The Twin Challenge of Talent

Exceptional leaders know that their greatest contribution is to cultivate other exceptional leaders. Peter Drucker often wrote about the importance of creating leaders for “the future that has already happened.”

February 22 2012 by JP Donlon


One afternoon several years ago, I got a call from A.G. Lafley, then the CEO of Procter & Gamble. He wanted to know whether his company made first place in our Best Companies for Leaders annual ranking. In 2005, the inaugural year of the study, P&G was first among the 20 we ranked that year, and Lafley was very proud of his company’s standing. Over the next two years, GE pulled ahead as the top-ranked firm, just edging out the folks from Cincinnati. It was shaping into a rivalry on the order of the Ohio State vs. Michigan contest. It seems that Lafley, who served on GE’s board, was going into a board meeting the next day and wanted to check if, indeed, P&G was able to eclipse General Electric in the standings (If it had, Lafley wanted to lord it over Jeff Immelt, as he knew the latter also was proud of GE’s ranking.) As it happens, P&G had to settle for No. 2—still an extraordinary result compared to the universe of companies measured. “Darn!” a disappointed, Lafley said, “Nevermind, we’ll do better next year.”

Exceptional leaders know that their greatest contribution is to cultivate other exceptional leaders. Peter Drucker often wrote about the importance of creating leaders for “the future that has already happened.” Every CEO I have ever met has told me that that the only real difference between a high-performing enterprise and those who stuck in the middle is the quality of talent throughout its ranks. So, when we inaugurated the Best Companies for Leaders rankings in 2005, we sought to measure how good companies were at doing this. Last year, we partnered with Howard Stevens, CEO of Chally Worldwide, who showed us a way of creating a more rigorous set of measures to capture what companies are doing to look three to four levels below the CEO to identify, nurture and refine their talent base. We expanded the list from 20 to 40 because in truth, all of the top companies were very close to one another and leagues ahead of most everyone else. If your company is not represented and you feel it has been unfairly overlooked, send me a message with the name and contact information of your senior HR executive and we will be certain to include your company in our subsequent study.

In the future, more and more jobs, even entry level ones, will require a minimum level of technical competency. Part of the nation’s unemployment woes are not just job creation, but a mismatch between the jobs that are on offer and the inability of employers to find people with the matching skills. Recently, we were speaking with Michael Bronfein, CEO of Remedi SeniorCare, a $150 million private institutional pharmacy company based in Baltimore with a proprietary technology for packaging and delivering medications to senior care facilities. Looking out over the next several months, he observes that the single biggest limiting factor in Remedi’s growth is not building the robotic systems that are at the heart of its pharmacy distribution, but in finding the electrical and mechanical engineers with the right skills to run the robots. Over the next six months, the company is looking to hire 60 such people to add to its workforce of 420. This coming transformation of the workforce is one reason “The Perils of Scientific Illiteracy” is a key issue facing business leaders today. Two generations ago, a person armed only with a high school diploma could join GM, Ford or Chrysler and earn a good living. But even automobile assembly jobs today require advanced technical and analytical skills. In addition to building leaders for the future, CEOs must find a way to build the workforce of the future.