How to Grow Great Talent: Balancing Passion with Compassion

How to Grow Great Talent: Balancing Passion with Compassion

Is your company growing? If not, you may be ignoring the most important set of data, the data around human talent that drives your business.

“If businesses managed their finances as carelessly as they manage their people, most would be bankrupt.” – The Talent Masters 2010

During JWMI’s last Leadership Live webinar series, Bill Conaty former senior vice president of human resources at General Electric and President at Conaty Consulting LLC shared some of his secrets for time-tested success building teams and growing great leaders. During his forty-year career at General Electric, Bill worked closely with CEO Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt with a laser-focus on people to build that company’s world-renowned talent machine.

Jack Welch popularized the idea of differentiation. A process that rewards the top 20% of the company, grows the middle 70% and in short, eliminates the bottom 10% of performers. And to many, this may seem harsh, but as Bill explained, it comes down to finding the right person for the job, and if someone isn’t performing, it’s giving them an opportunity to seek a position they will better enjoy.

But building talent requires more than just plucking one of Jack’s management principles from a book and implementing it within a company. In fact, that often leads to even worse outcomes. Instead, talent development requires an enlightened leadership team, starting at the CEO level, to find the right people and then subsequently put them in the right job. All the while building foundational values that everyone can align to and win by. For example, you communicate a value of speed, simplicity, and self-confidence that is simple to understand, remember and work towards throughout each task or project.


Part of that leadership team should include a Human Resources department that is an asset instead of an anchor to the business. HR should be a business partner to help leadership understand a person’s unique combination of traits that would make them the right fit and once onboard provide opportunities that would develop their talents. That could include continuous learning and improvement programs which help to retain and grow a workforce.

Finally, you need to implement a rigorous talent assessment program, customized to your business. And to do that you must instill a culture of candor and trust. Jack Welch demanded candor within GE; it’s a quality that helps to build trust and provide transparency. Everyone can improve, so being both open to receiving feedback as well as giving it, will allow staff to work towards manageable goals before they become fatal flaws. However, candor doesn’t develop naturally. It can take time, in fact, years, before an organization can feel comfortable to trust in the process. And through it, meritocracy can be achieved. After all, those that are performing the greatest should receive more than a meager annual raise year after year. If they are adding to your bottom line, then they need to be rewarded accordingly.

“People create the numbers; numbers don’t create the people.”

It’s also essential to manage egos in the workplace. Everyone is replaceable, even the CEO. However, a CEO succession plan, especially for a multi-billion dollar company, like GE, can and should be more time-consuming than other positions. In the case of Jack Welch, it was a daily discussion in the seven years between when Bill became SVP of HR and Jack retired. They worked closely together to add people to the successor list and subsequently take people off the list, all the while keeping the Board of Directors up-to-speed on the process. They created a list of traits for their “Ideal CEO”, a list that even Superman couldn’t match up to, but that they evaluated candidates against during the selection process. Finally, they narrowed it down to three people. The Board spent time with the candidates so that they could draw an opinion and supplement Jack’s. But at the end of the day, choosing the right person for the job is a gut call and you use the best data you have at the time.


And so it comes full-circle. Building a great team starts with leadership and specifically the CEO, whether this is your initial attempt at creating a winning workforce or you have entered into an organization where a process is already in place, it’s important to know that great leaders balance passion with compassion. That positive attitude vibrates throughout an organization. So, if you can remember that critical mantra as you build your team, your organization will grow.

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