Management Development ForumVol. 1- No 1(98)
Building Executive Competence
Drew L. Harris
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Drew L. Harris

The experience of one corporate leader builds a strong case for making sure that preparation of top executives includes an assignment in Human Resources.


Many North American companies have followed the Japanese model and used job rotation among operational positions as a way to build a flexible workforce with robust competencies (e.g., Barton-Leonard 1992; Nonaka & Johansson, 1985). Some have suggested rotations through staff positions at a senior level build a broad base for executive competence (e.g., McCall, 1994; Fenwick-MacGrath, 1988). The experience of one corporate leader builds a strong case for making sure that preparation of top executives includes an assignment in Human Resources. In 1995 Jan Tomlinson was promoted to the position of President of Chubb Insurance of Canada. She holds the highest executive office of any woman in the insurance industry. Immediately before that promotion, she served Chubb as Worldwide HR Manager. This article uses her thoughts and experiences to illustrate how an assignment in HR can provide a unique and valuable executive development experience.
Jan Tomlinson

In 1990 Tomlinson received "a call out of the blue." Only a year earlier, she had moved from Manager of Chubb's Westchester Branch to New York Zone Manager. She was thriving and happy in that position when the senior executives at Chubb tapped her to become the Worldwide HR Manager. She had not been lobbying for the position, nor had she been given any hints that it was coming. Since all her work experience had been in the line she was not sure why she had gotten the call, nor what it meant for her career. She accepted anyway. Five years later the Chubb executives made her President of Chubb Canada.

She found her time in HR to be a vital part of her development as a Chubb executive. She says: "I think everyone we promote to our executive council level should have a significant assignment in HR."
Views on Executive Development

Fenwick-MacGrath (1988) studied executive development practices in leading companies and found five key factors in the success of those programs:1. Direct linkage to corporate strategies, objectives and challenges,2. Extensive and visible involvement with the chief executive officer,3. Clearly articulated and understood executive development policy and philosophy,4. A structured development process with three elements: formal succession planning, on-the-job developmental assignments, and customized education including internal and external programs, and5. Line management rather than HR responsibility for executive development.

These factors correspond with the recent focus on linking HR practices with organizational strategy (for reviews of this literature see Becker and Gerhart, 1996; Delery and Doty, 1996). Schuler (1988) has suggested that in training and development (including executive development) four factors distinguish a strategic approach:
1. Aligning training with strategic needs,
2. Planning systematic development (including rotational assignments),
3. Encouraging high levels of participation in design by the person being developed, and
4. Taking a broad, long-term view.

Tomlinson's experience shows that a senior-level HR managerial experience can provide many of these effective and strategic factors of success in executive development. Her case also suggests additional developmental experiences appropriate to senior executives that may not be available through traditional line or staff assignments.

HR as an Executive Training Ground

A. Linking with corporate strategy, taking a broad view

At Chubb, HR has early involvement in strategic issues. All major strategic initiatives impact the people in the organization; so, Tomlinson came to know the full strategy of the firm from hands-on experience with the team shaping the strategy. This strategic focus also required her to think with a longer time horizon than she had in her line position where the emphasis was on quarterly results. Also, the HR activity, by its very nature, crosses all boundaries of an organization. Managing HR at a senior level, in today's strategically focused HR environment, means working with line managers to solve business problems through out the organization. When line managers came to HR requesting assistance, Tomlinson always asked first: "What is the business problem here?" Only after establishing the business issue would Tomlinson look to see what resources HR might bring to bear on the problem. HR gave her a unique opportunity to see business problems and provide part of the solution for many parts of the company. From a line position, such involvement across functions might seem intrusive or threatening. Even in a cooperative environment like Chubb, the remnants of "chimney" or "silo" mentalities limit cooperation across operating divisions. As Tomlinson said: "I learned the good and the bad of the whole organization...I also learned how they [senior management] thought about strategy."

