Remember that Spiderman quote? You know, the one about responsibility. Well, it applies to HR more than some might think. HR personnel find themselves connected to so many aspects of their organization that they need to be very careful about how they implement their strategies. That means analyzing new ideas for fit within an organization, finding new ways to get feedback, and implementing strategies with the help of the right people.
I recently spoke with an HR expert who truly understands the tricky nature of getting initiatives off the ground with the best-possible rate of success. Meet Mike Bokina, Vice President and Head of Human Resources for Siemens USA.
How did you get into HR?
Years ago, I worked for Prudential, a financial services company, where I was accepted into the Operations & Systems Management Development program- an opportunity to spend time in various parts of the business for short term assignments with significant stretch goals. My last assignment was the start of my interest in Human Resource- running a training department in a call center, just outside of Chicago. Here, I was first exposed to a variety of HR topics including succession planning, capability building, and recruiting, which I really enjoyed.
From there, I moved into more of a strategic measurement strategy role at Prudential within HR, and that catapulted everything from there. Dare I say that perhaps it wasn’t by choice, but as a lot of folks navigate their careers, you gain a set of experiences that are of interest that either you feel like you’ve done well or someone’s told you you’ve done well and you continue to pursue it. That’s kind of where it started.
Did you ever look back?
Honestly, I never have. I did spend a couple of years in consulting at PWC within the HR strategy measurement side, which was quite interesting. I loved my time at PWC, but I found it hard that I didn’t get to see things through, as I prefer to go see the work come to fruition.
There’s something special about HR, right?
Yes, especially in my current leadership role. In HR, and for me as my career has progressed, you are given the unique opportunity to see so many different angles of the businesses that you support. That drives, for me at least, a high interest level. What are the people requirements? What is the financial impact? How does this help really move the business along, whether it’s through an innovation, a product development, or a delivery perspective?
While some of the HR topics, recruiting, compensation, benefits, are somewhat the same, the nuances and how you implement them vary drastically. I think that’s what keeps HR interesting.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the impact individual HR professionals or leaders have on an organization. They add a flavor that undeniably permeates the organization. That’s both very good and a little dangerous because if someone is great, that’s great. If the person isn’t great or, for whatever reason, just isn’t able to access what he or she needs to access, that can add a certain unfortunate something. I don’t think you can really say it’s visible, but there’s a certain atmosphere to places that you can sense, and a lot of that has to do with who’s sitting in that seat.
I hope that’s the case, though I would even suggest something further. I look at my role now as enabling the team who is sitting in front of business leaders, managers, and employees every day. That’s whether it’s to create that culture, to ask challenging questions, or to push folks to think about their work and their culture differently. My role is certainly to provide that opening, that opportunity, so they can do that. Siemens is such an interesting, unique company. Everyone’s unique, but there are so many different kinds of businesses here. There are so many different kinds of workers and cultures where we can make a difference.
You have to be confident if you want to be a leader. But you also have to be humble and open to understand that maybe just because you had a great idea doesn’t mean it is great. Could you speak a little bit about how you operate with your team to sort of put a check on some of your ideas, if that’s something that happens?
It absolutely does. I think all leaders have some trusted folks in their organization they like to go to. What I also like to do is go to some folks who I don’t talk to as regularly in my organization to test things out—places where you won’t just get the standard “That sounds great,” but instead someone who says, “Well, what do you mean by that?”
I’ll just pick a couple of folks anywhere in the organization, send a note, and say, “Hey, I had an idea, and I wanted to get your take. How would this play for you? How would it play for your customers that you’re supporting?” That is one of the mechanisms I use.
Then for my leadership team, I am constantly bringing different folks into topics. I’ll give you a direct example that happened yesterday. I had this notion of putting together something about what the future concept of the office needs. Is it an innovation destination? Is it a place to come and check e-mails? Is it a place to just be seen because that’s what your manager wants and demands? I actually asked our compensation lead and our recruiting lead to take on the effort.
She said, “Why did you ask the comp person?” I love how she thinks. And I said, “This is just an idea. In fact, I talk to her next at 2:00.” It’s just trying to secure those different views and opinions versus just going with my idea. Because I know she won’t do that. She’ll say, “I get where you’re going. Let me work it out.”
Those are the mechanisms I hope to install. And I do. Occasionally, I also reach out to some of my peer sets to say, “What do you think of this?”
It sounds really healthy. I like the idea of just picking, almost randomly, people and seeing how it influences them. It’s so important because organizations are so multifaceted. You can’t make a sweeping decision you think is going to work for everybody without stepping on some toes. That can be really hard to see, especially if you’re in an organization where people don’t feel comfortable airing their grievances. I like the idea of the randomness. Do you consider yourself to be a random person?
At times, I would. I think if you talk to the team, they would say, “Mike’s unstructured to a structured level.” Maybe you can attribute unstructured to random, but things do occur to me, or I have a thought and it may be absolutely unattached to anything we’ve been talking about as a team. Maybe I’ll read an article, or I’ll be watching a TV show or listening to Wilco’s latest song and say, “Wait a second. That just triggered a thought in my brain.”
I think my team now knows what it means when I say, “I was thinking.” They’re like, “Oh, OK. What do you got?”
Then the structured part of me takes over to say, “Is this legitimate? Is it something we should pursue? Is there value? What does that value look like? Who else do we need to bring in so that we’re not artists, per se, at some point?” It’s got to get into some process to make it real. It starts unstructured or random, then it becomes more structured so we can get it done.
Personally, I find what appears to be randomness to be a great creative asset. But it can get in the way without that structured half, right?
