All posts by David Shadovitz

Some Final Thoughts on SHRM

As the 2010 SHRM conference draws to a close, here are a few final (and random) thoughts about the event (and my first blog post filed from an airplane).

Best news coming out of the conference: 11,000+ attendees! After a couple of years of major belt tightening, companies appear to be spending once again.

Most discouraging observation: On day one, folks stuck around to hear Steve Forbes pretty much until the end, even though he had little to share on the topic of HR strategy. In contrast, on day two, I’m told they left in droves soon after a panel of senior HR executives began to tackle some of the profession’s more pressing challenges. What gives?

Best performance by a ’70s band: Hall and Oates (so what if they were the only ’70s band to perform).

Most popular show giveaway: You guessed it, the iPad. (If you want to know what next year’s big giveaway will be, just check out Apple’s product pipeline.)

Longest line for a  ’70s celebrity on the expo floor: Attendees (mostly women) who were eager to meet and greet Erik Estrada (of CHiPs fame) at the Columbia Southern University booth. (Didn’t personally see, but was told he looks the same.)

Worst part about the venue: Overcast skies pretty much the entire time, with cooler than usual temps for San Diego.

Best part of the venue: It wasn’t 95-degree, 90-percent humidity New Orleans! (Remember last year?)

 

Lessons in HR Transformation

As I prepare for the SHRM conference each year, I often lament that there aren’t more HR executives presenting.  Personally, more often than not, I much rather hear what they have to say about a particular issue or topic, rather than a consultant or vendor.

That’s why I was pleased to see the Tuesday morning program open with a General Session panel featuring senior HR executives. (Hopefully we’ll see more sessions like this in the future.) It’s also why I set aside some time later that morning to catch a Mega Session entitled “HR Transformation: What Comes Next” by one of the opening-session panelists.

Conrad Venter, global head of HR for Deutsche Bank AG, detailed some of the steps taken by the bank to transform its HR function. Deutsche began its HR transformation efforts in 2005, during a period when the firm was facing some formidable global challenges.

In response, Venter said, Deutsche set out to restructure HR, putting “the right work in the right place.” Those efforts included moving much of the transactional work outside of HR.

What were some of the lessons that were learned along the way? First, he said, “we learned that one size doesn’t fit all.” He also noticed the importance of being “fluid” and continuing to “tweak things” long after they’ve been implemented.

“The soft stuff is really the hard stuff,” he said.

Repeating a comment he made during the opening panel, Venter also suggested that HR leaders might want to describe what they do as “people strategy” rather than “HR strategy,” to create more buy-in and less finger pointing.

Innovating in Turbulent Times

Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, innovation clearly matters.

But at a SHRM session entitled “Innovation in Turbulent Times” held earlier today, Dr. Iris Firstenberg said innovation is often best manifested when times are tough.

Companies would be well served to let go of their traditional ways and look for fresh perspectives, said Firstenberg, an adjunct professor in the Department of Pyschology at the University of California in Los Angeles.  

“Once we have a story, we tend to hold onto it,” observed Firstenberg.  Instead, she said, companies need to “tap into the wisdom that’s out there.”

Firstenberg pointed out that many companies are slow to react to innovation. She cited the slow response of competitors when Johnson & Johnson launched the market’s first non-aspirin product, Tylenol. “When Tylenol came on the market, what did the aspirin makers do? Nothing. So Tylenol had the market to itself for eight years.”

Another example she cited was Blockbuster, noting that it failed to recognize how the Internet was changing its business.

To innovate, Firstenberg said, companies need to pursue the perspectives and “wisdom” of others.

Firstenberg pointed to Cemex, a Mexican-headquartered cement producer, as an excellent example of a company that was able to do just that. In the ’90s, she said, the firm was struggling, partly because of its inability to deliver its products on time.

In response, she said, Cemex visited with companies that excelled in on-time delivery, such as FedEx (24-hour delivery), Dominos  (delivery in 30 minutes or less) and 911 in Houston (where response time averaged just four minutes).

Through those conversations, Firstenberg said, Cemex was able to identify what it needed to do to address its challenges. Today, she added, the company is an industry leader with an on-time delivery rate of 98 percent.

That’s not just an improvement, she told attendees, “that’s a revolution.”

From Cradle to C-Suite

You can never get started too early when it comes to building the workforce of the future.

Certainly that premise is at the heart of SHRM’s decision to join a business coalition, managed by the Pew Center, to study later this year what steps employers should be taking to prepare the nation’s infants and toddlers so they’re able to lead tomorrow’s businesses. The initiative was mentioned during a press briefing held on the conference’s opening day.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that meeting the needs of the workforce of the future means meeting the developmental needs of children today,” explained Deb Cohen, chief knowledge officer of SHRM.