B. Exposure to the CEO and the executive team

Tomlinson's experience also points out that while exposure to the CEO is important, broad exposure to the entire executive team may be more important. By sitting on the executive committee, she participated in major decisions and really learned the deliberation process of the executive body. She also became a trusted, important member of the team by helping executives deal with their most difficult decisions--discipline and release of employees, relocations, compensation planning, and performance management.

Says Tomlinson: "The good [part of seeing the whole organization] was realizing both how thoughtful our leaders were in making decisions and what that thought process was like. The bad part of our organization is like that of any other organization - despite all our best efforts people don't always get the messages management [and HR] send, and they make mistakes, sometimes very damaging mistakes. I learned the thought processes senior management used in managing those mistakes. And let's face it, mistakes have to be managed." In today's team environment the CEO no longer exercises sole discretion in making promotions; the executive team decides together. So, when it came time to pick a new president for Chubb's Canadian company, the whole team knew Tomlinson was capable. As importantly, through relying on her as HR manager to help solve their difficult problems, they had come to trust her. Their choice was easy.

C. Developing skills and knowledge

By working full time in the HR discipline Tomlinson developed a deep knowledge of HR issues. While she was an effective line manager before her assignment in HR, her skills came from what had worked. As the senior HR leader, Tomlinson had to learn the theory and legal constraints that shaped effective HR management. From this education, she gained the managerial competencies found in exemplary executives:- planning for and organizing a changing and diverse workforce,- recruiting, selecting and placing people for maximum effectiveness, - giving useful feedback for employee development and organizational performance,- designing reward and discipline processes that motivate people to perform, and- developing personnel through training, education and appropriate assignments.

Tomlinson not only learned these competencies, but she had to exercise them. She had to make tough decisions such as how to reorganize and re-energize a demoralized HR workforce--decisions that sometimes involved firings, reassignments and relocations. She helped other executives and managers make similar tough decisions. Also, she had the unenviable experience of "correcting" mistakes made by others, such as providing counsel and negotiating settlements when a manager had acted in a pattern that appeared discriminatory. She learned what to do right, the costs of doing wrong things and how to correct them.

Says Tomlinson: "I became a better manager. Before my assignment in HR I did not fully appreciate why we made certain decisions or why HR insisted we follow a certain process. For example, in terminating people, I, and most managers, did not fully appreciate why we had to go through the steps we went through. Now I understand the process and why we have to follow it, and I can manage it much better now."

As "chief advocate" for personnel, she developed high levels of people skills. Since she already was an excellent production manager, one could view her HR experience as completing her development in becoming highly effective with both people and production. In Blake and Mouton's (1964) Managerial Grid system, this is considered the most effective leadership style.

Tomlinson's move into HR was not without challenge. She had to learn a great deal just to function competently in her new role as worldwide HR manager. While learning "what was my assignment" from one-on-one talks with her HR functional managers, she also began a rigorous education program that included:- a week-long course in Strategic Human Resource Management at Harvard University,- single day courses and seminars,- joining and participating in many HR organizations--in particular, the Center for Human Resources Management Studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University, an academic-business partnership providing many forums for exchange, learning and networking between academics and business people, and- studying organizations well recognized for HR leadership--such as AT&T, Corning, and IBM.

While these development activities contributed to her success, the more important lesson may have been that Tomlinson could create a vigorous educational program while delivering her job requirements. As people move to higher levels of responsibility, they need new and different competencies, but they also must deliver what is expected of them. These two demands often leave executives in a position where they rely on the skills that got them the promotion, with mixed results. Because HR was so far out of Tomlinson's experience she had to learn more than just to survive. In the process, she developed the critical competence of self-designed, continuous education and development described as part of excellence in leadership (e.g., Argyris 1962; Bennis 1989).

D. Unique benefit: Gaining an “outside the firm” perspective

The examples thus far have illustrated how HR can deliver known factors in successful, strategic executive development. However, those factors do not address the strategic need for a view broader that the firm. Effective strategic behavior requires having superior information and a keen sense of movement in the business environment.