Given what our company does, a lot of randomness turns into innovation. It’s these wild thoughts that you have in the middle of the night to use your 3D printer in the basement to make a COVID mask, which we have employees doing. Well, then something has to happen after that to make it real. That’s the trick I think for any organization, whether you’re in HR, engineering, or product development. It doesn’t matter. It’s how you take that randomness, that innovation, and translate it into something that is workable, which isn’t always so easy.
Yeah. I find the biggest resistance I get is from leadership. It’s not like they’re trying to stifle innovation. They just spent a lot of time getting the things that are in order to the degree they’re in order. You don’t want some random person coming in and just throwing wrenches in your machine.
The question for a lot of companies like Siemens is how do you create that innovative culture, and how are your leaders fostering it? What I tried to do in the year and a half I’ve been in this specific role is create avenues to give people space to be innovative. I created some random teams that we put together to say, “Here’s a topic. Go to it.” If you come back and say, “There’s nothing there, Mike,” then I may ask questions. Or, it could be the wildest idea that is a multimillion-dollar investment. Let’s talk about that.
The point is to get these different minds together in a space that says, “I don’t have an answer, but I think something’s there.” Then you see if you can find something that could be worth it.
One of the things I’ve noticed about that process is it can be very difficult to know when to bail and when to add support. If you just abandon a project a year into it, you might be abandoning something that could be great, or maybe that was a good time to end it. How do you navigate that?
I think it’s a complicated mixture of data points. Maybe there’s some science, but a lot of it is art, as well. That could range from the capacity utilized to make this work, ongoing feedback from your customer set or constituent set, a little bit of ownership know-how to assess the situation, or direct feedback from your own team. Then you need to appreciate the biases or opportunities all of those voices bring to the table to ensure you’re not dismissing them or saying, “Oh, I knew this person wasn’t going to like this anyhow.”
For me, there have been a couple of times when I’ve said, “You know what? This is really good work, but it’s not going to get the traction we need, and at this point, let’s stop.” Again, I try to put all those pieces together to come up with a decision.
Have I made, perhaps, a misguided assessment somewhere? If you kill something, you never know if it could have been fantastic. Of course, if you keep pursuing something that just dies and everyone’s like, “Oh, you got me all worked up and then nothing happened,” that’s a different story. I imagine there are some creative, innovative ideas that were put up on the shelf that probably could have done something.
That’s the spirit of innovation—that maybe we dust it off 6 months or 2 years from now and say, “Maybe there is something there.” But I think putting all those things together gives leaders an inclination of whether to keep going or pull the reins back.
Do you have a sense of how the innovative spirit you’re talking about at your organization has weathered everyone being home and being stressed out about COVID-19 all the time?
I think holistically, the organization and the leadership of Siemens in the United States have done a nice job of transitioning folks to work from home and giving them the right tools and space to continue to drive innovation. There are teams that, of course, have always worked virtually and software engineers who really don’t need to see anyone. They’re kind of in their own space. We also have teams that are very used to sitting in rooms 3 days a week with whiteboards and brainstorming. We’ve launched different technologies and provided coaching and counseling to managers and employees about working virtually, resilience, mental health, and all those ingredients that will help maintain and continue to spur innovation.
I was on this interesting call with some fellow HR leads from large companies in the United States. And we got onto this conversation about productivity. Somebody asked, “Well, how are you guys measuring productivity?” Another HR said, “That’s the most nebulous concept in the world.” For our employees who are ‘producing widgets’ that we can measure productivity around, they’re probably not working at home. They’re probably in a factory.
But how do I know that my business partner who supports, let’s say, our corporate groups is less productive? I have no idea.
Do you have any sense of how your time in HR has influenced your life outside of work?
Boy, that is an interesting question. I do think I’ve tried to think more about the perspectives of a friend, a sibling, a parent, an aunt, an uncle, or my kids a little bit more. Before I got deep into HR and my career progressed, it was just like, “Oh, that’s a strange response from my buddy.” But I think when you’re in HR, you start to think, “Where is this individual coming from? Why might he or she behave that way, perform that way, or act that way? What are the systems around the person that may drive behavior a certain way?”
I’m not a psychologist, but I do think it helps you think a little bit about why someone close to you in your personal life might act, think, or do a certain thing. I think it does help you a little bit. It’s not to reason through or make excuses for anyone, but to get the person’s frame of reference better.
I think good HR folks and my team say, “I see their perspective, and here’s why. It doesn’t mean I agree with it, but I hear it. Therefore, we can deal with it.”
Absolutely. It’s what prevents you from just reacting and instead helps you engage somebody so you don’t create a worse conflict by just getting mad or something. Now you’re saying, “OK, well, I understand. It may be wrong what you did or thought, but I can understand where you’re coming from. Here’s how we correct that behavior.” We have an opportunity to correct it if you approach it with that mind-set.
Yeah, and I’ll say one other thing, too. It’s a concept I use with my team all the time, which I wholly subscribe to. I say, “Embrace the gray.” There’s not a lot of black and white in the world anymore.
Most of the world is gray. Since COVID, it’s become even a different shade of gray. Yes, 6 x 3 is 18. But most of life is gray, and judgment and how you look at topics and questions and conflict are more important than knowing that 6 x 3 is 18.
I always looked at it as the damaging effects of absolutism. I don’t get along with absolutists. I understand why people do it and why they filter the world into this and that because it’s just so much easier to navigate the world or to think you’re navigating the world. If we’re being honest, every situation’s a little different. Each has different constants and different variables, and something that was totally wrong in the “last situation” might be right this time because of that one little changed variable. If you’re facing things in absolutes and black and white, you’re going to miss that.
Right, exactly. I argue that those are actually the conversations we’re trying, from a capability perspective, to build into HR. It’s not “You can’t do that because there’s labor law” or “That’s not our policy.” It’s more of “There are a lot of choices that you can have. