says Henretta. “As long as you’re attentive, they draw attention to themselves. They are repeatedly making a difference and setting themselves apart.” According to a recent study by Hewitt Associates, identifying a group of high-potentials is the most common high-potential management practice among the companies we surveyed. Nearly 70 per cent of the 125 surveyed companies said they have a formal approach to doing this, but only 55 per cent said they implemented it consistently. Our Top Companies’ data are consistent with this finding, showing that while 100 per cent of the Top Companies formally assess potential for advancement, only 72 per cent of the other firms surveyed do.

While that may seem like an encouraging statistic, it’s only the beginning of the process. “The good people are easy to spot. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out,” according to Mike Lawrie, senior vice-president and group executive for sales and distribution at IBM. “But you’ve got to have the courage to move those people that you identify fairly early in their careers into the key leadership positions — you must have the courage to put them into important jobs that are important to you. You don’t really know them until you do.”

Robert Gandossy and Marc Effron are both senior consultants in Hewitt Associates’ Global Talent Practice. They may be contacted at [email protected], [email protected]. They are authors of Leading the Way, published by John Wiley and Sons, from which this is excerpted.

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