Category Archives: corporate culture

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.

Experimental HR

Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, a global IT services company headquartered in Noida, India, urged the SHRM audience to treat HR “as an experimental journey,” and to consider follow his example of treating the employee first, the customer second.

Management doesn’t create value, he said. It can only “induce, encourage [and] enable the creation of value by the employees.”

HR leaders, he said, should consider the leadership of Ghandi, MLK and Nelson Mandela. What they did, he said, was create dissatisfaction with today and develop a romance among their followers with tomorrow.

Autocracy doesn’t work, he said. Democratize the workplace. Managers need to be answerable to employees instead of just the other way around. And the result of treating employees first is that customers will be served better.

To create an environment conducive to change, however, requires trust. In his company, Nayar facilitated that trust by providing an environment of 100 percent total transparency. His 360-degree assessment is posted on the company intranet. If an employee asks him a question — and 99 percent of the questions are negative, he said — his answers are sent to all employees.  (The questioners must also reveal who they are.)

His $2.3 billion company continues to grow rapidly — without new services, new products, new locations. It’s due to placing trust in his employees.

“Transfer the problem to them. They create magic in the interface of customers and employees,” he said.

The Meaning Behind the Work

Dave and Wendy Ulrich made a nice coupling on stage Monday at their session, “The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Deliver Value to Employees, Customers, Investors and Communities.”

No surprise the joint session at SHRM worked, considering the Ulrichs have been married for many years and share three children and a granddaughter. But it was their joint message and the subject of their new book, The Why of Work, that carried an especially cohesive and cogent argument — that organizations would do well to start looking at themselves as places where people find meaning and purpose. More importantly, that organizations should be looking for ways to cultivate that new realization and approach.

“We’re taking a different cut from human resources,” said Dave Ulrich, professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a prolific and well-published HR expert. Wendy is a professional psychologist and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth in Alpine, Utah. “We’re basically combining HR and psychology,” he said.

They’re also taking their show on the road, if you will, to refute the notion that fostering the relationship between worker and work, and helping employees find meaning and purpose in their jobs is some warm and fuzzy, soft and cuddly notion. “I hear this criticism in some circles,” said Dave Ulrich. “I tell them they’re just wrong. Still, I can’t convince everyone.”

The Ulrichs’ base their premise on the early works of Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. At the time, Frankl discovered that, even in the harshest and cruelest of settings, some people remained vibrant and vital because of their stories and their strengths, and the strengths they could bring to one another. They found meaning in their identities.

So, too, should “organizational strategies be stories,” said Ulrich. ” Successful leaders should be meaning makers. We want to begin to change the conversation” about what HR’s purpose should be as well.

Calling on another famous thinker from the past, Wendy Ulrich told the story of medical researcher Jonas Salk, best known for his discovery of the polio vaccine. Salk, in one interview, recalled how his mother found lessons to be learned in all his setbacks. She created the learning environment that, in turn, created the famous scientist.

“Do we inculcate a learning environment in our organizations?” she asked. “How do we learn from our setbacks, and help our employees learn from theirs? What are we doing in HR to promote that?”

One clear path to helping people find meaning and happiness in an organization, they said, is to promote the importance of the team and relational strengths. “HR,” said Dave Ulrich, “is the force of the organization that shapes identity.

“One of my greatest fears in HR today,” he said, “is that we’re so worried about talent, we’re forgetting about the organization — its systems and the capacity to work together.” That’s where the meaning and purpose lie, he added — “building on your own strengths to strengthen others.”

What if Your Star Talent Came Knocking Today?

Gerry Crispin raised a provocative mind-bender at his Monday session at the SHRM conference in San Diego. “If an exact duplicate of your very best employee was applying right now, what would happen?” said Crispin, principal of CareerXroads and recognized recruiting expert.

“More importantly,” he said, “can you afford not to know?”

