The Four Keys to Bold HR: Lessons for the Year Ahead

We just finished our 8th annual IMPACT research conference in Florida, and our theme was Bold HR – pushing the envelope on talent and HR practices, reinventing what we do, and starting with a fresh sheet of paper.

Let me start by saying that theme turned out to be perfect. We had more than 500 committed, passionate, hard working HR and L&D leaders joined us from around the world (US, Europe, India, Australia, Taiwan, Quatar) and everyone agreed that this is a transformational period for HR and learning leaders everywhere.

In my keynote I cited some important research:

  • Among 3,300 HR and business leaders, today the average gives HR a C- in our ability to directly impact the talent challenges in our companies
  • Nearly 1/3 of all new CHROs are coming from non-HR backgrounds, demonstrating how CEOs want new thinking brought into the HR function
  • Zenger Folkman research shows that business leaders who are “Bold” in their thinking (vs. those practicing “Good Judgement”) are 11X more likely to succeed in today’s business environment.

So the message is clear:  in order for HR to thrive and add value in today’s new world of work, we have to be bold in our thinking, bold in our strategies, and bold in the redesign of what we do.

Defining Bold HR

What does the word “Bold” mean?  Let’s look at the dictionary:

“Not hesitating or fearful in the face of actual or possible danger or rebuff.”

“Courageous and daring.”

“Not hesitating to break the rules of propriety.”

“Thinking beyond the usual limits of conventional thought or action, being imaginative.”

How Bold are you in your HR strategies and programs?  Is your team able to innovate and reinvent your HR and talent programs? Are you courageous and imaginative in your recruiting or management practice? Our research suggests that if you aren’t being bold, you’re probably falling behind.

The Four Principles of Bold HR Today

As we spent the last year preparing for our conference, I identified four key principles for Bold HR today. (You can download our overview here.)

First is B: Build the Irresistible Organization

The first principle is to focus heavily on the employee engagement and culture. Today, as I discuss in Forbes, “Culture is the New Black.” Every program, strategy, and investment you make should focus on helping people become more productive and engaged.

Build the Irresistible Organization

Mo Jesse, the CEO of Earl’s Kitchen and Bar, told the story of how he dramatically turned around their chain of restaurants by focusing heavily on empowering their people. Rather than try to “fix the menu” or “hire celebrity chefs,” Mo spent time listening and learning at the grass root level, and focused on making Earl’s a fun and empowering place to work. Within two years their revenues and margins grew and customer satisfaction started to skyrocket.

Our research clearly shows that employees today are more demanding than ever – so the #1 thing we must do, regardless of our role in HR, is focus on building programs and strategies that make work fun, engaging, and more enjoyable. Making work easy is actually very hard work – but as our research and stories showed, when we trust and focus on our people, the business responds rapidly.

As I described in my keynote, building an Irresistible Organization is not always easy. Today it means creating great jobs, hiring for fit, supporting managers and leaders, creating opportunities for growth, building a flexible and fun environment, and delivering on inspirational leadership. These are difficult tasks to do well, and every company will create engagement in their own unique way.

Part of this new world of engagement is a focus on real-time feedback and giving employees a voice. We talked extensively about this topic throughout the conference and an exciting set of new vendors with real-time feedback and engagement tools has emerged to help.

The second is O: Own the Leadership Agenda

One of the biggest areas you impact the business is in your ability to help select, coach, and develop leaders. More than 87% of companies rate “gaps in their leadership pipeline” as a critical business issue and the challenges of leadership are a perennial problem.

Own the Leadership Agenda

Today, as Millennials make up the largest segment of the workforce, we have to think about leadership from the bottom up. First line leaders (who typically make up 40% or more of the leaders in your company) are continuously under stress as they learn their new role. If you take the time to coach and develop leaders early in their career you build brand ambassadors for life.