A hidden executive development benefit particular to HR comes from the culture of the profession; HR managers tend to cooperate with each other, even when their firms may appear as competitors. Talking to other HR executives and, through them, to line managers in other firms, Tomlinson found she gained a much broader perspective of the business environment. Her HR assignment provided opportunities for networking, for learning about new and best practices, and for sharpening awareness of environmental events in ways not typically available to operating managers. Says Tomlinson: "I learned there was a whole world outside of Chubb. With all the antitrust legislation in the U.S. we, in line positions, felt like we could not talk to people in other organizations. But HR people talk to each other all the time. It was much easier to learn about other organizations. Best practices in HR move much more easily."


In summarizing the benefits of her HR experience for her advancement and for improving her contribution to Chubb, Tomlinson asserted: "It gave me a firm foundation to move in other directions. It helped from a learning standpoint." From the perspective of researchers in executive development, her rotation in HR amplified many factors related to success:- Not just broad strategic awareness but an active role in shaping corporate strategy and direct responsibility for the unique strategic assets of a firm--its people and HR systems,- Not just extensive exposure and involvement with the CEO but involvement and direct service to the entire executive team.- Not just breadth of experience and exposure to all parts of the business but an active role in solving problems throughout the company.-Not just in-role education but training and education that developed specific, critical leadership skills that complemented technical and operational skills.

In addition, the HR role provided some unique experiences that add to the qualifications of a top leader:- a push (and support) for vigorous, self-directed learning and - an opportunity to reach far beyond the corporate walls for resources and learning.

In this fast-paced, turbulent business environment, executives need agility to sense, learn, respond and create. Moreover, the senior leaders must have a knowledge of and relationship with their workforce that affords the whole organization flexibility and agility. And the more senior the person, the more they need a broad view, not just within the organization but throughout the business environment. Tomlinson's experience suggests that a senior HR assignment, as part of a rotational program to develop top executives, provides unique opportunities that address these critical needs. Perhaps others should follow her lead and look to HR as a place to develop critical leadership skills for the twenty-first century.

Suggested Readings

Argyris, Chris. (1962). Interpersonal Competence and Organizational Effectiveness, Homewood, IL: Irwin.

Barton-Leonard, Dorothy. (1992). The factory as learning laboratory, Sloan Management Review. Fall. pp. 23-38.

Bennis, Warren. (1989). On Becoming a Leader, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Becker, Brian & Barry Gerhart. (1996). The impact of human resource management on organizational oerformance: Progress and prospects, Academy of Management Review, 39, 779-801.

Blake, Robert & Jane Mouton (1964). The Managerial Grid, Houston, TX: Gulf.

Delery, John & Harold Doty. (1996). Modes of theorizing in strategic human resource management: Tests of universalistic, contingency, and configurational performance predictions, Academy of Management Review, 39, 802-8356.

Fenwick-MacGrath, Julie. (1988). Executive development: Key factors for success, Personnel, July, pp 68-72.

McCall, Morgan. (1994). Developing Leadership. In Jay Galbraith, Edward Lawler III & Associates (Eds.),Organizing for the Future, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 256-284.

Nonaka, I. & J. Johansson. (1985). Japanese management: What about the hard skills? Academy of Management Review, 10, 184-195.

Schuler, Randall. (1990). Human Resource Management Choices and Organizational Strategy. In Overview of Personnel and Human Resource Management. pp. 24-39.

Drew L. Harris is an Assistant Professor in Management at Fairleigh Dickinson University and on the staff at the Center for Human Resource Management Studies. Prior to that he taught at New York University, where he earned an MBA and a PhD in Management. He is a coauthor (with R. Schuler) of Managing Quality: A Primer for Middle Managers (Addison-Wesley, 1992) and has published articles and book chapters on the strategic use of human resources. Before returning to academia, he worked as a consultant and executive in information systems; he now researches and consults with businesses on strategic use of human and resources and organizational transformation.

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SUNY Empire State College