HR and Developing Talent: Just What is Your CEO Thinking?

“Criminal neglect.” “We’ve gotten way too comfortable poaching.” “No one wakes you in the morning and says they want to go work in the advertising business.”

Brash statements you might say, particularly when they refer to recruiting talent. Are these from disgruntled employees, or a managers roundtable, or maybe from focus group findings?

If you picked any of these, you would be wrong.

CEOs critical of their own organizations

Those were statements that came from three CEO’s of the largest advertising agency holding companies.

The CEOs that made these statements:

  • WPP Chief Executive Martin Sorrell: “Criminal Neglect.”
  • Omnicom Group CEO John Wren:We’ve gotten way too comfortable poaching.”
  • Interpublic Group of Companies CEO John Wren: “No one wakes you in the morning and says they want to go work in the advertising business.”

These CEO made a joint appearance at Transformation 2011 that was held in Austin, Texas. This is the Association of National Advertisers annual industry get together. According to Advertising Age, “they came together to lash the industry and, by implication, themselves, for not doing a better job at a crucial task: recruiting talent.”

And if that were not enough Andrew Benett, global CEO of Havas’ Arnold Worldwide, shared a recent survey of both employees and managers about talent titled Transforming Talent Management.” It showed that ad agencies have not done a good job of training, retraining, or motivating employees. “We are a people-focused industry but we don’t embrace that with our employees,” Benett said.

As I read these three articles, I could not believe that this was said, or that it was the CEO’s that said it. These are the kind of statements that you will read and almost invariably say, “They said what?”

This was a huge indictment of their industry. For these CEOs to call out HR and say basically that, “you are not doing enough”, is just another indictment for our beloved industry.

Fiddling while the industry burns

We have all seen the numerous white papers at the end of 2010 detailing the issues that the HR profession is facing within the confines of the organization. We have also witnessed the ongoing cat fight over at our national governing body.

It makes me think of the tale (really a popular legend) of Emperor Nero, who was accused of playing the fiddle while Rome burned. Someone even noted on one of my blog posts that they are tired of seeing HR called out and we should all focus on positive things.

But as I read these articles, I began to wonder how many other CEO’s feel the same way? How many CEO’s are privately concerned, not only about the trajectory of their companies, but the people issues that it will take to move their organizations forward? If you are not sitting at that special place, guess what? —  you know what the deal is.

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I applaud these gentlemen for speaking the truth. My mother would always tell me that sometimes the truth hurts. If I were in HR within these industries, there is just no way that I could walk around with my head held high. Your ballon has been deflated. You have been backed up against the wall. You have been called out on the national stage. You have been pummeled into submission.

Careers are life-long learning

I have always thought that there is a reason that all these call outs are happening. From the 2005 article on “Why We Hate HR” to the recent articles calling for marketing and public relations to run engagement, no one is just pulling these articles out of a hat. Where there is smoke, sometimes, there is fire.

Yes, HR is sometimes treated like the step child, but what we are going through is the result of years and years of neglect by the hands of practitioners who did not change or upgrade skills as the organizations needs were changing.

It reminds me of a conversation that I had with my daughter when she was studying for finals, and she said that she will be glad when she graduates. The reason was that she will never have to study again.

My comment to her was that once you have chosen your career, it then becomes a lifelong learning exercise. That is when the real studying begins. Every industry is moving at warp speed and you must stay abreast of industry challenges and issues and adjust accordingly.

Executive teams want more, CEOS today want more, and Boards of Directors want even more still. They are all aware that “talent” will be the big differentiator of successful companies as we go deeper into the 21st Century.

So I wonder: what is your CEO thinking?

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


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