Facebook, for example, has a business rule:  a movement into leadership will not be a promotion. This simple idea helps make sure that people who move into team leadership or managerial roles are doing it because they truly want to add value through the success of others. We, in HR, have to constantly focus on helping the company identify great leaders and make sure the organization understands that leadership is not a destination, but rather a journey.

Today there are literally hundreds of vendors, models, and consultants to help you build great leaders. Bold HR means you innovate, identify the characteristics of great leaders in your own company, and build a leadership development program that speaks to your own company’s culture.

By the way, the leadership development market (over $14 billion) grew by more than 14% last year – part of owning the leadership agenda is making sure that your CEO and other leaders feel comfortable to invest continuously in this area and they put their personal time into helping you push the leadership agenda.

Third: L – Leverage Learning Everywhere

The third part of Bold HR is to focus heavily on learning.

Leverage Learning Everywhere

Income inequality and the fast-growing economy has shown that now, more than ever, people are in a mad scramble for skills to help them improve their professional careers. MOOCs, video learning portals, online learning academies, and learning marketplaces are everywhere.  (LinkedIn just acquired Lynda.com for $1.5 Billion, 10-times sales.)

This disruptive growth in online learning has forced corporate learning departments to catch up. Our research shows that corporate learning has exploded as an issue (moved from 8th to 3rd biggest topic in business leadership this year) yet only 14% of chief learning officers feel fully aligned with their business leaders.

Today HR organizations must reinvest in learning and provide engaging, relevant learning experiences (and assignments) to employees at all levels.  Millennials expect developmental assignments and job rotations every year, and most companies are struggling to redesign their strategies to make this work.

At the IMPACT conference, our award winning program was a fantastic early-career global management program at Marriot. Through this program young employees spend their first two years on rotational assignments at various hotels around the world, learning management jobs in various parts of the hotel. This program is so exciting that it’s now a huge tool for recruitment and employment brand.

Fourth, D – Demand data.

The fourth dimension to Bold HR is to get good at data.

Demand Data

Listen, we in HR are the last part of business that hasn’t totally gotten our data act together.  Nobody would run finance or sales without good data, so now its time to do the same with HR.

This new area of People Analytics is far more serious than the “HR Analytics” we’ve done in the past.  As one of our top HR leaders put it, we have to “spend time where the money is being made” 

We are being asked to directly advise on critical business questions:

  • Why are some sales teams outperforming others?
  • Why do we lose certain high performers?
  • Why do some nursing units or service teams deliver better outcomes?
  • And why do some parts of the organization suffer from higher fraud or errors than others?

The answer to all these questions lies in people analytics, and that is our bold new charter for the coming years.

And One Final Thing.

Let me leave you with the most important element of all:  YOU.

You and your HR leadership have to “be bold.”

I was at a large consumer goods company a few months ago and the CHRO and I were talking about the issue of their HR “personality.” This is a very well known company with a reputation for being one of the best places to work for ambitious marketing people around the world. And they have some of the smartest and most passionate HR people I have met.

She told me that the biggest challenge her team has is “standing toe to toe with business leaders” and giving them the feedback and advice HR believes they need. While HR professionals certainly don’t run the business, we are often the ones with the information and insights business leaders need to dramatically improve performance. If we can’t boldly and confidently deliver our message, we won’t be heard.

This is an exciting time for the HR profession. The global economy is growing, recruitment is more competitive than ever, and a new generation of workers is demanding opportunities and changes to the way we work. Now, more than ever, is the time for HR to be bold, reinvent, and lead our organizations into the new world of work.

I want to thank all the participants, vendors, and support people who made IMPACT 2015 our best-ever conference. We look forward to working with you on your own Bold HR strategy in the year ahead.

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  • “Nobody would run finance or sales without good data, so now it’s time to do the same with HR.” This is an excellent point. HR and recruiting seems to be lagging in this department. It’s time to stop hesitating and embrace the data in order to start making strategic decisions.