Here’s a CEO That Gets Leadership Development: 3M CEO George Buckley

From Today’s USA Today: 3M CEO George Buckley Focuses on Leadership Training.

The headline is a little misleading…. it’s not just about leadership training, it’s about leadership development, and I have to tell you, this guy really gets it.

3M is the company that placed #1 is the annual Hay Group/CEO Magazine 2008 Best Companies for Leaders survey. They jumped from #15 in 2007, partly because of a change in the ranking methodology, but I suspect also because their leadership development efforts are starting to bear fruit.

Buckley became CEO at 3M in 2005, taking over from Jim McNerney. Prior to that, he had executive positions at British Rail, Emerson, and Brunswick Corporation, where he was CEO. Here’s an interview he did with CEO Magazine after they “won” the award.

Believe me, I’ve read these CEO interviews where they preach the virtues of leadership and leadership development. Some of them sound like they’re reading straight from a script that the head of HR wrote for them. I can sniff ‘em out…. this one is legit.

Here’s why I think so:

1. His approach to leadership development sounds like it’s based on his own experience (mostly at Emerson), as well as fundamentally sound leadership development practices. Sometimes I see one or the other… practices based on unique experiences that don’t transfer organizationally, or good theory that contradicts a CEOs personal reality.

2. He practices leadership development through changing assignments, but believes executives should stay in a job for about four years, in order to experience failure (the best teacher) and sustained success. His predecessor liked to move people around every year or so – musical chairs leadership development – which can be disruptive to the business and yield limited return on the development investment.

3. He invests his time and money in leadership development – not just lip service. He personally spends about one fifth of his time on talent management issues. He spends time teaching and expects others to. Twice a year, he spends 3-5 days reviewing talent.

Even while they are cutting jobs, 3M is not cutting back on leadership development. Why? “It’s a little like having double vision. One eye has to focus on today. The other eye has got to focus on tomorrow. Another analogy I often use: My head’s in the oven, and my feet are in ice water, but on average I feel OK. Organizations don’t fail on averages. It’s vital these days for companies to watch costs, and watch cash even more than costs. It’s more important to invest to differentiate yourself from the competition. In a 2% recession, you have 98% of the business left. In a 5% recession you have 95% of the business left. You have to focus on what’s left, not on what’s gone. You’re unlikely to do that well if you back off on training and leadership development.”

Here’s another awesome quote: “Years ago, when I worked at Brunswick, I was asked, “George, it’s a tough time right now. Should we be spending money on training? What if these people leave the company?” My answer was, “What if we don’t, and they stay?”

4. He’s not just focusing on his own replacement, or replacements for C positions. At 3M, they help leaders two to four levels below the CEO develop and transition into new roles. There’s the belief that every employee has the potential to be a leader, and that everyone is responsible for leadership development (not just HR).

5. He knows the difference between what can’t be developed (intelligence, morals) and what can (just about everything else).

At a former company, an HR VP asked me if I could have just ONE thing that would have the biggest impact on the development of our leaders, what would it be? I told her a new CEO. While it wasn’t the best political answer, it’s true. Without CEO commitment, nothing else matters. With it, even a mediocre systems and programs will work.

However, I suspect 3M had a pretty good system and programs before Buckley arrived, and they wouldn’t be as successful without the guidance of Sandy Tokach, the company’s vice president of talent development/organizational effectiveness. Behind every CEO and company that wins awards for leadership development, there’s always a supporting cast behind the scenes putting the infrastructure in place and making it all happen.

That’s leadership development match made in heaven – a committed CEO and a talented HR supporting cast.