The purpose of the session, “Mystery Job Shopping: What Happens When You Apply Online to your Own Firm,” was to get HR professionals thinking — or, rather, rethinking — about how they brand — or rather, fail to brand — their organizations through their recruiting processes.

For instance, he pointed out, most companies won’t accept the risk of following up with candidates who weren’t hired, detailing the reasons they weren’t; in other words, the skills they don’t have yet need for the job. The message this could send about how your company cares, and the propsects it could reap down the road in return candidates would far outmeasure the potential liability of providing that kind of information, he told listeners.

“I guarantee you,” Crispin said, “when those people come back to apply at the point they do qualify, they will turn out to be the best employees you could ever hope to have in that position … because you provided the information they needed.” Getting such a practice past your corporate attorneys, he added, means “building the case that this kind of follow-through will be worth the risk.”

Not only was Crispin touting the merits of becoming far more transparent for online candidates who come knocking at your Web site, he was also promoting “mystery shopping,” or applying through your own recruiting process and those of your competitors.’ How’s your time to apply? Are you asking so many questions that you’re losing top talent because their time is too precious to be “writing a dissertation, answering hundreds of questions” the first time they visit simply to poke around? And how about technology and social networking? Have you embraced that? “Can your competitors’ candidates set up a mobile connection with your recruiters and yours can’t?” he asked.

Crispin also spoke in favor of picturing recruiters and providing simple instructions for constant access to them. “How available is your recruiter?” he said. “You need to think about what you’re doing and how transparent you’re being. You gotta figure smart candidates know how to find your recruiters anyway, through LinkedIn and other modes. If you’re refusing that kind of accessibility, that says something about you, and it isn’t good.”

Your company brand, your commitment to sustainability, your value proposition as to how people should be treated … it’s all in how you present yourself through your online recruiting, Crispin said.

One recruiter in the audience admitted she went through her own system anonymously just to see what experience her department  was providing. “How was it? Crispin asked.

“It was awful,” she said.

Crispin: “I rest my case.”

Employees Sometimes Do Know Best

Before you stop reading this, thinking it’s some department-store promotional, hear me out.

The other day, I was in a Kohl’s Department Store madly searching for the right print in the right size in the little time I had. Taking my quest to the customer-service desk, thinking I’d probably be directed to another store (if I was lucky), I was directed instead to a telephone on the wall across from the desk. I picked it up and was immediately connected to a very friendly Kohl’s.com representative who quickly checked her “kiosk” of wares, found it and, while we were chatting, shipped it to my home, no shipping charge attached.

“This is our new service,” she told me. “If you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for in any of our stores, we can now direct you to this phone and you get it sent, no charge.” Misson over, headache abated, faith in your fellow humans temporarily restored. How simple.

“I’m impressed!” I told her. “I haven’t heard of this particular type of service before!”

“We came up with it ourselves, employees here at Kohl’s,” she said, sounding immensely proud. Some stores have installed computers in their customer-service departments, “but this just felt more personal; it made common sense,” she said. “We don’t think anyone else out there is doing this but us.”

In my old reporter mode, I immediately tried to track it down, thinking there might be an innovation case study for us in it somewhere. But the best James Barnes, Kohl’s’ manager of public relations, could give me was that the company is “very focused on implementing concepts that improve the customer experience and provide excellent customer service.” So, oh well, I guess I wasn’t going to get names — no what, why, where and when either.

I did come across this release, though, about a new book by the CEO of HCL Technologies, Vineet Nayar, pushing his notion that companies of the future need to shift their mind-sets and start relying on the good ideas of their employees when it comes to customer service, or fail. His book, Employees First, talks about solving much harder, more strategic problems around customer satisfaction by giving up the age-old notion that C-suiters and line leaders are where your solutions lie.

“Nayar argues,” the release says, “that the best way for companies to meet their customers’ needs is to stop making customers their top priority. Instead, companies should shift their focus to empowering employees to solve customer problems — in part by making management accountable to the employees who are the real creators of value.”

