Company Culture

Advice from legendary CLO Steve Kerr: Start with the back of the manual

By Mike BergelsonOctober 6, 2016

Steve Kerr, former CLO of GE and Goldman Sachs

For years, HR leaders have sought to get “a seat at the table.”

I recently discussed this dilemma with Steve Kerr, the legendary head of learning at GE under Jack Welch and the world’s first Chief Learning Officer. Steve has a knack for using simple catch phrases to explain and reinforce critical ideas.

His advice? Start with the back of the manual. Here’s an excerpt from his forthcoming book (reprinted with his permission) explaining what he means:

When you buy a car or a boat the accompanying manual typically gives you lots of information about its performance specifications. Perhaps you find this useful, but data about torque and gearbox ratios, slip differentials, gyro stabilizers and stern thrusters don’t do a lot for me.

The information I pay attention to is typically found in the back of the manual, under the heading of something like “troubleshooters guide.” There you find entries that can be really helpful, with engaging titles such as: “car on fire;” “engine won’t start;” “tire flat;” and “screw driver fell into the engine cavity and now I can’t find it.”

When I managed Crotonville, and later in Goldman Sachs, we had a team norm that whenever one of us lost sight of the Golden Rule of Marketing (“never tell people what’s in it for you; tell them what’s in it for them”), the rest of us would call him on it, by asking “What’s the back of the manual?”.

We are all familiar with the Golden Rule, but sometimes we forget. This happens for the best of reasons — we are so excited by the new product, or the latest initiative, that it doesn’t occur to us that other people might not be. No line manager in the history of the world, for example, has ever requested a competency analysis or a diversity audit. HR enthusiastically advocates these tools because of their great potential value. There’s nothing wrong with HR’s intention; it just hasn’t identified the back of the manual.

A key difference between good and bad staff support on the part of HR, learning officers or anyone else, is that bad staff support always seems to be inventing new ways to add to people’s workloads rather than helping them deal with the problems they already have. In contrast, good staff support employs a “back of the manual” approach to make two essential points: (1) I know what you’re trying to accomplish — attracting and retaining good people, or making sure our compensation and promotion criteria are fair and legally defensible, or identifying under-utilized talent so we don’t always have to reach out to the same seven people; and (2) I have some tools (e.g. competency analyses and diversity audits) that can help you.

At Everwise, we’ve started using this expression as he did – when we’re deep in the weeds on a topic someone will ask whether this is “front or back of the manual.”

We’ve found it’s a great way to quickly revisit first principles and ensure we stay focused on the specific challenge at hand vs. getting excited about a potential solution in search of a problem.

Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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