A SHRM brochure describes the challenge as follows: “In order to compete, U.S. employers must attract and retain a team-capable, job-ready workforce that can spur and maintain continual innovation. The foundation of skills required to achieve that end is built in the earliest years of life—between birth and age 5—yet we do not give our young children the early educational, health and social supports they need to get there.”

BP’s ‘Human Face’

BP seems to have a regular spot on the front page of the New York Times lately, thanks to the Gulf of Mexico disaster. In today’s edition, two front-page stories touch on BP and the oil leak, including one focused primarily on the verbal missteps of BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward.

Nicely titled “Another Torrent BP Works to Stem: Its CEO,” the story dissects some of the more memorable “gaffes” from Hayward, including one in which he said the spill is not going to cause big problems because the gulf “is a very big ocean” and “You know, I’d like my life back.” Responding to the latter, Hayward apologized to the families of the 11 men who died on the rig.

The story, for the most part, explores how Hayward’s comments have turned into something of a public-relations fiasco for BP. But I have to also believe they haven’t been much of a motivator for those BP employees (and contractors) who now face the monumental task of fixing the leak. Would imagine they’d be a lot better off were they to have a CEO at the helm who managed to not make news himself.

Ironically, just about the same time BP started making headlines, John Hofmeister’s book, Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider, arrived in the mail. Hofmeister is one of the handful of HR leaders to be promoted to president of a major corporation, in this case Shell Oil Co. (2005-2008). Perhaps, had Hofmeister’s book come out in the fall, BP’s latest fiasco (remember, BP was hit just last October with the largest OSHA fine ever) might have received a paragraph or two in Hofmeister’s book, which explores the oil industry’s image-management problems.

“Best practices doesn’t just mean taking credit for the positive steps the industry has taken; it also requires public exposure by top executives, a human face on a complex organization, consumer empathy and engagement, obvious and intentional,” Hofmeister writes. “Twenty-first-century engagement demands a commitment to transparency.”

OK, I guess you can say Hayward is showing BP’s “human face.” But I suspect that’s not the kind of “human face” Hofmeister is referring to in his book. Nor is it the kind of face that’s going to inspire BP’s engineers to come up with a solution that works.

Fed Intern Program Comes Under Fire

The Office of Personnel Management’s internship program came under fire during congressional hearings yesterday.

A story posted on the Washington Post’s Web site reports OPM Director John Berry was the recipient of “pointed questions” pertaining to the government’s Federal Career Intern Program and its use by federal agencies to circumvent hiring practices.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) told Berry she was “ ‘shocked’ to learn that almost half of the federal hires are done outside the normal competitive process,” according to the report. The story notes that the internship program is “designed to allow agencies to quickly hire for certain vacancies, without the need to follow rules that apply to competitive positions.”

Obama has instructed Berry and the OPM to evaluate the federal government’s internship program and suggest possible changes. Considering the grilling he received on Capitol Hill regarding this issue, perhaps the issue is now a bit higher on his priority list.

Total Rewards with a Twist of Customization

Two studies released Monday at the WorldatWork’s Total Reward 2010 Conference in Dallas, Texas shed light on what employers might want to do differently as they begin to staff up again.

During a session on the conference’s opening day, researchers from Texas A&M University shared the findings of a recent study of accounting students that found the influence of particular rewards and benefits frequently depended on the outcomes being sought (i.e. attraction, motivation or retention). The study, “The Relative Influence of Total Rewards Elements on Attraction, Motivation and Retention,” found that career development was especially important to students pursuing a career in accounting. Meanwhile, work/life benefits and performance recognition were much more important to those who ended up employed at one of the Big Four account firms for several months. (Response rates of the different groups studied over the several year period ranged from 159 to 232.)

Similarly, a study entitled “Beyond Compensation: How Employees Prioritize Total Rewards at Various Life Stages” found that respondents valued different rewards at different stages of their lives, with development significantly more important for employees under 40 and benefits much more important to breadwinners, especially female breadwinners. (The study of 678 adults was conducted by Next Generation Consulting and Dieringer Research Group.)

Most HR leaders aren’t going to be terribly surprised by the studies’ conclusions. Indeed, both seem to be in line with the findings of earlier research projects. But if there continues to be any doubting Thomases out there who still think they can get away with a one-size-fits-all approach to total rewards—and one suspects there are—then perhaps these findings will give them reason to pause and reconsider.

