Who Is the Greatest HR Leader Ever?

Editor’s Note: Dr. John Sullivan has been a provocateur and strategist in the field of human resources and talent management for over 30 years. His specialty is HR strategy and designing world class HR systems and tools for Fortune 200 firms, and he’s never been shy about telling it like it is.

That’s why TLNT asked him to share his thinking in a video series titled “$#*!@ Dr. John Sullivan Says!” Look for these videos twice a week here at TLNT.

Today’s topic: Why Jack Welch matters

‘Who’s the best HR person you ever met?” Dr. John Sullivan wonders? His answer (and it’s likely to be controversial) — Jack Welch.

“(He) was the CEO of GE (General Electric) and he wasn’t an HR person,” Dr. John says. “That wasn’t his job. But if you look at what he did and how he did it, it’s the model we all ought to follow.”

He notes that in Welch’s books, he says that it is a crime that HR is rated so low, and that the human resources staff — the people who bring in and nurture an organization’s talent — should be ranked above the CFO, who just handles the money and finances.

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Dr. John also talks about Jack Welch’s famous “forced ranking” system, defined by Bloomberg BusinessWeek as a system where managers “divide talent into three groups — a top 20 percent, a middle 70 percent, and a bottom 10 percent, many of whom were shown the door.” When you “get rid of them, you might free up a spot where you might get a Tiger Woods, or a LeBron (James), or a superstar.”

He also feels that Welch’s philosophy of giving workers “brutally honest feedback” every quarter is the way more organizations should go. “(Welch) said it was a crime to lie to employees to make them think they were doing good when they weren’t … and let’s face it: most of our employment appraisal is a lie. It’s postponing honest feedback.”

Jack Welch was also big on pay for performance and training,”putting tons of money into training and developing leaders.” Overall, the stock price at GE (when Welch was there) showed the result of this kind of thinking from the top. “And,” Dr. John says, “we can learn from all of that.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


2 Comments on “Who Is the Greatest HR Leader Ever?

  1. Very good discussion. Jack Welch is someone I’ve cited often for having the proper approach to employee recognition. His differentiation method is often misunderstood.He said: “The middle 70% are enormously valuable to any company; you simply
    cannot function without their skills, energy, and commitment. And that’s
    the major challenge, and risk — keeping the ‘middle 70’ engaged and
    motivated. … But everyone in the middle 70 needs to be motivated, and
    made to feel as if they truly belong.” Of course, the top 10% need to be
    recognized for their efforts, but don’t neglect the middle 70.

  2. Couldn’t. Agree. More.
    Straight from the Gut is one of those books I find myself continually re-reading and pulling out new information and methods with each read. GE without a doubt has a culture of respect and high expectations for it’s HR professionals which Welch must be credited for. People are the game changer and cultivating great leaders isn’t an over night fix. Deloitte has studied GE’s leadership development model and is about to open a $300 million dollar facility in the DFW area. They recognize the scarcity and importance of developing capable leaders for the next generation of global challenges.
    Is contracted management the future or should more companies begin to seriously evaluate how they develop their next set of corporate leaders? I’m willing to bet GE will be fine.
    Great article!

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