Given the seismic shifts the world of HR has seen in the last few years, the drive toward “transformation” has naturally become an expectation for many HR leaders. But what exactly does transformation entail? And how can HR ensure a transformation is sustainable for the long term?
These are among the questions talent and transformation expert Larry McAlister will explore in his upcoming keynote session at HR Tech Conference Virtual, a free, online event running Feb. 28-March 2.
McAlister, author of the forthcoming The Power to Transform: A Field Guide to Building a Human-Centered, Tech-Enabled Work Culture, has gone through plenty of transformations in his own career: He has served as CHRO for three organizations, including most recently at Fortune 500 data services and management company NetApp. He left the firm last summer to found his own business, the Corporate Humanist Consultancy, through which he is helping clients embrace technology to facilitate transformation.
“I want to make sure people understand how talent strategy and this golden age of HR technology we’re in tie together to drive transformation,” he says about his work. “You’re in a transformation whether you know it or not; whether you’re growing, shrinking, have a new product, are laying people off—these are all transformational moments. And if you’re not thinking about transformation with a cohesive strategy, you’re wasting your time.”
Here’s what McAlister recently told HRE that companies are getting wrong about transformation—and what they need to do next:
HRE: What was the transition like for you, coming from NetApp to being in business for yourself?
McAlister: I was a vice president in a Fortune 500 so I was surrounded by an apparatus; I had an executive assistant, direct reports, teams, systems. So, I could just focus on delivering transformation, the best-in-breed tech and helping our people grow. So, [when I left,] all sorts of things stopped. I’ve had to focus on building my own personal apparatus. I read the book Atomic Habits, and I started building my discipline of what I do every day, how I focus on growing the business and getting things done. What I have professed, as part of my transformation over the last 10 years, is having a growth mindset, which means that you have to try things you don’t think you’re ready for. It’s about having positivity that, even if you don’t know how to do what you’re doing now, you’re going to figure out how to do it. And that really struck home for me these past eight months.
HRE: What’s the biggest talent transformation challenge you’re seeing among the organizations you’ve been working with?
McAlister: The biggest gap is not having a holistic view—the golden thread in a talent strategy. My basic strategy is activate yourself, activate your team, activate the enterprise and activate the future. When you get that all right, it’s a virtuous cycle and employees grow, the company grows and you hit your business goals. But when I’m talking to CEOs or consulting with talent tech companies, they look at this as a one-off: “I’m going to spend money to bring in a platform that will help employees grow.” But that’s not connected to the larger story. And I guarantee you’ll have a lower return on investment because you’re depending everything on people adapting to that system.
[At NetApp,] I had this big career week where we said, “This is what career growth is, this is how it fits to the talent strategy.” We had speakers and it was a big one-week event. And then the technology followed that. Employees were like, “Wow, they’re investing in me. I’m excited about this and want to see what this [technology] is.” We tied it to a larger story—all about the employees’ future. But not all HR tech companies sell that bigger picture, and not all customers think about the bigger picture. So, I’m trying to broker the gap between those.
HRE: And did your thinking about transformation evolve during the pandemic?
McAlister: Absolutely. At the beginning of the pandemic, we asked employees where they wanted to work and the overwhelming amount said hybrid; some said all from home and, I think, 9% said in the office all the time. Then six or eight months later, we started getting shots in arms and we thought, “Hmm, I wonder if that has changed.” That 9% went down to 7%. It was informative, and we said, “OK, this is not an experiment anymore.” There has been a fundamental shift in how talent wants to address work, and that is never going to be the same. That helped us. We could go fast and make decisions based on how people wanted to work, and because we had that as part of our talent strategy, people said in surveys, “I feel like you care about us.” That was the first time that care and the idea of wellbeing really exploded.
The first part of the pandemic was: We’re all going to die, where is my toilet paper? The second part was: How is work going to go? The third now is: I know how work’s going to go but I’m burned out. And the fourth phase—what I’m calling the pandemic-affected workforce—is about mental fitness. How do you feel mentally fit, not languish, not burn out? We’re going to see more and more technology focused on mental fitness, and more companies are going to have to invest in that because there’s a big gap there. We throw around terms like quiet quitting or whatever you want to call it—but it’s all tied to being energized, not languishing, being agile, keeping your mental health going. Winning talent strategies will include that as a big pillar.
HRE: What skill set does it take for HR leaders to be able to stay in tune with the “human” aspect of HR while also being tech-minded?
McAlister: The bots are not coming to take your job; they’re coming to the parts you wouldn’t want to do anyway. Technology is ubiquitous and utilitarian; it’s making stuff easier, making payroll faster. What we’re focused on now is how to use technology to make our jobs more human-centered. Technology doesn’t replace human interaction; it helps you get to it faster and with better data. One example is AI recruiting. Before, recruiters would go on LinkedIn and do searches and look at all the names, but now AI recruiting tools can match people up with ratings, tell you if they’re from an underrepresented minority, if that person is likely to call you back. That physical work is done for you so you can get to the candidate faster than you used to.
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HRE: With all these changes in technology, in talent strategy, how do you personally keep yourself keyed in and connected to what’s on the leading edge?
McAlister: Thank god for social media. There are so many experts in the field so I follow people and interact with them. I speak at and attend conferences. I’m talking to brand-new vendors, seeing demos. It’s the golden age of HR tech and it’s up to us to understand what’s available and to discern what’s most important for each company.
HRE: I have to ask since we’re talking about tech … ChatGPT: Do you think it’s really going to be as revolutionary as people say it could be?
McAlister: It’s such a quandary at this moment. It’s cool, it works. Think about writing a blog: Yes, it works in that it helps you write it, could help unstick writer’s block, could give you ideas. But what I haven’t seen yet is the individual flavor of a writer coming through. How do you make it feel personal? It can help you crank out blogs all over the place but if you want to write a piece that’s stylistic, where you can actually get your brain in there and your point of view, it comes back to that human interaction factor. Without the human and your style, it’s all going to sound the same.