Lessons Learned from the Most Admired for HR

For the first time, “Most Admired” HR executives shared insights at HR Tech.
By: | November 7, 2018 • 14 min read

Among the takeaways at the HR Technology Conference & Exposition® in September was the need for HR to embrace innovation. That means it’s incumbent, many speakers said, on HR leaders to harness emerging technologies to not only prepare for the changing realities of work, but to pioneer new approaches in this evolving environment.

Following are some of the highlights from this year’s conference:

“Most Admired for HR” Leaders Speak Out

This year, the HR Tech Conference featured its first-ever panel of CHROs from “The Most Admired Companies for HR,” an annual ranking produced by HRE in partnership with Korn Ferry. The panel, moderated by conference co-chair Steve Boese, included (from left to right in the photo above) Jayne Parker, senior executive vice president and CHRO at the Walt Disney Co.; Peter Fasolo, executive vice president and CHRO at Johnson & Johnson; Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and HR officer at Accenture; Matthew Breitfelder, managing director and chief talent officer at BlackRock; and Joanne Smith, executive vice president and CHRO at Delta Air Lines.

Boese got the discussion started by asking the panelists what “great HR” looks like today.

“HR has evolved during the last five years to the point that it’s now all about human beings, as opposed to people being the subjects of the process,” Shook said. “We can have a very human experience in our companies today thanks in part to technology.”

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Shook noted that, with hundreds of thousands of employees spread across the globe, it’s difficult to impossible for Accenture’s leaders to connect in person with employees at all of its locations. These days, Accenture’s leaders are addressing that challenge by attending employee meetings around the world via three-dimensional holograms of themselves when they can’t make it in person.

“They can see our facial expressions, they can see our humbleness—it lets us create a more human experience,” she said.

Fasolo said great HR means “having a talent mindset at all times. HR leaders have to be very good at picking winners and getting them to join and stay.”

At Disney, the HR focus is on ensuring that employees feel that their input is valued, said Parker.

“We define ourselves as a creative company, and so our employees have to feel their voice is heard,” she said. “We, as HR leaders, need to both understand the business strategy and ensure employees can have a voice in that.”

Boese asked the panelists what they do to ensure their corporate cultures help drive business outcomes.

“At Johnson & Johnson, we have a proud history of our culture being driven by our credo, which states that our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses, patients, mothers and fathers, and all others who use our products and services,” said Fasolo.

It’s critical, he added, for companies to ensure that the people they’re putting into leadership positions make it possible “for employees to bring their best selves to work every day.”

The panelists also discussed the importance of diversity and inclusion for business outcomes.

“When you dial up diversity, it leads to greater innovation,” Shook said.

As a “storytelling organization”—through its movie, television, theme park and other divisions—Disney knows it can’t tell great stories to a wide audience if the company itself isn’t diverse, Parker noted.

“The work of diversity is critical,” she said. “The Disney Co. cannot do what it’s supposed to do for its shareholders without a diverse group of employees.”

At BlackRock, the CEO has a “no-replicants” mantra, Breitfelder said. “If the people you’re hiring, as a manager, are just like you, then you have a problem,” he said. The investment company, which has $6 trillion under management for its clients, looks for diversity of background, education, race and gender in the people it hires, he added.

“We’ve found, for example, that people with liberal-arts degrees make excellent investors,” he said. “It’s important to identify the skills of candidates and get past the arrogance that says there’s only one model that succeeds. We need people to come to our team who will challenge and create tension because it works.”

Companies must invest in their employees’ knowledge, Parker said, even when it doesn’t have an immediate ROI to the workplace. This is especially critical in the media industry, which has changed dramatically within the last few years.

“We’re introducing a program called Disney Aspire, in which we’re going to pay for our 80,000 hourly employees to take college classes in whichever area they choose,” she said. Disney will pay the tuition upfront and will reimburse the employees for the cost of books and fees. The company plans to devote $150 million over the next five years to the program.

“Our goal is to set them up for success in the future,” said Parker.

Creating an HR Data Culture

Having the right HR tools is great, but how do you get them to the people closest to the work being done, the ones who can actually use them?

During a conference session titled “Empowering Managers: Using People Data Analytics for Retention and Business Growth,” Lisa Maxey, director of compensation and HRIS at GBW Railcar Services, explained how the company partnered with ADP to connect its managers and workers in the field with the right technology to improve business objectives like talent management and data management.

GBW Railcar Services was the largest independent railcar-repair network in North America—until this summer, when it was reabsorbed by its parent company.

“It’s simple—we fix trains,” Maxey said.

But the company was intent on fixing how managers attracted, managed and retained the right employee mix, especially for hourly employees who are critical to the organization’s success.

With $300 million annual revenue across 35 U.S. locations and 1,500 employees distributed remotely, the company employs a mostly non-desk population of skilled laborers. Indeed, 75 percent of all jobs are hourly positions held by “low-tech-savvy” men with an average age above 40.

The tight labor market and a lack of workers with the required skills for the job, such as mechanics and welders, added to the company’s challenges. “It is so difficult to find any type of workers that, if you are looking for someone, you’re trying to take someone from another job,” Maxey said.