Rebecca Ryan, CEO of Next Generation Consulting, suggested to attendees that employers might be well served by stealing a lesson from Starbucks’ playbook and the way it was able to build its business by customizing coffee and latte drinks—as in “I’ll have a triple decaf Grande Latte with skim”—when it comes to designing their total-reward programs.

Meanwhile, Mercer Senior Partner Steve Gross is scheduled to share the findings of a third survey on Tuesday that found companies continue to invest in their total-reward programs during the economic downturn and modify the elements of “total rewards.”

The study revealed that 50 percent of the 741 responding multinational companies responding consider “work-life initiatives” a staple of total rewards, while four in 10 reported they either enhanced or added wellness programs during the past 12 months.

All three studies were sponsored by WorldatWork. The Total Rewards 2010 Conference runs through this Wednesday and is expected to attract around 1,500 attendees.

Looking the Part

Does one need a competent looking face to land a job as CEO? A story in today’s Wall Street Journal entitled “Is CEO Success Just Skin Deep?” suggests the answer could be “yes.”

The article reports that researchers at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, working with the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that CEOs are perceived to have more competent-looking faces than non-CEOs.

Finance professors John Graham, Campbell Harvey and Manju Puri of the Fuqua School asked 2,000 students to rate the photos of 100 CEOs and non-executives for competence, according to a story on the school’s blog. The photos featured individuals with similar facial features, hairstyles and clothing. What their study, A Corporate Beauty Contest, found was that CEOs are more likely than non-CEOs to be rated as competent looking, though also less likely to be classified as likeable.

But before HR execs get too exciting—figuring they can trim their vetting process down to 15 minutes of simply studying a CEO candidate’s facial characteristics—they need to consider one other finding: There was no evidence that a CEO’s appearance is related in any way to a company’s profitability.

 Oh well, guess we’ll have to just keep vetting as usual.

Obama’s Choice for the High Court

Elena Kagan— President Obama’s choice for replacing the retiring Justice John Paul Stevens—may not be as controversial a candidate as some previous Supreme Court nominees. But the current Solicitor General should still expect some tough questions when she comes before the Senate Judicial Committee, including maybe a few pertaining to military recruiting on college campuses.

In announcing the nomination earlier today, Obama described Kagan, 50, as someone “respected and admired not just for her intellect and record of achievement, but also for her temperament, her openness to a broad array of viewpoints, her habit—to borrow a phrase from Justice [John Paul] Stevens—of understanding before disagreeing, her fair-mindedness and skill as a consensus builder.”

Critics, however, are expected to point to Kagan’s lack of judicial experience as a major concern.

Not much is known about Kagan’s positions on issues in the realm of employment law. But it’s quite likely committee members will bring up her decision as dean of the Harvard Law School to bar military recruiters from using its offices. In an e-mail to students and faculty, she called the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy “discriminatory” and a “profound wrong.” But in the face of losing federal funding because of the school’s violation of the Solomon Amendment—which allows the government to withhold money from universities that bar military recruiters—Kagan reversed her position on the ban.

No doubt proponents and opponents of her nomination will attempt to spin this incident to their own advantage. But while it’s not likely to make any difference in the eventual outcome—most expect the Kagan nomination to eventually be approved, unless something unforeseen happens—it does, at the very least, provide a hint into how she might approach some of the employment-discrimination issues that find their way to the High Court.

No End in Sight

Despite some positive signs in the economy, a just released study, No End in Sight: The Agony of Prolonged Unemployment, by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University confirms that the vast majority of those unemployed continue to struggle to find work.

In August 2009, the center conducted a survey of 1,202 men and women who had been unemployed at some point in the previous 12 months. Then, in March 2010, it followed up with 908 of them. Researchers found that just one in five (21 percent) of those looking for jobs in August of last year had found it by March of this year. Fully two-thirds (67 percent) remained unemployed and looking, with the remaining 12 percent having left the labor market.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the youngest of the group had the easiest time finding new work, while the oldest had the least success—leading some respondents to offer comments such as “age discrimination is alive and well” … and older workers are “considered expendable.”

The study also found that many of those who were able to find work had to settle for something less than what they had before, with just over half of them reporting a pay cut from their prior job and about one-quarter saying they took a significant salary hit.

Many predicted jobs would be slow to return. But the Rutgers study suggests that slow might be an understatement. Notwithstanding definite signs of economic improvement,   companies continue to be extremely cautious when it comes to adding to their ranks. Let’s hope, were the center to do a further follow-up with this group later this year, it might have better news to report.