I’ve been talking lately about how individual contributors are not always the best leaders. Here, Jeff Hunter talks about why sometimes the individual contributor can become a great executive, and some of the problems they must overcome to get there.
A Vice President of HR may be expected to have a great eye for talent, the capability to negotiate complex contracts, the analytical ability to assemble complex compensation structures and the knack for coaching CEOs to greatness. Everyone takes for granted that as one climbs the ladder that they have demonstrated proficiencies in an ever greater number of areas. HR writes job descriptions, selects talent, manages performance and compensates people based on this deeply held assumption.
Imagine an HR leader who has just one competency: coaching. Whenever a search firm is looking for talent, they always land on this person, because they have been a long-time leaders at a very successful company. And yet, as the firm digs into the individual’s back story, they hear a long string of complaints: doesn’t understand compensation, bad manager, doesn’t understand technology, etc. We know where this story ends: the search firm passes the individual over and heads to the vertically integrated example of “executiveness.”
HR’s obsession should be creative productivity: increasing the creative commercialization opportunity of their talent investments. ((Hunter, Jeff, October 17, 2009. “John Lennon’s, The Future Of HR and Talent Camp.” Retrieved from http://www.talentism.com on December 28, 2009.))
I think Jeff is absolutely right. We often think that we have to groom people and give them lots of experiences to be ready for leadership positions. We’re adding to the idea of competencies and saying that additional strategic talent attributes are how many divisions someone has worked in, and if a person has and 2+ international assignments.
One of my first consulting gigs was with an organization where the EVP of HR didn’t really have an active hand in HR. He had his group of 3 VP’s of HR who managed the day to day business. Instead, this EVP was the executive coach to the CEO who wanted to turn this midsized company (7k employees) into a large company, and wanted to be the type of CEO who could grow and scale with it. I’ve also seen EVP’s of HR where the core competency has nothing to do with compensation or talent, but is all about their ability to sit at the integration table during acquisition planning.
However, when we go out and look for senior HR executives, we stand by the old tried and true methods of someone who gets total compensation and talent. Succession plans still go out and make people well rounded and provide lots of broad experience. We don’t look at what the needs of the business really are, and decide if there are very focused areas of competency that need to be enhanced for the specific role in the organization.
The problem I think is simple. Our senior HR positions are not written at a job description level in a way that reflects the reality of what the C-suite wants and expects from the person. There is a job role that the incumbent will never execute upon because those jobs are really farmed out to the next level of HR management. Instead, the C-suite wants an active participant. Not somebody who can sit around and talk about HR, but someone who can talk about the business. This does not always come from broad HR experience in multiple HR functions, in multiple corporate divisions, from several international assignments. If you need an acquisition specialist, then you need someone who has gone through the acquisitions. If you need a coach, then perhaps you need to go outside and find someone who has been through a high growth cycle with another organization. Whatever it is, your senior roles need to reflect reality, not the standard job description that is in a random salary survey.