What makes a business leader great as talent managers?

The pendulum of talent management

Management Written by Chan Chao Peh Monday, 08October 2012

Jack Welch, the legendary former boss of US conglomerate General Electric, has often been hailed as one of the greatest business leaders around. Under his tenure, he not only brought value to GE shareholders but the company also became a favourite hunting ground for recruiters looking for CEOs to helm other leading firms. The list has included Boeing, Fannie Mae, Pfizer, Home Depot, Chrysler and Intuit and helped seal Welch’s reputation as a great manager of talent.

However, according to Insead’s Professor Narayan Pant, there is a growing list of equally capable business leaders in this region. Pant, who runs strategic management courses for senior executives, has been in touch with three of them personally.

Lim Chee Onn, former executive chairman of Keppel Corp, comes across as quiet and unassuming, and generally low-key in the technocrat mould. “He is very clear on what he wants and he allows people to get on with their jobs,” says Pant in an interview with Management@Work. Under Lim, Keppel Corp built on its base of assets in shipyards and properties and grew into a leading player in the marine and offshore industry.

Lee Hsien Yang, former CEO of Singapore Telecommunications, was a master at keeping his cool and staying rational. In one little known episode during the company’s A$14 billion transformative acquisition of Optus, Lee and his team were already at the airport to catch a flight for Sydney, thinking that they had sewn up a deal, when they learnt that the other party was backing out. Pant recalls what Lee told him: “‘Let’s go home,’ Lee said, as he and his team disembarked from the plane. Then, they got another call from the other party to say that the deal was on again, and they boarded the plane again. In M&A deals, people do get swept away by the moment —you want to make the deal more than anything else. Here is an example of someone with a very clear sense of ideas, who was very calm and rational.”

In the case of Nazir Razak, he was instrumental in building a regional finance powerhouse in the form of CIMB Group. He was “remarkably successful” in convincing his staff to share his goals and ambition, and once those had been decided, he gave his employees plenty of room to “get on with it”. “I have rarely, ever seen a CEO who is so universally admired by everyone in his organisation,” says Pant, one of the key speakers featured in the Singapore Human Capital Summit held here recently.

Despite the different styles, throughout his years of experience in this field, Pant has discerned one key trait that makes a business leader great. “Their conversation is peppered with more questions than statements. I have been in situations in which I thought I was conducting an interview, but my interviewee turned around and asked me way more questions. They are intensely curious people, they are always learning, and this is an extremely important attribute,” he says.

This trait is necessary in today’s constantly changing business environment. For example, at last year’s summit, buoyed by the continued momentum of a sharp recovery from the global financial crisis, conference participants generally believed that they were going back to the old model of growth in Asia. “People were kind of feeling that it was back to business as usual,” says Pant. “This year, the feeling is very different: Whatever this thing is, it is here to stay. We’ve got to figure out what to do in this new normal.” He is referring to the ongoing economic problems.

Pant believes the issue of managing talent in today’s difficult environment requires different approaches, ideas and sensitivities. This, in turn, requires constant, renewed discussion on talent issues.

To be sure, organisations and businesses are paying increasing attention to the issue of talent management. They have been formulating and implementing talent-management systems and processes, and then refining and improving on such processes.

Does having an effective talent management framework and practices in place, such as thorough induction programmes for new hires, diminish the role of star talent managers like Welch? “That may be so, but when we get to that stage, I start worrying, because it means we have become so systematised that we’ve stopped thinking —you’ve got a bunch of people who are just employing a system,” says Pant.

The issue is constantly evolving, he observes. “Things come and go in cycles. Too little attention and then too much attention, and then you start backing off; so, it is a pendulum. If you look at the fads and fashion, just like management education over the years, we’ve seen conglomeration, de-conglomeration, offshoring, reorganisation and all sorts of things. The kind of emphasis we give to talent probably follows the cyclical trend,” says Pant. “But are we giving too much attention? I don’t think we are there yet.”

This story appeared in The Edge Singapore on Oct 1, 2012

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