HR Policies & Procedures, HR Works Podcast

Dave Ulrich: This Is a Great Time to Be in HR!

BLR’s popular podcast, HR Works, recently featured an interview with Dave Ulrich, the man some call the “father of modern HR.” He and his colleagues have a new book out that can help HR leaders in a practical and research-based way. The book is Victory through Organization, Why the War for Talent is failing Your Company and What You Can Do about It.

TravelNote: This is the third of three articles based on the podcast. See the first article here and the second article here (To listen to the whole podcast, visit HR Works.)

Dave is the Rensis Likert Professor of Business of the Ross School, University of Michigan, and a partner of the RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200. He’s the author or co-author of more than 30 books, including the number one Wall Street Journal business best seller, The Why of Work. He’s been named the top management thought leader in Business Week, Fortune, Financial Times, The Economist and People Management, and he has been designated the number one most influential international HR thought leader by HR Magazine

[Steve Bruce, host of HR Works] I wonder if you’d be willing to comment on some of these recent corporate blunders, like Wells Fargo, Uber, and United Airlines. What’s HR’s role in foreseeing and preventing this kind of PR disaster?

[Dave] By the way, I’ve got to ask you Steve, you see them and I see them. What would you say? You’ve got 33 years. You’re the winner of that G.D. Crain Award for excellence in broadcasting. Well deserved and I want to shout it out. What would you say? And I’ll give you my comments if you’ll share me with some of your observations. What would you say?

[Steve] Well, I guess I’d start out going back to where you were just a minute ago, the quality of the leadership and the culture that has to be focused on the business and the customer.

[Dave] I so much agree with that. I mean, you can root out individuals who are immoral. I mean, I was asked a number of years ago with a company that was having some really harassment problems, and some of their senior officers were doing griseous things. Then you see it some with Uber, you see it some with Wells Fargo, you see it some in these companies. And my answer is, I say to folks in courses where I teach, “Who has more than 10,000 employees?” And somebody raises her hand and I say, “You have in your company a racist. You have a sexist.” “No, I don’t.”  Of course you do–just by statistical probability. The issue is, can you create a culture that will not let that proceed? Taking one of those companies, Wells Fargo, it wasn’t a single event. At Uber, it wasn’t a single event. And it’s not a single event, it’s a pattern of events. And I get so frustrated with HR people who don’t become the guardians of that ethical process.

Now, you don’t stand up in a meeting and say, “Oh, you can’t say that,” but in your private discussions, you go back to that executive and say, “You’re judging yourself by your intent. Others are judging by your behavior. When you told that story you probably intended to be funny, and in fact people laughed, but let me tell you how it’s going to come across. You’re going to undermine yourself.” And I wish our HR people could get that part of their personal credibility, part of their success in building the right culture is being willing to confront people that their intent is not reflected by what they do.

By the way, if the leader has that intent and he or she is a racist or sexist, then even more cause to stand up and be right. So, I look at the cases of Wells Fargo. I look at the cases of Uber, and I say, “Was that an individual?” And if so, let’s root out that individual. Well, was that endemic to the culture? Has that become a pattern? And you can change individuals, you also have to change the patterns. By the way, just notice your answer was ten words, my answer was a hundred words. I think you did better.

[Steve] Well, I’m editing. So, to sum this all up. Any final tips you’d recommend to HR execs who are intrigued by the Victory through Organization concept, I mean, other than buying the book.

[Dave] Given that probably I’m close to your age, if not much older, at this stage in my life, I don’t care as much if you buy the book. I care that you use the ideas. Now, my partners and the publisher would just scream and they’d want you to edit that out, but I hope you don’t. Because if you use the ideas, the book will follow.

This is a great time to be in HR. We have identified forces shaping the world, social, technical, economic conditions, VUCA [volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity], the pace of change, the blurring of boundaries between stakeholders, investors, customers and employees, and the need for individuals in the world we live in today to fight in community and not be isolated. These forces are moving HR to the center discussion.

You mentioned that the session I had with SHRM that was such a delight to do a few years ago. When I meet with business leaders, like the heads of marketing last week, first their skeptical, “Oh, here comes an HR session. It’s going to be policy police, and administrative trivia,” and to get into the issue, Steve, you’ve done such a good job talking about today. Their eyes light up, and they go, “Yeah! That’s the stuff.” I can create a purple or red or a pink or a yellow strategy, but I’ve got to get that strategy to change how people behave, how organizations operate. HR helped me do that, and when we can do that, I think we have a great opportunity. What a great time to be an HR.

[Steve] Dave, thanks so much for joining us today, and these are not only helpful insights, but I think, inspirational insights. So, in spite of what you say, I do hope the book is a best seller.

[Dave] So do we. It just got nominated for the McKinsey award, so we’re proud of the book. We’re proud of the research. It’s not just a random point of view.

I’ve got to say one more thing, and I know we’re going a little long, so those who are still here, will probably stay another minute. We have seven rounds of data since 1987 on these competencies that Steve’s been talking about. Here is the most shocking thing we just put together a couple of weeks ago. The HR profession since 1987 through 2016 has improved dramatically on every competence. On a five-point scale we’ve got up over one full point. One full point! On knowing the business. We got a point seven on change. Point six on managing HR. We in HR had made incredible progress as a profession, and we can document it. We’re not done yet. Improving is always continuous and continual and we’ve got to get better, but we should stop bemoaning how bad we are. We are doing great stuff as an HR profession.

[Steve] Well then, now listeners, it’s congratulations to you, but don’t stop working. Let me mention one more time, the title of Dave’s new book. It’s called Victory through Organization Why the War for Talent is Failing Your Company and What You can Do about It, and although, as we’ve heard, the book is based on rigorous research, it is not an academic tone. It’s filled with practical charts, lists, tables, suggestions, and it’s highly recommended.