Peter Drucker seemed to have a knack for simplifying the profound. He said, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”
How prescient. What insight could be more appropriate for the times we are experiencing?
Although there are hopeful signs that the world of work is beginning to settle down, daily headlines still give us reason to wonder: What will the “new normal” really look like? Was remote work just an emergency measure, or is it what many people now prefer and even demand? What kind of talent pool is most attractive to employers today, and what will they want and need tomorrow?
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. spends a lot of time pondering these and related questions. Fortunately, in addition to his own experiences in the workplace, he has at his disposal 70 years of original research data compiled by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM). He’s CEO and President of SHRM, the world’s largest HR professional association, impacting the lives of 115 million workers and families every day.
As a global leader on the future of employment, culture and leadership, he frequently testifies before Congress on critical workforce issues. He writes a weekly column for USA TODAY.
Taylor’s new book is Reset: A Leader’s Guide to Work in An Age of Upheaval. His insights provide a practical framework for any leader who wants to rethink, reconsider, and reimagine the workplace.
Rodger Dean Duncan: The global pandemic certainly produced upheaval for a lot of businesses. What do you see as the common denominators in leaders who are navigating most successfully through the upheaval?
Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: They are open to change, and they lead with empathy.
Rod Martin Jr., the CEO of Voya Financial, once said to me: “Johnny, my CHRO (Chief Human Resources Officer) and others have been talking about losing out on talent because the people aren’t located in the New York metro area.” There was this whole category of people he felt needed to work in the office.
Rod says now, post-Covid: “I rethought it because I saw that it actually could work. In many instances, they were better at their work. And so that’s something I would have never, ever agreed to if it weren’t for Covid.” One of the great benefits of this realization was that he could increase the number of qualified individuals with disabilities who would have turned down Voya job opportunities due to the difficulties of navigating public transportation to a New York City office every day.
Leaders must provide stability in times of upheaval. Some CEOs will tell you, “Well, I can’t do anything about how my employees feel.” But the reality is that you have to be aware of what your workers are experiencing—that’s doing your job. Put yourself in their position with empathy and your eyes open.
The bottom line is upheaval creates opportunity. You just have to figure out how best to seize it.
Duncan: Some senior leaders—perhaps especially those with backgrounds in accounting, law, or technology—may look at human resources as “that soft, hard-to-define stuff.” What would you tell them about HR’s role in the vitality and viability of a business?
Taylor: People are the lifeblood of your business. Domino’s Pizza chairman David Brandon recently told me that enterprises rise and fall based on the ingenuity of their human resources leaders. Why? Because they serve as the chief reinvention officers, exploring how the workforce relates to consumers and determining which skills that workforce can ply in novel ways. HR is who you look to—to lead in these incredibly important areas.
The organizations thriving in this era feature human resources leaders who exhibit a gift for reinvention. But they also have the tools they need to envision, and implement, a totally new way of doing business with their human resources.
A great example of this is CVS Health, where the chief human resources officer, Lisa Bisaccia, reimagined how the workforce could be repositioned from pharmacy staff to full-service allied health services professionals. This allowed the company to pivot during the Covid crisis and become the third-largest source of testing and treatment in the U.S.
Duncan: What characteristics should a smart CEO look for when hiring or promoting someone to the position of CHRO (Chief Human Resources Officer?
Taylor: A special number of CEOs—fewer than one in four—are fortunate enough to have CHROs on their team who apply what we call the right “R principles.” They are:
Results. The basis of every activity is to deliver results for the organization, which, in turn, delivers results for people. This may mean talent management, training programs and succession strategies.
Reconnaissance. Data and information are leveraged to advance organizational objectives. Today, this means that application of core analytics enables the CHRO to make decisions about efficiency, effectiveness and entrepreneurship.
Resourcefulness. Decisions are based on evidence and concepts of design thinking—a cognitive and strategic practice applied to problem solving. Today, this means the CHRO can think abstractly about new problems and their underlying issues, has the tenacity needed to tackle them, and has the ingenuity to resolve them.
Reimagination. Each day starts with an understanding of people matters and an eye toward reinventing the business in the face of competition and existential threats. Today, this means the CHRO is reimagining how a stock operation could yield revenue in new, unexpected circumstances, viewing the talent landscape across the enterprise with a labor economist’s eye to repurpose and reskill the workforce and meet market demands.
Duncan: Because innovation is so critical to business success, what can companies do to attract and hire innovators, and what can they do to unlock innovation potential in people already on board?
Taylor: You’ve got to establish the right culture. If people don’t feel like innovation would be well-received, they’ll play it safe. If your compensation plan doesn’t reward people who take risks—even new ideas that don’t work out—then you’re just treading in the same-old, same-old waters.
What scares a people manager looking across the table at a potential hire? Getting it wrong. Before a question is asked, you have to ask yourself if you’re looking for innovators in the right places, from different backgrounds, with diverse points of view. Is your talent acquisition team turning up widgets or wisdom? Has your HR team detailed the right job description to attract outside-the-box talent? A new perspective can be as groundbreaking as a new algorithm. Ensuring the right person is in front of you makes all the difference.
What we’ve learned with innovators is there are three pieces of guidance that help fold in this kind of talent. One, you have to be very clear about the problem you want them to address. Second is understanding the help you need to provide them for support—the activators that make the idea happen. And lastly, it’s essential to understand that innovators and ideators are perfectionists. You need to remind them that the pursuit of perfection is aimless, that the idea can still exist and be executed even in an imperfect state.
