How do we get organizations to put the same emphasis and importance on their people resources as they do on other resource at their disposal? Would you put a person in the highest role in an organization, in charge of all its employees, if he or she hadn’t managed employees before? No. Would you put someone in charge of your financial area who didn’t have experience working with numbers? No. Then why would you put someone in an organization’s top job who doesn’t have some firsthand experience with the people side of the business?
I have been thinking about this topic for some time. I can remember a time back in the 1970s and 1980s when many U.S. companies were establishing operations outside the United States. Whether a company was shipping goods produced in the U.S. to another country, acquiring a company whose headquarters were outside the United States, or forming a joint venture abroad, the issues were always the same: You don’t know what you don’t know.
Disaster after disaster caused U.S. companies to rethink how they were approaching doing business outside our country. The realization was that U.S. companies that were moving into foreign markets needed to have a cadre of people who had lived and worked overseas. What many organizations found was that their managers were willing to take an assignment to London or Paris, but not in Beijing, Sao Paulo or Delhi. Or that it was never the right time to take an overseas assignment due to a child’s grade in school, an aging parent's needs or a conflict with a spouse’s career.
The thing that changed the situation was when boards of directors drew a line in the sand and said, “If you want to be considered as a CEO candidate, then you must have done a three-year assignment in another country. Period.” Almost overnight the issue went away.
Now let’s return to my harebrained suggestion of requiring CEO candidates to have completed a three-year assignment in Human Resources. I wish I had a nickel for every annual report that had a letter to shareholders extolling the importance of the organization’s human resources. If human resources are so critical to the success of the enterprise, how could you not see it as essential for the CEO to have spent three years in the HR trenches?
In my opinion, an HR assignment shouldn’t be a candidate’s first or second job out of college or an MBA program. It should be when he or she is midway through a career. These folks, who are seen as having the highest potential in your organization, need to have this experience and then a few more roles where they can put what they’ve learned into practice.
The time our high potentials spend in HR should be focused on organizational development and talent management. What could someone learn in HR that would prove useful back in the operating organization?
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