Here’s How to Future-Proof HR

NYU School of Professional Studies HCM Program Academic Director Anna Tavis (left), and NYU CHRO Sabrina Ellis

Stacie Mallen began her HR career in the basement–literally.

“I worked at a hospital system recruiting physicians, and the HR office was in the basement, right next to the morgue,” says Mallen, who’s now a consultant.

During her HR career, she held senior-level HR positions at start-up companies such as CampusLogic and Merz North America. She’s also worked as a recruiter for Caremark and Robert Half International.

Early on, Mallen discovered that the hospital system’s HR department was not particularly well respected.

“It wasn’t a warm, friendly, business-centric place to be so, early on in my career, my mindset was ‘I don’t want to be seen as that,’ ” she says. At the hospital and at subsequent employers, she worked to ingratiate herself with the business team, learning about the customers and business strategy and working to be seen as a source of advice rather than a “rules monitor.”

Mallen’s journey is illustrative of HR’s own evolution from its traditional transactional role to more of a strategic resource. These days, HR leaders can be found on corporate boards and are often included on a company’s list of its top-five highest-paid corporate officers.

For a long time, HR was the steward of the organization. It ensured that rules were followed, laws were complied with and people-related processes ran smoothly. As the economy’s focus shifted from manufacturing and toward service-related work, however, HR’s mission became more strategic. Now, as the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution takes shape, HR must evolve into something new: the steward of work.

That’s according to Ravin Jesuthasan, who’s overseeing a new research project by the Society for Human Resource Management’s HR People + Strategy division and Willis Towers Watson. The initiative will produce a report this fall based on extensive research, a pulse survey of HR executives across all industries and in-depth interviews with CEOs, CHROs, board members and other members of the C-suite.

“HR will be responsible for the experiences of every human who touches the enterprise,” whether they’re a full-timer, an outside contractor or a contingent worker, says Jesuthasan, managing director of Willis Towers Watson and the closing keynoter at this year’s HR Technology Conference.

HR’s role in this transformation is far from guaranteed, however. A recent report from KPMG titled The Future of HR 2019: In the Know or In the No finds that, even as forward-looking HR leaders are confidently harnessing resources and implementing new technologies, a much larger segment of less-confident HR leaders is either taking a wait-and-see approach or simply doing nothing.

The report, based on a survey of 1,200 HR leaders from around the globe, finds that just 40 percent of HR leaders say they have a digital-transformation plan in place. While 70 percent recognize the need for workforce transformation (with 42 percent agreeing that preparing the workforce for AI is one of HR’s biggest challenges in the next five years), only 37 percent are “very confident” about HR’s ability to transform.

For this story, we interviewed five current and former HR leaders to get their perspectives on what they’ve learned during their climb to the top and how the HR profession can best prepare for the future.

A Sustainable Talent Experience

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, a phrase popularized by German economist and World Economic Forum founder Klaus Schwab, refers to the confluence of robotics, artificial intelligence and other technologies that will greatly alter the nature of how work gets done. Entirely new jobs will be created, while others will be significantly altered or go away altogether. This evolution of work presents a great opportunity for HR to demonstrate its value–so long as it’s up to the challenge, experts say.

This new way of getting work done will include up to eight different options–including outsourcing, contract/gig workers, AI, robotic-process automation and social robotics, says Jesuthasan.

“Social robotics” refers to robots that don’t merely sit on assembly lines but move throughout the workplace, he says. “Think of a robot that roams the aisles of a supermarket to ensure shelves are fully stocked.”

HR’s role will be ensuring that the person implementing automation understands how the work of others will be affected and that other employees fully understand the robot’s role and how their own work will change.

Yet, even more importantly, HR leaders must ensure that decisions on where, when and how to transform work–whether it is purchasing a robot or something else–take into account the likely impact on employees and the larger organization.

“We often see the tail wagging the dog–the business leader runs out and gets a robot without understanding that the consequences of this are huge,” says Jesuthasan.

The HRPS/Willis Towers Watson study will examine how companies of all sizes are positioning their talent and culture to compete in an increasingly digital world. It will also delve into the experience, knowledge, skills and behaviors HR executives will need to help drive business strategy, and how HR can become the hub of a “larger ecosystem for work.”

“The only thing we know for sure is this will not be incremental change–we’re talking about transformational change,” says Jesuthasan. AI means that customer-facing roles–particularly in call centers–will eventually be automated, with clients having questions or concerns resolved by software. Humans will need to help program and monitor this new technology as it takes over the more routine aspects of their work while simultaneously preparing for roles that will utilize higher-level thinking.

HR itself can’t lose sight of the human touch, says Sue Quackenbush, CHRO of Vonage, a cloud communications provider.

“Every individual is ultimately going to want to make a connection to the business they work for, and those connections are built via the human touch, not AI,” she says.

Talk of the future is a compelling reminder to keep the “human” in human resources, says Mallen, who, in addition to being principal consultant at Execute to Win is also a podcaster and author of the blog Rules Make Rebels.

“The piece we can’t lose sight of is that humans are unique in the way we process information, emotionally connect and make decisions–that will always be the advantage we have over machine learning,” says Mallen. Humans are better at picking up on nonsequential patterns than machines are, and it’s these unique abilities that will continue to give them an edge when looking at data, she says.

A Conceptual Thinker and a Coach

Obviously, humans will remain integral to organizations–and creating an employee experience that attracts and retains the most talented humans will be paramount.

At New York University, CHRO Sabrina Ellis is turning to tech to create more “tailored” experiences for employees and job candidates.