In other words, great ideas shouldn’t continue to be tinkered with on a whiteboard. They need to be implemented with room for adjustment, expansion and iteration. You can’t position invention within the lines of convention. That’s how innovation gets boxed in.
Duncan: Businesses have a responsibility to be good corporate citizens. But some companies have been accused of caving to cancel culture and social media campaigns rather than responding to public issues on the basis of well-though-out values and reasoning. What’s your advice to leaders who might be tempted to view current issues more through the lens of short-term PR points rather than what’s really right?
Taylor: We’re living in an era where activists can target your organization in a social media instant. You have to be aware of why. What is it that people are attacking you and your brand for? Once that’s identified, the narrative has to be shifted. Don’t focus on what I’m saying; focus on what I’m doing.
There are lessons to be learned in what Nike did during the racial injustice protests of the summer of 2020. They were the embodiment of activism, right? They had long embraced Colin Kaepernick and leaned in to his racial injustice cause. By July of 2020, they had announced a $140 million initiative with the Jordan brand to help fund partners such as the NAACP and Black Girls Code. Suddenly, there was a viral video of inspiration from Nike titled “You Can’t Stop Us.”
Well, within 72 hours, the good intentions were being turned upside down. The public chorus was growing with questions: What about you, Nike? How diverse are you? While Nike had done all these things, putting up the dollars, the response placed a laser focus on its own leadership. You’re a bunch of hypocrites—that was the blowback. No Black people on your leadership team. Very few Black women at the top. And yet, they’ll tell you all day long that they stand with Black people.
If you’re not what you’re posting about, if your Instagram feed is not a reflection of your boardroom, how are we supposed to take you at face value? You’re just throwing money at a problem. And that’s never going to have an impact on racial injustice. If I’m checking your website and all of a sudden the new face of a Black executive magically appears overnight, it’s insulting and offensive. Fix your own house, then talk to me about the rest of the world.
Duncan: If a new CEO sees reasons to change the organizational culture, what are some good ways to make culture changes without coming across as disparaging the previous CEO?
Taylor: Leadership changes, cultures shift, but it’s important to read the room, understand legacies and form a strategy. After all, the board hired you for a reason—to maintain the journey or create a different path. As the CEO, you take the opportunity to revisit the guiding principles. That’s what we did when I arrived at SHRM in 2017, stepping into a position Henry “Hank” Jackson occupied for seven years before his retirement.
I was very purposeful. I wanted to create a new culture that was not intended to disparage the last CEO’s beliefs, because what Hank did was phenomenal given what SHRM had been trying to do for the last decade. But what about the next ten years? I knew it would take a different culture to find success for the future of SHRM.
To be clear, there are no right or wrong cultures, but there is the right timing. At SHRM, we needed to fundamentally change our road map so we could react to a rapidly changing nonprofit world. We had to figure out how to become essential in the 21st century. That required a 100% shift. And we couldn’t just say it with words; we needed a different culture with a tolerance for risk, an ethos for innovation. And we needed people who would support that culture: smart and curious people.
Duncan: Many organizations have employees from multiple generations. What have you found to be good ways to maximize the human resources in such a workplace?
Taylor: Invest in the individual. Don’t buy into stereotypes. But understand that workplace identity and personal identity are becoming more entwined. For example, a 2019 study by Weber Shandwick, United Minds and KRC Research pointed out that Millennials are the generation most likely to be employee activists (48%), almost twice as likely as Boomers (27%).
Inclusion impacts the bottom line, not only through policy and in practice, but culture, too. Reexamine antiquated paradigms and develop policies that support your unique company culture. This could mean developing inclusive employee benefits such as same-sex partner coverage; floating holidays and parental leave; and hiring strategies that focus on untapped talent such as older workers, veterans, people with disabilities and people with criminal records.
By valuing and including differences, you drive your company forward by building a winning, diverse culture that attracts, engages, develops and retains top talent. An organization could hire the most diverse workforce on earth, but if those people can’t come together and connect, then what’s the point?
Duncan: What can leaders do to create a workplace environment where people feel free to reinvent themselves before reinvention is necessitated by a crisis?
Taylor: Be open to reimagining your organization, but do so with intentionality around people and culture. Embrace perpetual work reinvention. As technology gives rise to new ways of working and new work options that may include automation, work itself will be continuously reinvented. To keep up with perpetual work reinvention and changing skill requirements, HR leaders must make continuous learning and reskilling a core component of the new employment deal.
Culture is a double-edged sword. If healthy, it generates all sorts of creativity and innovation while unlocking more revenue. If toxic, it almost assuredly generates waste in talent costs, to the tune of $52 billion across the global economy every year. Aside from the risk-reward nature of your organization’s culture, any leader appreciates one undeniable fact: Transformation almost always begins with a culture change. Moreover, these culture changes are typically driven by some sort of reset moment.
I’m asked by leaders all the time, “Do you transform via technology or people?” My answer is almost always the same: Reset starts with the organization’s “software,” its people. As leaders, we cannot forget people’s astounding ability to sink any change. Reset relies on reduced resistance.
Duncan: Good questions, you point out, are the bedrock of curiosity. For leaders who are genuinely interested in continuous improvement, what are the three or four questions they should ask every day?
Taylor: Do I actually care about new ideas? Do the new ideas have to be mine?
Do I see connectivity where others don’t?
Do I have the right people for innovation? Where does innovation really live in my organization?
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.