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Helping people 'become what they are' is personnel's primary function

Alan Duke , 29 Mar 2012

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We recently shared a conference stage on ‘the talent war’ with an HR director still licking her wounds.

Her major hi-tech (and high-turnover) firm had countless international project opportunities, but no knowledge of their employees’ competencies, aspirations or availability. So she had invited all employees to post their CVs online, so managers could go poaching anywhere and any way they wanted. It may have been the quickest way to solve her problem, but what about the internal chaos and dents in HR’s already shaky credibility?

We suddenly felt lucky to have spent 35 years at the other end of the spectrum. At Michelin, knowing people, and helping them to reveal and develop all their potential, to “become what they are” at their own pace, is personnel’s primary function.

Vocabulary is important: 'personnel', not 'HR', because people are not a 'resource' to be stockpiled and tallied, waiting to be bought and sold. Each person is a unique and irreplaceable asset, with emotions, capable of making decisions and progressing when given the chance). Personnel’s remit is not only to staff current needs with the best people wherever they happen to be, but also to raise talent for future, often unknown challenges.

Old-fashioned paternalism? The company is certainly proud of its French family traditions and strong culture of discretion and respect, but also of its history of innovation and quality. After 120 years’ continued growth, Michelin employs 115,000 people in 170 countries, with 70 manufacturing plants in 19 countries and research centres on three continents. The company plans to add 50% more capacity by 2020, essentially in emerging markets.

We also felt lucky to have been at the heart of the action, responsible for appointments and the career development of the company’s 500 most senior managers, and for identifying and grooming their successors throughout the world. Our credibility (and clout) came in part from our previous experience as operational managers and the direct delegation we enjoyed from the top, but also (or so we would like to believe) from our evaluating skills and the pertinence of our actions. But above all, it came from personnel’s strategic role in the company’s scheme of things, and a few basic, time-honoured rules, with methods and tools to back them up.

People are recruited by personnel, for a career, not a job, and personality comes before competence. An individual’s potential to develop is the cornerstone of all career management. Therefore, careers take precedence over short-term operational needs, and managers do not 'own' their people. They are responsible for managing performance, developing skills and creating conditions for success, including releasing people for the greater good, when required.

Managers cannot manage career development, because their relation with their employees is limited in time and space and they do not have access to opportunities outside their own sphere of influence. The vast majority of managers willingly accept these limitations, because they know their own career progression follows the same rules.

Career managers are independent from line management. They are responsible for rating employee potential, a process which starts at recruitment and is updated annually, for drawing up succession plans and individual career paths, and for brokering every move and making the formal offer to the employee. They have access to all opportunities in the group and actively push employees to broaden out by changing departments, businesses organisations and geographical locations. They select participants for fast-track development programmes.

Tools, from job ranking and performance appraisal (which includes development objectives) to potential rating and career projections, are standard throughout the group. Country career managers belong to an international network and are 'calibrated' by the central team who are frequent flyers and have right of access to all employees locally.

Naturally, the final responsibility for career development rests with each individual employee: good performance, updating skills, being open and honest with the company etc. But every employee has a clearly identified career manager and is known personally. So there is no need to join the rat race, look around or generally spend too much time worrying about your future. You can get on with being passionate about your work and producing the goods. Your career manager will take care of the rest. Against a backdrop of unrivalled corporate loyalty, he or she will help you, calmly and impartially, to become what you are.

Alan Duke (pictured) and Daniel Boulanger are both former international career managers with Michelin and co-authors of Managing careers at Michelin: a 3 Star*** Career Guide, published by EMS (2011). They will be speaking at the forthcoming CIPD HRD conference at London Olympia on 26 April 2012.

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