Editor's Note: This week's Thought Leader is E. James (Jim) Brennan, Senior Associate at ERI Economic Research Institute after decades at compensation consulting firm Brennan Thomsen Associates, where he designed reward systems for clients of all sizes in every industry throughout North America. Now semi-retired following 40 plus years in HR consulting and corporate roles, Jim is a noted pre-trial consultant and expert witness, a widely published author and experienced speaker, and the holder of the American Compensation Association (WorldatWork’s predecessor) Lifetime Achievement Award. Caught in the first Vietnam-era draft, he finished his degree with honors in Management at Webster University after his overseas military service. Jim is noted for his commitment to sharing his accumulated experience and wisdom with his fellow reward professionals - whether acting as a steward and resource in our online community, serving as a regular contributor at the Compensation Cafe, or in his many other endeavors.
Compensation Force: What led you to choose (or land in) a career featuring the field of rewards?
Jim Brennan: When I think back and realize that I became Personnel Manager of my Junior Red Cross Chapter when just an adolescent, I realize that the profession of human resources, compensation and total rewards was my destiny. I was sucked in. My very first full-time job was as employment recruiter, interviewer, psychometric tester/analyst and investigator for a consulting “job shop” providing total HR and labor relations services to a group of select clients. Went on to cover the entire wheel of the various trade component spokes at Group and then Corporate HQs of Bigs, handling employment, potential assessments, labor relations, employee relations, communications, pensions, benefits, employee services, safety, compensation, training, personnel development, HRIS, management succession planning and organizational development, etc. I probably forgot a few segments, and don’t even know what the current operative terms are for some old ones like “manpower planning.” Actually added my academic credentials almost last, but I seemed to have followed the same curve as a typical PhD: learning more and more about less and less until I knew practically everything about nothing. Come a long way since a boss said I had difficulty dealing with ambiguity; because now I appear to be the Apostle of Ambiguity, constantly counseling against the lemming-instinct for over-simplistic premature conclusions.
Compensation Force: What person and their ideas/teaching/writing has had a significant influence on your thinking and your work?
Jim Brennan: My very first and most difficult boss, Otto Faerber, followed by every subsequent supervisor, for better or worse; and I experienced both. John Sullivan, Chuck Eisemann and particularly David Thomsen were very strong influences, especially in The Day when we drafted the initial ASPA and ACA certification tests. In my consulting life, virtually every top executive I dealt with taught me something, especially those I interviewed and investigated doing “reasonable shareholder-officer executive compensation” cases for and against the IRS. A long list of board directors and union leaders also made deep impressions.
Compensation Force: Is there a book you’d recommend to others in the reward field that has impacted your thinking and your work?
Jim Brennan: Richard A. Fear’s Evaluation Interview, Peter Drucker’s Managing for Results, Bud Crystal’s In Search of Excess, Richard I. Henderson’s Compensation Management series, and for amusement, Dan Airely’s Predictably Irrational. Anything by your prior cited thought leaders, especially Schuster & Zingheim, is worthy. Science Fiction remains my favorite genre, and I am still prone to sending Crazy Eddie ideas (see J. Pornelle, PhD, The Mote in God’s Eye) to our product managers.
Compensation Force: Looking to the future, what trend or development do you think will significantly impact the reward profession and those of us working in it?
Jim Brennan: Four big trends are predicted: (1) The personalization of total reward packages, until each worker (employee or …increasingly… contractor) has an individualized customized self-selected set of goodies for which they toil. Senior executives have Total Remuneration package contracts; hourly workers have personalized payroll deductions already: I see that trend continuing to converge to overlap the center. Rank and file workers will have deals like (but lesser than) the NEOs. From an organizational standpoint, this will further divide the leaders from the followers. (2) Skill-based pay will sweep North America as it already dominates elsewhere. Broad skill set (or context) definitions and status level statements like Senior Associate and Financial Specialist will replace narrower job titles and their semi-contractual laundry lists of specific responsibilities, tasks and duties. Employers can’t continue to be constrained by the structural limitations of jobs when human enterprises require talents (KSAs) to be accumulated, stockpiled, cultivated, applied and then swiftly re-conformed and re-applied as needed regardless of organizational structure and tradition. (3) The Internet has created a new web world of folks with expectations of instant information gratification, too. That creates special problems because we currently have generations of people conditioned to demand solutions before they even know what their problem really is; thus my contrary mantra, “Thou shalt not prescribe before first conducting a diagnosis.” (4) The uncontrolled growth of health care benefit costs will continue to plague us and will become a new major reason for changing jobs. All of these are global issues, too.
Compensation Force: What are you currently working on?
Jim Brennan: Transfer of my knowledge, such as it may be. No longer consulting but merely doing massive data dumps (?), conducting in-house training webinars, doing blogs like those at the Compensation Café and SalaryExpert.com and periodically updating more chapters of Wm. A. Caldwell’s The Compensation Guide. Have had my fun, with my books, articles, speeches, posts of Rewards that Don’t and Brennan’s Laws and such. Time for others to take it to another level, hopefully without having to spend as much time and effort learning the basic fundamentals as I have.
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Our special thanks to Jim for participating in the Compensation Force Thought Leader series, taking the time to share some of his history, thoughts and ideas with us today – and, as always, being willing to “express his opinion on almost anything.”
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