Conaty: Strategic HR Is Being a Talent Master

By Bill Leonard Oct 6, 2011
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Bill Conaty

CHICAGO—No doubt about it, Bill Conaty knows a thing or two about the strategic value of human resources.

Conaty, who retired as senior vice president of human resources for General Electric in 2007, was the keynote speaker on Oct. 5, 2011, for the opening general session of the 2011 Society for Human Resource Management Strategy Conference here.

“At this stage of my life and after retiring from an organization like GE, I only do things that I am really passionate about,” he told the audience. “And I have a real passion for functions such as this conference and the chance to meet with professionals like you.”

Conaty had a stellar career as an HR executive with GE for nearly 40 years and worked closely with GE’s legendary CEO Jack Welch and the company’s current CEO Jeffrey Immelt. During the conference session, Conaty discussed his career at GE and said that one of the key lessons he learned from Welch was that for HR professionals to be effective, they must understand the business equation and how HR fits into and supports that equation.

Conaty’s perspective on HR’s role within an organization led him to co-author, with former Harvard Business School professor Ram Charan, The Talent Masters: Why Smart Leaders Put People Before Numbers (Crown Business, 2010).

“Writing a book wasn’t on my bucket list, but it came together and I believe it offers a unique and fresh perspective,” he said.

The opening sentence of the book reads, “If businesses managed their finances as carelessly as they managed their people, then they would all be bankrupt.” Conaty told the audience that while the statement tends to make many business leaders uncomfortable, it is unfortunately all too true.

He said that the most successful organizations tend to share several key principles. First, they have enlightened leadership teams and CEOs who understand the value and importance of talent.

“These CEOs see talent as a competitive advantage and use it to push their organizations forward,” Conaty said.

In addition, successful organizations strive toward meritocracy and understand the value of differentiation by identifying and rewarding the best and the brightest in the organization.

“The key is to strive to be the best. When you strive to be the same or normal, then you’re doomed to mediocrity,” he said.

A culture of candor and trust is another attribute that most leading organizations have, according to Conaty. He told the audience that achieving that culture isn’t easy and said it took nearly 10 years before the culture took hold in GE.

“When Jack Welch became CEO, he challenged the notion that the company leaders actually provided accurate feedback of job performances. It was a bit of a shock at first to be totally candid, but Jack proved it was needed,” Conaty said. “And this has to be a top-down implementation, because once your boss gives you candid and accurate feedback of your performance, then you’ll understand how it feels and do the same to the folks who work for you.”

Another of Conaty’s key principles is that successful organizations have rigorous and accurate assessments of talent.

“And it’s very important that talent assessments are viewed as a business process and not solely an HR process,” he said. “HR can facilitate the process, but the business value of talent assessments must be understood and embraced by everyone, especially the CEO.”

After Conaty reviewed and elaborated on the key principles, he offered the following advice to becoming a successful and strategically minded HR professional:

  • Understand the business and industry dynamics.
  • Build your vision for the HR function around the business model.
  • Become problem-solvers instead of problem-identifiers.
  • Have the independence, a sense of values and the courage of your convictions to challenge the system and do what you think is right.
  • Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. In other words, have a sense of humor and don’t be rigid.
  • Never forget why you are at the table, and have a healthy balance of being a business partner and employee advocate.

He told the audience that before he went to work for GE, his first employer once said, “Bill Conaty may be the first HR guy who actually cared about humans.”

“I don’t know if that was supposed to be praise for me or an indictment of HR,” he said. “But let’s never forget that people are the best and most important assets that any organization possesses.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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