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Ram Charan Says CEOs Need to be ‘Talent Magnets’

Charan says that CEOs must overcome any natural shyness they might have and define themselves by how well they help other people be successful.

“CEOs have to take charge of the challenge their companies face from not having the right talent for the future,” argues Ram Charan, the acclaimed business advisor to CEOs and author of numerous books such as “Execution” (co-authored with former Honeywell CEO Larry Bossidy) and “The Game Changer” (co-authored with former P&G CEO AG Lafley.) “Their HR people have failed.”

The long-time advisor to such leaders as Jack Welch and more recently GE’s Jeff Immelt has written a new book, “The High Potential Leader: How to grow Fast, Take on New Responsibilities, and Make an Impact,” which is certain to set the agenda for leaders who are mindful of the need to develop the necessary resources to transform their companies for the digital age. Companies have generally developed systems to identify and promote high-potential people, but he argues that they don’t have 20 or 30 years to develop junior people as they have done historically. Performance was largely measured by numbers with little digging for how the results were achieved. Some leadership traits like high integrity and the ability to communicate are constant and performance always matters. But these have become table stakes. “Without the qualities and abilities the fast-changing world now demands,” he says, “a leader is not likely to succeed in a high-level leadership job, at least not for long.”

Charan draws a distinction between high-potential individuals and high-potential leaders. A terrific thinker or analyst may have exceptional talent or expertise, but they often do their most productive work in private, free from distractions that intrude on solving the problem at hand. Such people rarely excel at leading other people. He observes that they often lose ground if they set their sights on a job where they have to deal with all sorts of people and relationship issues.

Charan points to Craig Silverstein, Sergey Brin’s and Larry Page’s first employee at Google. They hired him to build their search engine while they were all students at Stanford. Not long after Google was formed, Silverstein felt he should try a managerial role. But after several months, Silverstein admitted to the Wall Street Journal that “he wasn’t very good at it.” He became Google’s director of technology and stayed with it until he left the company in 2012.

Charan’s advice to CEOs is to become a talent magnet. Not every CEO comes to this easily. In fact, he points to the career of Tony Palmer, president of global brands and innovation at Kimberly-Clark as an example of a leader who saw the need to transform himself to do just that. When Palmer worked at Mars, he was confronted with the challenge. “I had five people reporting to me who had 140 years of combined experience,” Palmer is quoted in Charan’s book. “I was just 32 and I was their boss. I had no choice but to overcome my discomfort and take charge.” Later in his career while with Coca-Cola, Fisher Scientific, Kellogg and now Kimberly-Clark, Palmer says he began to define himself differently. “I now define myself by helping other people be successful. I’ve learned that when other people succeed at work, it really does improve their lives at home. It’s a powerful thing and I get a lot of enjoyment out of that.”

Palmer exceled at becoming a talent magnet which attracted the attention of others—even those outside the company where he worked. It catapulted him to all the above-mentioned brands. In fact, the ability to attract and develop talent is one of the things Palmer looks for in hiring people. CEOs, Charan says, should keep an informal list of people they come across both outside as well as inside their company and network with them from time to time—having an informal coffee here, or sending an anniversary greeting there to maintain and monitor relationships.

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About J.P. Donlon

J.P. Donlon
J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.