Hiring and retaining workers with specialized skills is key for GBW, she said. “If you’re having a problem with turnover, it’s going to impact your other metrics because our employees are the ones generating the revenue.”

Before the ADP adoption, Maxey said, managers were lacking “visibility” in regard to hiring goals.

“We were terrible at it,” she said. “Our managers might hear about a hiring goal in a meeting once a year, but they’d lose focus because they didn’t see it every day.”

ADP’s Mobile Insights allowed them to see interactive, real-time dashboards on their smartphones because “90 percent of the day, most managers are away from their desks and out in the field.”

Dashboards included metrics such as headcount, overtime, turnover and “cool” things like the average tenure of a team, all in real time instead of in a monthly report, she said.

The company required its managers to log in daily to ADP Insights to look at time cards and job costing and to ensure they had everyone clocked in correctly. The organization also encouraged managers to “look at your dashboards and then you can say, ‘Maybe I need to get back to the recruiting team to schedule some interviews because two people just left unexpectedly.’ ”

The faster you can get people through the recruiting process, the better, and after it started using Insights, GBW was able to decrease the time between application and offer letter from 50 to 60 days to 20 to 30.

“We were able to really flatten it out to a consistent level,” Maxey said.

One of the lessons learned through the process, she said, was to ask if the company’s HR data structure is the right one.

“How does your business look at data? You should map [HR data] parallel to how your whole organization looks at data.”

Indeed, before the ADP adoption, GBW used 57 different operations codes to define separate job activities, including many for different—yet very similar—types of maintenance tasks.

“A high-level executive wanted us to use all those codes,” Maxey said. “But when the data showed that 30 of those codes hadn’t been used in the last six months, we were able to say: ‘I’m not just telling you it’s a bad idea [to have that many codes], I’m showing you it’s a bad idea.’ ”

The company now only uses about a dozen codes, she added.

As for the lower-level managers, Maxey said, they were initially struggling with the adoption because many were first-time managers and hadn’t gone to business school. “So we learned you need to talk about the ‘why’ of the numbers, not just the numbers themselves,” she noted.

To that end, during rollout, the company focused on interpreting data with managers and business leaders, she said, and it made all the difference.

“You don’t have to be a data expert to use these systems,” Maxey said. “The front-line people are the experts, so leverage their experience and knowledge to achieve the outcomes your organization needs.”

The Importance of Career Paths

There’s a new workforce dynamic today, in which the power differential has swung over to employees.

That’s according to Anne Fulton, author of The Career Engagement Game and founder of Fuel 50, who co-presented a session at HR Tech titled “The Next Frontier of Uberization at Work: Career Pathing for a More Engaged Workforce.”

Thanks to that power shift between workers and organizations—due to the current talent shortage—employers need to redesign a career experience to fit the transformed world in order to combat rising quit rates and falling engagement scores, Fulton said. Indeed, according to Randstad, 86 percent of employees leave their jobs due to a lack of career development.

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And the problem only seems to get worse with younger workers, Fulton said.

While two-thirds of millennials are expecting a better career-development experience than previous generations received, 70 percent of them will be working in jobs that will be “radically affected” by automation, she said, adding that McKinsey research shows 375 million workers globally could be displaced in their jobs by 2030 due to automation.

Companies are looking for new ways to “future-proof” their workforces in order to retain sufficient talent to be able to meet their strategic objectives. But workers are seeing a “significant” disconnect between what HR is offering and what they need, Fulton said.

“While 60 percent of HR leaders think they’re doing a good job giving employees a clear career path, only 36 percent of employees agree,” she said. “So what we need to do is increasingly personalize the career proposition to meet the individual’s needs.

“We need to design careers around experiences, not positions, to increase satisfaction,” Fulton added.

To that end, her firm compiled its top best-in-class practices for organizations to deliver those experiences:

  • Invest in internal talent mobility;
  • help employees understand why career agility is important;
  • enable career growth on all levels of the organization, not just high-potentials;
  • help leaders do a better job of career coaching;
  • help leaders understand the importance of being “talent agents” for their people; and
  • increase visibility of career paths and the internal talent supply for leaders.

“If you can do those six things,” she said, “you’re going to get the business outcomes you are looking for.”

Also during the session, Shreya Nidadavolu, a career and team growth specialist at Indeed, shared details of her company’s MADE Inside Indeed career-development program and its four different learning tracks.

The first is called “Manifest Your Vision,” in which employees seek to understand what’s important to them and where they envision their careers going. Next is “Achieve Your Goals,” which allows workers to learn the “tools, tricks and tips to really take a skills-based development approach to create dynamic action plans for themselves,” Nidadavolu said. The third is called “Dare to Ask for Help,” which provides employees with networking, mentoring and coaching opportunities. The final piece of the program is “Evolve as You Grow,” in which “Indeedians” can seek further experiences to promote continuous growth.

“It all goes back to that HR philosophy: We care about what you care about,” she said. “We want to make sure what we do has an impact. And to me, there’s nothing better than a career success story.”

HRE will continue its coverage of the HR Tech Conference in December.

The 2019 HR Technology Conference & Exposition® will be held Oct. 1 through Oct. 4 at the Venetian in Las Vegas.

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