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HR Pros Discuss Leadership Development at Annual Roundtable

It takes a while for employees to learn the skills that would make them a good leader—which means that losing one can be a major shakeup for a company, and it can take a long time to find a suitable replacement.

The unexpected death earlier this year of John Williams, co-owner of Gastronomy, Inc., dealt a hard blow to the restaurant group’s family of employees. On top of that grief and sorrow, for human resources director Catherine Burns the loss also highlighted a crisis of leadership development in the company.

Burns discussed Gastronomy’s talent development efforts during the annual Utah Business human resources roundtable, where human resource leaders gathered Tuesday morning to discuss the key issues facing their profession. One hot topic was the strategic value of developing the next generation of leaders within companies.

“Change happened when our owner died suddenly,” Burns said. She noted that Gastronomy has a lot of people over the age of 55 who are in top positions, so the company has been “strategically identifying” younger people in the organization who can be given additional responsibilities to help them grow as leaders. “We’re working with them to turn them into the next generation of company managers,” she said.

Other human resource executives talked about the challenge of turning skilled technicians and subject-matter experts into managers and leaders.

“Most of the talent we’re bringing in—our professors, our researchers—are experts in those fields, but not necessarily in managing people,” said Jeff Herring, chief human resources officer for the University of Utah. So the university has to train and develop that talent, he said, “to give them the tools, the skills, get the barriers out of the way for them to then be able to effectively manage the people. … It’s really provided us an opportunity to bring a leadership development program in for that certain segment of individuals, and to try and grow that talent from within as well.”

Leadership development is a strategic function of human resources that provides positive value to companies, said Ben Graham, vice president of HR and safety for Major Drilling International.

“We work in a very blue-collar industry, and we fall victim to the process of promoting our best technical people,” he said. “That’s where HR has to own that process, because that’s what we do. The transactions we process for health insurance and for all things other things … don’t really add value to the business. They have to be done; we have to do it … but it’s really in developing our people. And that’s where we can prove any kind of value to the company, and not just be a cost center, but really be a development point.”

Dan Walker, vice president of human resources for Clyde Companies, Inc., said it’s important to give everyone a chance to test their leadership mettle.

“We have a very formal strategic approach to succession planning; you have to know who’s going to be moving into those retiring boomers’ [positions],” he said.

“One of the strategies we’re pursuing this year and into next year is [offering] career development for all. … Instead of identifying those who we think have the potential to grow, we give everybody the chance to tie into our Clyde University environment and find out what your potential is. You might not always know where you’re headed. You don’t know. You might be tapped on the shoulder and asked to do something that wasn’t in your thought process. So we tried to create a pyramid approach that allows every single person to tap in to develop themselves, in partnership with their manager, so they can be ready for whatever assignment they have the opportunity to take on.”

You can read the full discussion, which covered topics from non-compete agreements to workplace violence, in the October issue of Utah Business.