For CEOs to New Hires, Industry Legend’s HR Lessons Drive Impact

William Bill Conaty Human Resources
Bill Conaty

As the global organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry noted, the truly great coaches spawn “coaching trees,” meaning “coaches who develop assistants that go on to great success elsewhere.” Examples can include New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick; others mention Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Korn Ferry further notes that the same can occur with HR leaders, and one example they give: Bill Conaty.

Conaty served as senior vice president of corporate human resources from 1993 until 2007. In this capacity, he was responsible for all human resources activities for GE’s 330,000 employees worldwide. Conaty is an Operating Advisor to Clayton, Dubilier & Rice funds and has served as a personal advisor to the CEOs of companies around the world, including P&G, Boeing, Dell, Goodyear, LG Electronics (Korea), and UniCredit (Italy). He also is the co-author of The Talent Masters: Why Smart Leaders Put People Before Numbers.

Along with other HR innovators, Conaty sees the role as helping solve business problems. He told Korn Ferry: “HR people take problems off desks. Managers, particularly executives, will get plenty of those from legal, finance, compliance, and elsewhere. HR has to be different. Even today, you see HR folks who are great problem identifiers, but not-so-great problem solvers. Whether it was a plant manager or [GE CEO] Jack Welch saying, “What do we do?” I’d say, “You don’t do anything, I’m working on it.”

But beyond the HR role, Conaty’s published guidance — insights gained from working with and studying organizations, cultures, and leaders — is relevant for CEOs, HR leaders, business managers, and even new employees (which is especially timely as another round of college graduates prepares to enter the workforce).

CEOs & Senior Managers

For CEOs, they may want to note the beginning of Conaty’s book The Talent Masters: “If businesses managed their finances as carelessly as they managed their people, then they would all be bankrupt.”

How central is people management to a company’s success? The book further notes: “Nothing is more important to a company’s performance than its ability to develop and deploy talent with ‘the right stuff.’”

Additional insights from Conaty for CEOs and senior managers can be found in a SHRM article, which states that Conaty “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.”

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

The post continues: “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.

New Employees

New employees should note what Conaty told Fortune about the process of learning a new company’s culture — and the time frame in which new employees should have a handle on it: “Oftentimes, the lack of a robust . . . assimilation process leaves the new employee confused and disoriented.” He continued: “Within 90 days, hopefully they’ve figured out the system or they might be the wrong cultural fit.”

HR Leaders

So what makes a strong HR leader? As Conaty told Korn Ferry: “Courage is definitely important. Depending on the company culture, you have to be able to push back. If you don’t push back on an issue that is important to you, then you will get rolled. You also always have to be in a learning mode; you can’t have a been-there, done-that mentality.”

SHRM writes that Conaty “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.

For more on Conaty, here is a podcast interview he conducted last year.

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