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Growing your own

Thanks to my twitter community, I was able to sample a few of the words of wisdom from the World Business Forum’s first day. I was not surprised to hear that talent was again the key topic. Jim Collins and Jack Welch made their plea that if you have the best people, you win.

I also read a fabulous commentary on the role of board members written by Ram Charan and Geoff Colvin for Fortune Magazine. ( Much of it was devoted to the need for boards to get actively involved in leadership development and succession issues. Their assessment of board priorities and activity found most boards to be sadly lacking in this area.

So here is my issue today. If talent is seen as the number one reason companies succeed or fail, why don’t companies put their money where their PR efforts are? Attracting, retaining, and developing talent is rarely elevated to a top priority on executive teams. Indeed, I did a little research this morning and found that HR representation on executive teams is not a given. Yahoo has a HR officer at the executive level, Apple and Google do not. Many companies have rolled the HR representation under something like Chief Administrative Officer. To Jack Welch’s credit, GE still remains fiercely devoted to leadership development and growing their own executives. This has ensured continuity and importantly, protecting the storied GE culture of performance.

I am biased. I firmly believe what I learned early in my management career. A simple little adage put forth by Jim Casey, the founder of UPS, was our primary focus. He said, determined people working together can accomplish anything. The key was to find, groom, and align passionate people behind a meaningful goal. We grew our own at UPS. Back in the day, every member of UPS management was required to start at the working level. Unloading trailers and delivering packages was an important step in executive development. We learned the work. We learned to love the work, and those performing it. Second, we understood as managers that no one was going to be promoted until you had your replacement ready to go. If a company believes its people are its most important asset, shouldn’t leaders that develop their teams be the primary candidates for promotion? I believe when you have to go outside the company for key talent, your HR system has failed. (There are legitimate reasons to go outside when you are entering new product areas or you are looking to grow market share). Likewise, hasn’t an executive who hasn’t groomed his/her replacement failed the organization?

Some of this falls squarely on the HR function. We can’t rely on Jack Welch, Jim Collins, and other gurus to make our case. The HR team needs to build the talent case, with real numbers, and real quantification of the return on investment for development. Oh, and we need to grow a set. If we are passionate about the role of talent in the future success of the company, it is time to leave personnel administration and begin human resource development. No group should demonstrate the power of leadership than the group that has the responsibility to provide the strategies for leadership development. This will require courage and a clear consistent message. I believe what Jim Collins and Jack Welch told the World Business Forum. It seems to me to be an obvious conclusion. I am not too optimistic that business executives share this point of view. I’ll have a bit more faith when I see a VP of HR promoted to CEO. Then I may believe the annual reports that state people are your most important asset.

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