HR Leadership Column

Pinpointing Leadership Qualities

Social networking is changing the way HR leaders think of legal risks and recruiting opportunities. It also should make them think about the way they select high-potential candidates for leadership-development programs.

Monday, November 29, 2010
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In recent weeks I attended two events with CHROs from Fortune 500 companies. Each event provided attendees with an opportunity for an open exchange about the challenges and trends they were seeing globally and within their organizations.

At each meeting the conversation turned to a discussion about the growth of social media -- Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others -- and the implications that it held for their organization and the HR function.

There was a general consensus that social-media sites were proliferating and changing rapidly, that they would continue to multiply and change, and it would therefore require ongoing attention. Social media was on everyone's radar.

Some of the discussion centered on the legal aspects of social media, such as managing risks associated with giving employees access to social-media websites during working hours. Not surprisingly, some organizations with high security requirements were generally more restrictive, blocking access.

Others were comfortable with worker use of the medium, only providing general guidance to employees that they not harm the reputation of the company. Some had written policies to provide guidance to their employees, some had nothing -- yet. (The NLRB's recent case against an employer who fired an employee for a posting on Facebook may change this.)

Some of the discussion focused on social media as a marketing and business-development tool, to enhance the brand and build a buzz. Here, too, different organizations had different strategies -- with some centralizing control over all social-media efforts and others dispersing responsibility throughout their organizations.

And, of course, some of the discussion focused on social media as a recruitment tool, enabling creation of a larger, more diverse applicant pool in a very cost-effective way, as well as using social media as a tool for checking applicants' backgrounds.

While social media does raise some interesting legal, marketing and recruiting opportunities, the more interesting conversation to me was the conversation about the way social media will eventually redefine organizations and how they're structured, and the type of talent that will be necessary to lead these organizations.

Social-media technology is enabling dramatic changes in the way employees communicate with each other and provides much broader involvement for the whole organization. This offers the opportunity to create engagement and innovation -- both critical to an organization's success.

But much of this communication won't follow a company's traditional organization chart. Instead, employees will simply go to the "source" -- the person with the greatest knowledge of a subject -- to get information, bypassing the often time-consuming bureaucratic approach of "going through channels."

Organization charts won't be a pyramid, or even a flattened pyramid, but a constellation of hubs, connected by employee networks. In such a world, how will HR help find the next generation of leaders?

Whirlpool, the largest appliance company in the world, with 70,000 employees, is doing some interesting work in an effort to answer this question.

Whirlpool invested in extensive employee surveys to develop a map of informal networks within the company -- a sociogram -- to graphically depict the links between people within the organization.

Through this process, Whirlpool identified employees it describes as knowledge brokers, people who can get to someone else in the organization in two to three steps.

We all have known these people in our own organizations -- the "go-to" individuals when you need the answers to a host of questions. These people essentially represent nodes in the corporate social network -- places where many other employees go to gather information.

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Whirlpool then compared this list of knowledge brokers to the list of high-potential employees that was developed as part of the normal leadership-development program.

The results? There was very little overlap. The most effective knowledge brokers weren't making it onto the high-potential lists.

According to Nancy Tennant, corporate vice president for leadership and strategic competencies for Whirlpool, the company is "starting to remodel our leadership and talent model to include social networks as a key development mechanism."

The Whirlpool findings probably aren't unusual; employees identified as high potentials are frequently effective at managing up, while knowledge brokers are frequently more effective at managing across the organization.

But the implications for HR are clear: As social media allows for the creation of more social networks within an organization, and it becomes easier to manage across the organization, how will the leaders of the future be identified if current leadership-development models don't at least consider this new reality?

Is a leader who excels at managing up the best leader for a socially networked world?

So, while HR executives need to address some of the obvious policy questions that come with the rise of social media, they also need to examine their current leadership-development models. Will those models provide the right leaders for a networked world?

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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