That’s what William Conaty, legendary head of human resources at GE, did in a job usually considered a staff position on the sidelines. “He has enormous trust at every level,” says GE’s former chief Jack Welch. “The union guys respect him as much as the senior managers.”
A few of Conaty’s axioms:
- Internal competition boosts performance. Employees produce more when they know they’re being compared and evaluated. “You have to know who are the least effective people on your team,” Conaty says, “and then you have to do something about them.”
- Befriend your boss and “you’re dead.” If you’re seen as the boss’s toady, nobody will trust you or confide in you, Conaty says. By the same token, Conaty’s boss encouraged him to “walk in my office and kick my butt when it needed to be.”
- Leaders need successors. Only weak leaders avoid this fact of life, but Conaty refused to stand for it. “If they kill two or three viable successors along the way, you have to start looking at the person who’s doing the killing,” he says.
- Free people up. One of Conaty’s jobs is to take problems off the desk of the CEO, solving them and moving on.
- Keep a sense of perspective. Concentrating on a few central goals will put your people in positions to handle occasional bouts of adversity. “If you can’t take a punch and you don’t have a sense of humor, you don’t belong in this company,” he says. “Everyone experiences failure now and then. It’s how you handle it that matters.”