30 years in HR, part 4: Operation Centurion

A job at HQ

On November 1, 1988, I started at the headquarters of Philips Consumer Electronics (CE in company jargon) in Eindhoven, as Management Development Officer. CE had around 50,000 employees worldwide in those days. My office was in building SFF, on the top floor. My salary had increased to EUR 30,538,– per year. Jan Timmer, coming from the Philips owned record company Polygram, has just been appointed CEO. Operation Centurion had not yet started, but the results of Philips CE were not good.

I had to enter the company through the back door, as Philips had one of its famous hiring stops. In my interview with Timmer he had made my assignment clear: there were rough times ahead, and he wanted to make sure CE was able to challenge and retain the top talent world wide. So while many European factories were downsized or closed, I was able to work on nice talent development projects.

CE Advanced Management Program

First the CE Advanced Management Program. Target group: high potentials from all over the world. We would organize the program on different locations in Europe. The start in Eindhoven, with briefing and dialog with the CEO. Then to France or Belgium to have sessions in one of the CE factories. The program would end at the annual  Consumer Electronics fair in Berlin (IFA), where the participants would do a thorough competitor analysis. In 1999 we launched the CE Product Management Program. A very interactive program with an excellent team of internal and external faculty (Mario van Hamersveld, Per Jenster, Jean Philippe Deschamps, Dominique Turpin, Daniel Ofman and others).

Learning the tricks of succession management

Another part of the job was that I had to conduct the annual succession management and talent identification reviews. In Philips this process was very well developed. Extensive forms had to be filled in, and profiles of all the top potentials in the world had to be submitted. I became very skilled in writing small pen portraits of people I hardly knew (“Bob is one of our most talented product managers, with a broad international orientation and an aspiration to grow to more general management positions” and so on).

Highlight was the MD review with the Division CEO, who would challenge the outcomes of the process (“I see you have Bob listed as a Top Potential. I this really true? I saw him the other week in a presentation, and this was rather poor..”). MD had turned into a bureaucratic process. Lots of important discussions about people, hardly ever with the people. The connection the reality was poor, and often people were appointed in senior positions whose name had never appeared in the MD review.

“Das Ringen um den Gewinn”

When I arrived Jan Timmer was traveling around the world with a presentation called “The Quest for Profit” (translated in various languages, the German title I liked most: “Das Ringen um den Gewinn”). In 1990 Jan Timmer became president, and in October Operation Centurion was launched. A worldwide call to action, massive lay offs and working on the strategy and action plan in groups of 70-100 people, guided by C.K. Prahalad and his consultants. During six months I led a team of outplacement consultants that helped around 300 CE staff in Eindhoven to find new jobs, inside but mostly outside Philips.

Every year a new CEO

After Jan Timmer left CE a new CEO of CE was appointed more or less after each 18 months. I remember Henk Bodt, Maier(who had no first name as he was Swiss..)  and Jan Tollenaar but in my memory there were more in this period 1988-1994. Each of them hired new consultants to advice CE into bigger profits. In my last days at CE the advisor of the month was Willi Railo, a Norwegian sport psychologist, whose claim to fame was that he had coached Norwegian high jumpers (“Who Wants can Win”, was his slogan).

Philips was a good HR school

I learned a lot at Philips. HR was of high quality and a good school for HR professionals. Last year I was in a network meeting, and there were two participants who had done the same job I had done at CE, but years later (and who of course had never heard of me, when you are gone your heritage lasts a couple of months and that is it).

Philips was also a good training ground to learn office politics and how to deal with important people at all levels in the organization. I stayed somewhat too long (in hindsight), so I was glad when in 1994 a friend called me if I wanted to join his team at KPMG. .

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