For example, “when a new hire gets an offer letter and has questions about their first day, we want to put that information in their hand as quickly as possible,” she says.

“I think what excites me most about the future is how necessary we in HR will be,” says Keri Ohlrich, a former CHRO who’s now CEO of HR-consulting firm Abbracci Group. The skill sets that help humans work side by side with robots will be an important knot for HR to untie, she says, as will helping to build high-functioning teams across different locations.

Susan Schmitt, CHRO of high-tech manufacturer Applied Materials, also sees the future as filled with possibilities for HR.

Schmitt, who serves on the board of directors of the HR Policy Association, says future CHROs will need to excel in four different areas: skills, knowledge, experience and information-processing capability. “Future CHROs in complex companies are going to require systems-level, conceptual-thinking ability,” she says.

Another crucial area is temperament, she says.

“Everyone has good days and bad days, but you need to carefully consider whether there are aspects of a person’s temperament that can derail them from this job,” says Schmitt, such as “being too passive, too arrogant, too aggressive, too needing people to like them. You have to have some capability to value relationships.”

There’s probably no one with the ideal temperament, she admits, yet it’s possible for organizations to define a set of requirements around an ideal temperament.

Finally, the person needs to be able to accept the demands and obligations of the CHRO role–which, these days, often involves serving as a coach to other leaders within the organization, says Schmitt.

“You’re going to have to deal with a lot of different executive-leadership dynamics and manage sensitive and delicate matters,” says Schmitt. “You have to be fairly capable in navigating the landscape in doing no harm and creating positive outcomes.”

A “Personal Board of Directors”

Ellis, a graduate of the NYU School of Professional Studies, says she would advise any HR professional looking to climb the corporate ladder “to pursue career development that speaks to data and analytics so that it can inform whichever initiatives they feel are important for their organization to pursue. It’s always helpful and appreciated whenever you have data to back up a plan.”

Another must-have, she adds, are project-management skills.

“So much of what we do in HR requires input from, and collaboration with, different units across the organization,” she says. The ability to successfully manage a project requires a specific skill set that is critically important and is something Ellis says she looks for when interviewing candidates for senior-level HR positions.

Education–including degrees and certifications that aren’t directly linked to HR–is also key.

“When you have an MBA in finance and you’ve worked in finance, you get well-grounded in how business works,” says Quackenbush, whose background includes both. An MBA can help you understand all facets of an organization, she says, which is critical for CHROs.

“Understanding how the business works–seeing the interdependencies of different functions, how product development and tech need to work hand in hand, how sales and marketing work–is so important,” says Quackenbush.

Learn how the business works early on, and how your role supports and enables the organization to execute its strategy, she adds.

Vonage started off as a business-to-consumer company offering phone calls over the internet and transformed to providing communications software to businesses. The process has included acquiring eight different companies over a period of five years and integrating them into the organization.

Since joining the company three years ago, Quackenbush has developed Vonage’s employee-experience strategy along three pillars: culture, growth, and rewards and recognition.

“Our thesis is that every person wants to know about the company’s culture, how they’ll grow and how they’ll be rewarded and recognized,” she says, noting leadership aims to reference those three pillars in all employee communications.

For HR leaders, it’s also key to develop a “personal board of directors,” says Schmitt. “A career in corporate HR can be difficult, and when we’re younger we expect our companies will provide us with mentoring, but sometimes that just doesn’t happen.”

Schmitt once had 10 different bosses within 10 years. “It was clear to me there was not going to be a focus on my development–I felt pretty alone.”

Almost organically, however, she began creating a network of people whose advice and coaching she valued. “I think of it as a personal safety net I can call on,” says Schmitt. “Don’t wait for your company to assign you a mentor–go and ask people.”

Walking the Talk

Ohlrich, co-author of the book The Way of the HR Warrior, makes no secret of the fact that she hates the way HR is often portrayed: “I get really ticked off that we get made fun of all the time, in the media and within the organization,” she says. “It’s BS! I’ve been around really good, smart HR people, and I don’t appreciate the disrespect.”

Yet she also concedes that there are some HR leaders who perpetuate the negative stereotype of rules-bound, innovation-stifling drones.

“I took over one HR team that the other people in the organization did not like,” she says. “We had an off-site meeting and every single leader told me, ‘We don’t invite HR to meetings, they’re horrible!’ ”

Ohlrich did a deep dive into why HR had such a negative reputation. One of the things she learned was that HR often didn’t practice what it preached.

“A previous HR leader had told the marketing vice president she should remove several poor performers from her team–she ignored him and kept them on,” she says. “She told me, ‘He had two horrible people on his team, so why should he tell me to take care of my people when he set such a lousy example?’ ”

Always walk the talk, says Ohlrich. If people on your HR team are the inverse of how the organization wants employees to be, it will undermine HR’s credibility, she says.

“A business leader wants someone who’s going to think through things and not just say, ‘The law says such and such,’ ” she says. “Sometimes you’ve got to say things like that, but mostly you need to help them think through the various options.”

“One thing I’ve learned is that you cannot over-communicate,” adds Quackenbush. This was especially critical as Vonage absorbed its eight acquisitions along with growing global leaders, breaking down silos and “creating a sense of urgency.”

As a young HR professional, Ohlrich says, she had lots of great ideas–to improve recruiting or ramp up employee engagement–but the way she pitched those ideas ended up causing more discord.

Empathy and compassion are key, she cautions.

“Sometimes, people just aren’t ready for what you’re selling to them,” says Ohlrich. “You need to meet people where they’re at, and then try and push them a little.”

Photo by David Neff

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.