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HR: An Executive Training Ground?

HR: An Executive Training Ground?

By Donna Bear from i4cp

June 22, 2009

The electorate has spoken. Obama’s lack of experience? Irrelevant. If the recent political race in the U.S. brought nothing else to light, it certainly raised the profile of how decision-makers must weigh the attributes of direct experience, relevancy, trust, hope and leadership in selecting a top executive. So, too, are businesses wrestling with such issues. Both Microsoft and LinkedIn considered the merits and trade-offs of selecting executives with no specific human resources experience to head up their HR organizations.

The Microsoft Path

CEO Steve Ballmer raised a few eyebrows with his selection of Lisa Brummel as Microsoft’s HR director in 2005. The software giant was facing product and stock price headaches as well as declining morale, so Brummel’s lack of HR experience worried some, even though she had been with the firm since 1989. Previously the general manager of one of Microsoft’s consumer business entities, Brummel was tasked with refreshing the culture and the employee value proposition. Ballmer considered Brummel an ideal candidate because she “knew intimately how the company worked” and “could relate to employees because she grew up professionally at Microsoft, a workplace unlike any other” (“Reshaping,” 2007). Ballmer says he knows his appointment of Brummel to the top HR spot is working because Microsoft’s “employee poll tells us what 80,000 people are thinking. And what 80,000 people are thinking is very important.”

The LinkedIn Journey

Dan Nye, former CEO of professional networking Web site LinkedIn, went through a similar challenge. After the firm ballooned from 60 to 300 employees in 2007-2008, Nye embarked on a search for a vice president of human resources who could leverage the value of LinkedIn’s people for the rapidly growing firm. Interviews left Nye with a sense of “disappointment with the intellectual caliber” of many of the candidates (White, 2008). At the same time, Nye had been seeking a permanent spot for Arvind Rajan, a consultant for LinkedIn who had impressed Nye with his critical-thinking skills. Rajan was bright, had already established Nye’s trust, had strong analytical and leadership skills, and had demonstrated his ability to work with various groups. But, alas, Rajan had no HR experience. After mulling the decision over with various business partners, Nye accepted the risks of Rajan’s less-than-complete HR toolkit in favor of the trust and comfort level he felt with Rajan’s strong generalist qualities as a leader.

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