Why this chief people officer is focusing on ‘dignified work’

John Foster, newly appointed chief people officer at online pharmacy Truepill, has experienced firsthand how the HR profession has been evolving from a transactional services function to a business partner. Since 2005, he has led the HR function at companies in the financial, fashion, automotive, health, and entertainment industries.

“The business partner model is not actually happening at a lot of companies,” says Foster, whose current company employs 1,500 people predominantly in the US who deliver nationwide pharmacy, diagnostics and telemedicine services. “But what has changed dramatically is that businesses are starting to understand that talent is an asset, not a cost.”

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Foster joined Truepill from TrueCar. Previously, he was the first CHRO at Hulu, where he built the HR function from the ground up, and held HR leadership roles at Fidelity Investments, Levi Strauss, Citibank, and Mercury Interactive.

HRE recently spoke with Foster about HR’s hurdles and opportunities along with his own efforts to advance the profession. Currently, he is writing a book (working title: Talent Rules) that consolidates his HR insights, offers “provocative positions” and may introduce more agile and organic HR business models.

HRE: How far along is HR on the continuum in terms of development?

John Foster, Truepill
John Foster, chief people officer, Truepill

Foster: We’re still in the middle. I credit Dave Ulrich, (professor at the University of Michigan, author, and speaker) for defining the current era, which involves business partners and the idea of having centers of excellence and shared services.

HRE: What’s HR’s next challenge?

Foster: Making a workplace where people can be well and actually go to their company for the kind of support they need to actually drive [effectiveness in their roles]. The biggest relationship we have in our lives other than with our family [is with employers]. Companies are going to start realizing that HR can be the way to interact with people that helps drive them versus using them as resources.

HRE: You’ve worked in multiple industries. Are some more progressive than others?

Foster: Consulting services are more advanced and ahead of the curve with how they manage people. You find a lot of bests in those types of companies. Some technology companies are pretty far along. They deal with creative human talent. But we still have a long way to go with dignified work. The fact that we’re still dealing with minimum wage is a problem. Thinner margin businesses also have a harder time with talent investment.

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HRE: You mention that you’re in a learning zone about how to leverage a distributed workplace.

Foster: I’m spending a lot of time experimenting on the use of time and how calendars and time and maturity play together to give people more choice. My hypothesis is location doesn’t matter, that it has more to deal with flexibility and self-determination than where you sit.

Related: How data is changing HR at Microsoft, Walgreens and Morgan Stanley

HRE: HR offers many entry points. Do they all require advanced training or degrees?

Foster: If you’re going to work in people operations, you can come into a service role with very little training, no degree. All you need are fundamental customer focus skills, personal management skills and curiosity. But if you work in organizational development, you probably need an advanced degree. Study psychology or sociology. That’s certainly very helpful. That’s one of the value-adds we have created in the function—data-driven scientific understanding of people. When you’re doing sophisticated analytics, that might require a master’s or advanced degree where you understand statistics, how to capture, measure, evaluate and propose data-driven types of interventions, cost recovery, investment type of advisory, and decision support.

HRE: What are some ways people can enhance their value as an HR professional?

Foster: To be interesting, be interested. If you want to appear like you’re able to do something, be curious. Ask a lot of questions. Then you’ll start to develop a point of view. The second thing is to develop hypotheses of your point of view. In most business relationships I’ve had, people were looking for me to give them advice and not just say, “It’s up to you.” HR people who are successful have a point of view and say, “The research and data say if we go this way, we’re going to be more successful.” Develop some ideas and share them. Then you have a toolkit of advice you can give.

HRE: You’ve only been in your current role for several months. What are you focusing on?

Foster: I would like to have the opportunity to show the world what really great human-centered leadership looks like. I’ve been spending more time developing curricula, working as a mentor, doing advisory work, and tapping into all of my experience to share what I’ve learned.

HRE: You compare architecture to HR. How are they alike?

Foster: I knew early in life that I wanted to be an architect. I love the idea of drawing and designing things. But I was sort of dissuaded from architecture because people said it was more about math. Turns out that what I’m doing is architecture in a lot of ways. My career has been about putting together different pieces and testing them out. Think about HR as a design field, which is a different lens to look through. I feel I lucked out and ended up in a career I always thought I would be in.

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Carol Patton
Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at [email protected]