3M CEO George Buckley focuses on leadership training

When Chief Executive magazine and Hay Group released the 2009 rankings of the companies that are best at developing future leaders, 3M MMM jumped to first place from 15th in 2008. What's behind such a move? USA TODAY corporate management reporter Del Jones asked 3M CEO George Buckley, 62. Following are excerpts, edited for clarity and space.

Q: How did 3M in one year pass the likes of GE and IBM in leadership development?

A: Infrastructure was already installed when I arrived. But I didn't always agree with Jim (McNerney, now Boeing CEO). He moved senior people around a lot. They hopped from job to job every year or year and a half. I slowed the pace. They have to be in the job long enough, not only for their successes to visit them, but for their failures to visit them. We all have both. When people move too often, there is more thought given to the next place, not to developing people and developing relationships. I didn't like the merry-go-round. I changed that immediately.

Q: How long should talented people stay in one job?

A: There's a point somewhere around four years where you need to get refreshed.

Q: In this economy, can companies afford the cost of leadership development?

A: 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?"

Q: What's key to develop leaders?

A: There are things you are born with. You can't develop intelligence. You can't develop morals by law. I learned my value system on the bottom of my grandmother's shoe before the age of 7. I didn't learn them from a statute book. There are things that we can develop. Strategic thinking, for example. There is a difference between a leader and a manager. A leader is as much about inspiration as anything else. A manager is more about process. We try to mix both into our development. In the end, maybe you can't plant leadership in a person, but you certainly can enhance it in a person.

Q: (Former GE CEO) Jack Welch recommended firing the bottom 10%. Do you agree?

A: Maybe Jack and GE got a bit of a reputation on that, maybe unfairly so. I think the concept is right, but it's a little dehumanizing. My analogy is that when you garden, you do the weeding before the feeding. Any organization is like that. It has to be kept vibrant, it has be fertilized, pruned, aerated. When you have identifiable poor performers, it's in the best interest of the organization for them not to work there. Poor performers can build resentment if you have seven people, six of them work hard, and one sloughs off. The economy's in turmoil. They wonder why management doesn't address it.

Q: How has 3M maintained leadership development even while cutting jobs?

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