This past Tuesday, I had a chance to hear Bill Conaty, HRE’s 2004 HR Executive of the Year, share his insights on how chief HR officers can be more effective leaders during the National Academy of Human Resources’ 13th CHRO Academy, held at the Yale Club in New York.
Conaty addressed his remarks to about 30 CHROs attending a dinner at the two-day, invitation-only event, which is held annually and specifically focuses on the needs of CHROs who are new to the job, have moved to a new employer or have a new CEO. As far as I know, there’s nothing comparable in the field today. (The faculty for CHRO Academy primarily consists of NAHR Fellows.)
A Distinguished Fellow in the NAHR, Conaty retired as senior vice president of HR at General Electric in 2007, but still remains quite active in the field and advises business leaders on a wide range of HR issues through his firm Conaty Consulting LLC.
In his talk, he touched on a number of important topics—but for purposes of this post, I’d like to specifically focus on his comments about what it takes to be a strong HR leader today. His list was based on the specs he had for his own job while at GE and reflected many of the qualities he was looking for in his own successor, though he was quick to point out that he didn’t necessarily fulfill each and every one of the items himself. Whether you’re new to the CHRO role or not, perhaps they might prove helpful in elevating your own game.
First on Conaty’s list: Ensuring that there’s a good fit between the CHRO, CEO and CFO posts. Conaty shared how CEO Jeff Immelt, one year, did something at GE that hadn’t been done before: He asked to take a close look at the CEO, CFO and HR leader in each GE business. “What he was looking for was styles and fits,” he said, “If you had a CEO who was a hammer, a CFO who was a hammer and an HR leader who was a hammer, employees had no chance.”
Stressing the importance of having the “right balance,” Conaty said the exercise resulted in “changing a couple people out.”
Also on Conaty’s list is being able to earn the trust and confidence of the entire senior leadership team. “I’ve heard a lot HR folks say ‘I have a phenomenal relationship with my CEO—I’m in,’ ” he said. “I’ll tell you how long you’re in for: about 18 months. And then you’re going to get sucker punched and you’ll never know where it came from. The CEO is going to say, ‘Bill, I love you but no one else does—so we’re going to need to wrap this game up.’”
As the CHRO, Conaty said, “you have to work the whole 360.”
Other qualities Conaty cited included being a “talent magnet,” a great assessor of talent, someone who is able to operate in a global marketplace, a clear thinker and a change leader.
CHROs, he said, also need to have the ability to think through business issues and a capacity for complex problem solving. “You’ll still get some of the easy treadmill ones,” he said, “but you’re probably also going to confront things you haven’t confronted before … .”
His list also includes attributes such as operational savvy, decisiveness and the courage to make the tough calls, along with the need to be a continuous learner. You don’t want a person in the role who says he or she’s “ ‘been there, done that. I’ve seen it all,’ ” he said. “I never saw it all in my 40 years at GE. It was always a new day.”
At the end of the day, Conaty said, your job is to take [issues] off the CEO’s desk, not add to the pile. Conaty said he made it a point to never add to CEO Jack Welch’s pile. (I’m assuming the same was true when Immelt took the reigns.) If an issue arose that he felt Welch needed to be aware of, he said, he would bring it to his attention, but then tell him that he would take care of it and, if he couldn’t, would then get back to him. If you follow this approach, Conaty said, you’ll be “a welcomed face when you stick your head through that door.”
And who wouldn’t want to be a welcomed face when he or she entered the CEO’s office, right?Twitter It!