Leveraging The Power Of The Chief Talent Officer

Great people make great companies—and more CEOs are realizing that putting stock in talent acquisition and development is just good strategy.

Twelve years ago, recruiting guru Kevin Wheeler wrote an article with the cheeky title, "Chief Talent Officer: What in the @#$^& Is That?" At that time most corporate executives had never heard of a chief talent officer, or they immediately associated the title "CTO" with the chief technology officer.

Today, most major corporations have a CTO or an executive who is recognized as playing that role, whatever it may be called. However, many companies have yet to fully tap the power of the CTO position. On the other hand, some CEOs have discovered that when they form a genuine strategic partnership with their CTO, great things are possible.

I set out to better understand the CEO-CTO relationship by interviewing CEOs and CTOs who lead their organizations through talent.

What Great CEOs Bring To The Partnership

1.Great CEOs know people are the priority.
Most business leaders today accept as an infallible truth that an organization’s most important resource is its people. Being genuinely committed to that tenet forms the basis of a winning CEO-CTO relationship.

Mike George is president and CEO of QVC, the televised and online shopping network, with 17,000 employees worldwide. George described talent management as "a senior, strategic leadership function."

"We know it is our people who drive our business forward," George said.

Golf Inc. magazine has described Eric Affeldt, CEO of ClubCorp, as "the most powerful person in golf." ClubCorp has 14,000 employees operating more than 150 clubs. Affeldt says his approach to leadership is all about people.

"All great leaders are very good at allocating resources. This is where people come in," Affeldt said. "The number one most important resource allocation challenge that all leaders have is putting the right people in place and then helping them to be successful."

Perhaps no industry puts a higher premium on good talent than professional sports. When Major League pitcher and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan transitioned to the business side as principal owner and CEO of the Texas Rangers, he wanted to have the best people not only on the field but in the front office.

"You have to put the right people in the right seats," said Rick George, the Rangers’ chief operating officer. "What I think we’ve been doing effectively here is we have people in the right seats. The one thing Nolan has done is really create a culture of family and togetherness, where everybody has a role."

When Chief People Office Leslie Joyce joined Novelis, Inc., an aluminum manufacturer with 11,000 employees in 11 countries, in 2009, she was surprised and pleased by CEO Phil Martens’ commitment to talent development. She cited the example of a program for global high potentials. Her proposal was to run two dozen people through a three-week program that included travel each week to and from emerging markets and the company’s Atlanta headquarters.

Knowing her proposal was ambitious and expensive, Joyce expected Martens to reduce the time frame. Instead, Martens responded, "I think it should be longer," and added a fourth week to the program. "For people in our space, at that time or any time, you seldom walk into a CEO’s office and he says, ‘Make the program longer,’" Joyce said.

Martens said he is committed to talent and talent development. "At the end of the day, people are just real people. If you get to their heart and soul, you will get their head. But if you get to the head, you may not get their heart."

"To build real value as a CEO," said Martens, "you have to appreciate the contribution of the people who work for you, with you and around you. The most successful organizations have active talent acquisition and development programs firmly in place, and at Novelis, this has been key to attracting and retaining the world-class talent necessary to drive our transformation."

2.Great CEOs make the CTO a trusted partner.

A CEO who truly values talent sees the logic of developing a strategic partnership with the CTO.

QVC's George said he views Beth Rubino, executive vice president of human resources, as "increasingly more important to all key strategic growth initiatives." He said, "Beth and I have a solid business partnership grounded in trust, and deeply rooted in the business."

Joyce said one reason her relationship with Martens works so well is that they see eye-to-eye on talent management philosophy, agreeing on what works and what doesn’t and even sharing a common talent vocabulary. To form an effective partnership, CEOs and CTOs need to spend some quality time getting to know where the other is coming from on talent management.

George said he and Ryan are in frequent communication. "I can come in and speak to him any time and he can speak to me any time about anything." Joyce said she talks with Martens two or three times a day. Martens said he made sure Joyce’s office was in close proximity.

"You have to have the ability to have enough comprehensive discussions throughout the day," he said.

Treating each other as friends and granting each other access, honesty and trust create the context for a winning CEO-CTO partnership. Bob Beaudine, CEO of the executive search firm Eastman & Beaudine, is author of the bestselling The Power of Who, in which he touts the business potential of personal relationships. "We’ve been taught for so long that business and friendships are taboo, and that’s ridiculous. I’m supposed to work with people I don’t know and don’t trust?"

"That is crazy," Beaudine said. "The critical issue for CEOs as they pick people is the ‘who factor.’ Do they really know you? Do they really trust you?"

What Great CTOs Bring To The Partnership

A healthy CEO-CTO partnership is not possible unless the CEO wants to make it happen. However, cultivating that relationship is a two-way street. A good CTO knows how to deliver on his or her end of the bargain.

1.Great CTOs make the CEO their No. 1 client.

Perhaps the most significant contribution a CTO can make to the partnership is to view the CEO as the CTO’s No. 1 client. Like everybody, CEOs need to be learning and developing, and the best talent officers help make that happen.

When Hy Pomerance became CTO at New York Life Insurance Co. in 2009, he started working on his strategic partnership with CEO Ted Mathas.

"It really started with me taking an interest in him as a leader," Pomerance said. "I really wanted to understand, deeply understand, where he was in his own journey as a leader."

It is no surprise that many CEOs find it difficult to open up about areas in which they may have room for growth. Pomerance recommends humility and patience.

"I didn’t come in preaching," he said. "I didn’t come in saying, ‘Let me tell you a thing or two.’ I kept my relationship on what I would call the ‘interview level.’ I had lots of questions. That gave him the confidence that he could start asking me questions."

Beaudine said some prospective and new executive hires make the mistake of coming on too strong too quickly. "They immediately start to express that they understand someone’s needs. A CEO is not going to let you talk about needs. Why? You didn’t take time to develop a relationship."

Pomerance focused on the needs of the organization as a way to build the relationship he needed with the CEO so they could position the CEO as the change agent he had the capacity and instincts to be. "I couched it as his three-year vision for how, as a leader, he would like to have a different impact in the future than he is having today. We talked about what he is trying to change in the company, and then, how he could leverage his talents and instincts to be that agent of change."

2.Great CTOs gain the trust of other key leaders in addition to the CEO.

In developing a healthy relationship with the CEO, the CTO can’t ignore other top executives. The best CTOs know that one of their best resources is strong alliances with other members of the executive team.

"You can’t just have an allegiance with the CEO, because you work with all of those people," said Joyce. "It is important, particularly for talent people and HR people, to have a very concrete and trusting and transparent relationship with all members of the executive committee. It makes it far easier for him [the CEO] to trust his CTO or his head of HR if his team trusts them and respects them as well."

For CTOs who do not enjoy a strong CEO relationship, Joyce recommends starting with the other top executives. "I think the tactic that I would take, if I didn’t have it at the CEO level, is to get it with the executive team or people with whom the CEO has great relationships, so that you build advocacy for who you are and what you do."

—Louis Carter is founder and CEO of Best Practice Institute and the author of several books, including "Best Practices in Leadership Development." He is a highly regarded authority on learning, talent, leadership development and change.

[Image: Flickr user Michael Donovan]

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2 Comments

  • Skillrater

    Thanks Michelle. You raise a good question. The competency of trust and building trusting relationships is a very personal subject. 

  • Michelle

    Great article! The element of "trust" really jumps out at me in this piece. For me trust has two parts (a) being trusting and (b) being truth worthy. Both take lots of time and energy which we seem short of these days and the complexity of our environments often create competing agendas. I'm curious what behaviors people employ and/or interpret as building trust?