In Nayar’s own words: “Perhaps the biggest surprise for readers of my book will be that Western-style companies can achieve even greater success by making their approach to business more democratic. Companies with traditional top-down, pyramid-like hierarchies with rigid reporting structures make it very difficult for critical competitive information, garnered on the front line, to flow uphill to the C-suite, where strategic business decisions have traditionally been made.”

Kohl’s might be onto something here. Its employees certainly seem to be.

Why We Hate HR: Five Years Later

It’s been almost five years since Bill Taylor and Fast Company published the incisive — yet divisive — essay titled above on the reasons why people tend to dislike the human resources function.

The author suggests here that, five years on, HR executives remain frustrated with their roles in organizations:

So here’s a proposal. As this provocative essay approaches its fifth anniversary, perhaps it’s time to change the debate. The real problem, I’d submit, isn’t that HR executives aren’t financially savvy enough, or too focused on delivering programs rather than enhancing value, or unable to conduct themselves as the equals of the traditional power players in the organization — all points the original essay makes. The real problem is that too many organizations aren’t as demanding, as rigorous, as creative about the human element in business as they are about finance, marketing, and R&D. If companies and their CEOs aren’t serious about the people side of their organizations, how can we expect HR people in those organizations to play as a serious a role as we (and they) want them to play?

Taylor cites Cirque du Soleil, Pixar and DaVita as examples of organizations with positive, forward-thinking HR processes and a real focus on people, and then poses a number of queries to HR executives who are not happy with the role HR plays in their organization:

Why would great people want to be part of your organization in the first place? Do you know a great person when you see one? Are you great at teaching people how your organizations works and wins? Does your organization work as distinctively as it competes?

It’s nice to see that, five years later, Taylor has changed his tune when it comes to HR.

And, with those last questions, it’s even nicer to see him offer some sound advice for HR leaders looking to improve not only their performance, but also the overall perception of the HR function.

Workers are Wearing Your Health on Their Sleeves

Probably pretty intuitive, but definitive nonetheless. A new study from Gallup-Healthways shows people working for employers that are in a hiring mode tend to have brighter outlooks on their own personal lives than those working for companies in the midst of layoffs.

No duh, right? Fair enough. But when you consider that as many as two-thirds (68 percent) of the 20,000 employed adults polled who were working at growing companies said they were thriving in their personal lives versus less than half (49 percent) working at downsizing organizations, it does cause pause to wonder: Is there something more HR can and should be doing during layoffs to help the survivors stave off depression? Translated: absence, loss of productivity, possible long-term disability?? (The ratings, by the way, were based on the Cantril Scale, which many organizations use to determine individual well-being.)

Granted, there’s not a whole lot HR leaders can do with this except maybe drum up even more satisfaction detectors and morale boosters than you already have in place to counter the layoff-survivor blues — or get some going if you have nothing at this point.

But consider this too: Even the simple fact that a reorganizing company is spending time, energy and money to ensure the survivors don’t go into emotional tailspins carries the subliminal message that things there can’t be that bad. Right?

HRD on the Hudson

In its April 25 edition, BusinessWeek published an interesting article on CEO Jeff Immelt and General Electric: “Can GE Still Manage.”

The story devotes a decent amount of ink to Crotonville, which continues to be at the center of GE’s leadership development efforts. “Crotonville remains the company Mecca,” writes Senior Editor Diane Brady. That was certainly clear during a media day event last November, attended by HRE‘s Senior Editor Andrew McIlvaine.  His report noted that despite the economic downturn, more employees than ever are cycling through Crotonville — so many that the dormitory is routinely overbooked and GE is forced to accommodate the overflow at a nearby Marriott.

Some critics quoted in the story wonder if the campus is more of a distraction than a “virtue.” But as the latest BW story reminds us, GE continues to be more committed than ever to Crotonville. Time will tell if that continued commitment is justified. But until GE proves it has successfully regained its mojo, Immelt and his team can be certain of one thing: Critics of Crotonville aren’t going to go away.