The New Role Of CHRO: Making Work More Human

I hate buzzwords, and the word “human” seems to have become the next buzzword in HR. But after a two-day senior CHRO Summit we just completed with the UC Berkeley Haas Business School, I’ve just changed my mind. Thinking about Human values is now central to the CHRO’s job, and one of the most important parts of business performance.

What It’s Like To Run HR: The Nuts And Bolts

We had around 50 CHROs with us this week (including folks from Lyft, Dropbox, IBM, Pinterest, Bertelsman, Roche, and many others), and I’ll let you know: running HR is not easy. There are a myriad of issues to address, including all the operational issues in hiring, onboarding, compliance, and pay. But the important ones go much further.

As Diane Gherson, the CHRO of IBM put it, the big four priorities are A) making employees feel valued (changing communications from “Dear IBMer” to “Dear Joe” for example), B) Maintaining your reputation (companies live in glass houses, every management problem appears on the internet, so you have to respond fast), C) Becoming more agile (addressing issues within minutes, not days or weeks), and D) Assessing and improving skills. (Read more about “Capability Academies.”)

IBM, as Diane explains in detail, now has sensing systems, skills inference systems, and a team of agile designers making it easier than ever for IBM’s HR function to listen in real-time, act fast, and design and iterate on solutions.

Emily Nishi, the CHRO of Lyft, described how she wished she had hired her team faster. In fast-growing companies (like Lyft, Dropbox, and others we had in the session) it’s important for the HR team to scale as fast as the business. She described how important it is to speak directly to managers who are failing and give them the difficult feedback they need to succeed. This is a difficult role to fill, but it falls in the CHRO’s lap.

Melanie Collins, the CHRO of Dropbox, described how important it is to listen to employees and make sure engineers and technical teams are well aligned and rewarded fairly. Dropbox, which has gone public and is competing with big tech players, has re-evaluated its lavish benefits, for example, and found that employees prefer a focus on the job itself: improving performance and productivity tools, training managers, and making work more meaningful. She was surprised by how the “seemingly important” benefits like free massages were not what people really wanted.

And the stories go on and on. Today HR is expected to listen to every employee in detail, provide rational answers to important questions, and advise the CEO and leadership team on some of the most important issues in the company.

But it goes much further.

The Human Issues Are Most Important Of Al

This CHRO Summit (which we will do again next year) was a partnership of the Josh Bersin Academy and the UC Berkeley Haas Executive Education, so we had some very high-powered people to teach.

This included my co-host Rich Lyons the former Dean of Haas, Sameer Srivastava, head of the Computational Culture Lab at Berkeley (where they analyze language and conversations to identify communication trends, networks, and employee engagement), Emiliana Simon-Thomas of the Greater Good Science Center (one of the most valuable resources in employee wellbeing you will find), Diane Gherson, the CHRO of IBM, Emily Nishi, the CHRO of Lyft, and Homa Bahrami, a senior faculty at Berkeley who has studied “super-flexibility,” agility, and new models of organization design. (Homa taught me organizational design in the 1980s when I was a young MBA student!)

What did we learn? A lot. And at the risk of simplifying a lot of deep and important issues, let me try to summarize.

1/ As I discussed in my keynote, “People as Competitive Advantage” (you can take the course in this in the Josh Bersin Academy), every individual in your company now plays an outsized, strategic role. Salespeople, support staff, engineers, and administration are all in critical positions – so their level of engagement, retention, and alignment are critical. Despite an uptick in employee engagement around the world, these individuals are stressed out, working extra hours, and often quite confused by the number of messages, projects, and communications coming at them. They need what I described as the “process shredder” to make their work simpler. Companies that can create such focus and productivity outperform their peers.

2/ Culture is more important than ever. Rich Lyons described his journey from Berkeley to Goldman Sachs and back again, and how his 11-year tenure as Dean focused heavily on explicitly defining the Haas culture. (Called the Haas Defining Principles, which are now the #1 reason students select Haas as their business school of choice.)

As Rich describes it, culture must be clearly defined, differentiated (don’t just copy someone else’s website), and executed. When the culture is clear, and both reward systems and management behavior is aligned, people know what to do. It creates clarity. At Lyft, for example, the values are simple: Be Yourself, Uplift Others, and Get Things Done. This focus on authenticity and inclusion is central, and this attracts people to Lyft. You as a CHRO have to make culture explicit: find out what it is, verbalize it, and institutionalize it.

3/ Emiliana gave us an amazing compendium of information about what makes people happy, and believe me this is worth your time. It includes values like awe, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, humility and social connection. The Greater Good Science Center calls this PERK: Purpose, Engagement, Resilience, and Kindness, and they have many studies that show “happiness” correlates to performance.

What I realized as we discussed the issue is that most of these “soft” and “warmth” topics don’t make it onto corporate competency models. I walked away thinking “helping remind people to be kind, compassionate, and generous” may be one of the most powerful performance-enhancing tools you have. Another topic for you as a CHRO to think about.

4/ The topic of inclusion, diversity, and fairness came up a lot. What we heard from our group was that this topic is top of mind everywhere, but nobody has a simple solution in place. Yes, companies now measure gender pay equity and work very hard to hire in an unbiased way, but implicit bias and historic bias is everywhere. And in today’s politicized world, we need ways to “bridge differences.”

Tami Rosen, a senior HR leader who spent time as faculty at Apple University, Goldman Sachs, Quora, and now Luminar Technologies, explained how every company she worked at had radically different values, and how important it was to understand the culture as you decide how to fit in. Apple thrives as a deep functional organization where people thrive through specialization; at Goldman you are expected to be open and transparent and share information. Being “diverse” and “inclusive” varies widely from place to place.

I walked away with a new word to consider: “identity.” Each and every individual in your company should have the ability to “be themselves,” and this simple thought is core to D&I. We watched the following video from Accenture which helped nail this down.

5/ Agility and flexibility are top priorities everywhere, but adjusting is harder than you think. As Homa describes for us in detail, “change management” is now dead, we’re dealing with “steady change enablement,” and we have to find ways to protect and support people as our companies change. (Twenty years ago the typical large company did a reorganization every 7 years: today they do it every 7 months.)

Homa’s model for Adaptive DNA and super-flexibility teaches us that there are five different personas at work, and each adapts in different ways:

  1. The Crocodile: who stays persistent, focused, and strong
  2. The Starfish: who is resilient, bounces back and adapts
  3. The Camel: who is durable, risk-averse, and forward-thinking
  4. The Cheetah: who goes fast and stays agile and light
  5. The Chameleon: who senses, observes, and adapts.

She taught us how to use these personas to size people up, find ways to make change workable for everyone, and make change a part of the humane experience at work (not just a project for consultants to lead).

6/ Data is your friend and must be at your core. As Sameer showed us in detail, data can show us when teams may fail, how different teams operate in different ways, and how you can understand why people may feel left out or don’t fit into your culture. He showed us, for example, that many people “copy the language” of the company they join (often called “covering”) to try to fit in. But statistically these people are more likely to leave over time, so you can actually find “culture fit” and “culture add” people with data-driven from conversations, language, and dialogue.

Bottom Line: You are the Chief HUMAN Resources Officer.

While there are a myriad of roles and practices in HR, (most of which we discuss in detail in The Josh Bersin Academy), the simple message I walked away with is that the most powerful people strategies “transform your company from the inside out.” It is the human parts of work that need attention right now, and when we improve people’s feeling of belonging, their ability to grow, and their sense of safety and trust, all our HR and management decisions work better.

I want to thank the UC Berkeley Haas Business School for their partnership in this program, stay tuned for more information on our next CHRO Summit coming in 2020.