Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Jeffrey M Cohn on Talent Management

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Jeffrey M Cohn on Talent Management
February 2007 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary


Jeffrey M Cohn
Director of Research at Chief Executive Leadership Institute (now at Yale);
Director at the Law & Economics Consulting Group.


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  • Firstly, congratulations on having produced a masterpiece on Talent Management and Succession Planning (Growing Talent as if your Business depended on it, HBR, October 2005) in recent times. Credits to other two co authors too. What was the trigger to embark upon a threeyear research program?
    What motivated me? Every board in the country says that one of its top responsibilities is succession planning. Yet, a high percentage of these same boards will openly admit that their own succession planning process falls short. Thats a fairly serious and puzzling disconnect. But it doesnt stop there.

    Rarely in the history of Corporate America have we seen such onslaught of boards recruiting CEOs from outside their own corporate walls. In my opinion, this is nothing short of a total boardlevel governance meltdown. And as shareholders, we sit idly on the sidelines. How can boards of companies, in which we invest our hard earned dollars, let their companys internal talent pipelines run so dry? When key positions become vacant, why should companies be forced to look externally for talent? We all know its a huge risk to bring in an outsider. Who knows if the new leaders style or even his skills will mesh with the underlying strategic needs and culture of the organization? Externally recruited CEOs fail at a much faster rate as internally groomed ones. Why then don't boards, as the stewards of our investment, spearhead, sponsor and monitor talent development and bench strength? And why dont they do all of this before key positions become vacant? Just seems like common sense to me. Thats what spurred my research.

  • On hindsight, how do you rate your research output?
    Many CEOs continue to contact me after reading my Harvard Business Review cover story, wanting to know how to assess their talent, how to improve their bench strength and how to enhance their succession planning process. On the surface at least, they seemed genuinely interested in the results and recommendations of my research. And for me, thats where the rubber meets the road. I am not an academic. I am a practitioner. My ultimate goal is not to publish papers or get tenure. Its to get hard nosed, bottom line oriented CEOs to actually try new things that will improve their bench strength and competitive position.

  • What are the major insights/ findings of that well crafted research?
    By far, the major insight is that the best organizations actively zero in on and begin to groom rising stars earlier in their careers. Sounds easy, but its not. First of all, in most organizations of substantial size, where do you even begin looking to find these rising stars? How (and who) do you assess to determine whether a good manager can morph into a rising star? Who does this assessment? How can you be sure youre comparing apples to apples? How can you ensure objectivity? Once youve identified your pool of rising stars, how do you groom them? Should you assign mentors to these rising stars? When and how often should you rotate them into different positions in the organization? And then there are more subtle, but equally important issues to consider. For example, at the most basic level, do you tell the rising star that he or she is in fact a rising star? And if you do tell them, what do you tell the other solid citizens in the organization that didnt make the cut? And if you keep rising stars in the dark, dont you substantially raise the risk of attrition as headhunters come knocking on doors? Answers to all these questions will have a profound impact on a companys overall talent management system. Getting all these component pieces to synch up in perfect harmony is the end result of what I call an aligned talent management system. And thats the basis for an enduring advantage that competitors simply cant copy. They cant copy it, frankly, because from the outside looking in they wont even be able to understand how all the pieces fit together. If CEOs truly believe that their talent plays a critical role in their organizations success, then they better hope their talent management system is aligned. Our research showed that at least half of organizations need better aligned talent management systems.

  • Lets look at Tyson Foods and CEO John Tyson's initiatives. Is this the case in most companies across the globe or is it just an exception? Do you find the imperative for leadership development is proportional to a companys market position the bigger the company, the more intense the desire to have a structured and organized leadership development initiative, including succession planning?
    In the small town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, when employees at Tyson Foods come to work each morning, the name they see plastered on the building is the exact name as the companys CEO and largest shareholder, (John) Tyson. Its hard to imagine a CEO that had more on the line and more to lose by not developing future leaders. Its his fortune and his good name thats at stake. Indeed, John has told me on several occasions that he would like for his legacy to include creating and embedding a culture of leadership development throughout the whole organization. Yet rewind a few years ago, and there was a serious gap between the companys bench strength and the companys talent needs. To bridge this gap, I helped John develop a program called Talent Alignment and Optimization (TAO). TAO ensured that the company invested in the right leadership development activities, that all these initiatives complemented one another, and that the entire talent management system was aligned and integrated. Once built, the system ensured that the right person would be ready to step into a key organizational position at the exact moment it became vacant. Many CEOs pay a lot of lip service to the importance of their people and of developing talent. Not John Tyson. TAO was and still is at the very top of his agenda, and the results are clear. TAO is now in its third iteration and the company has substantially enhanced the depth and strength of its bench.

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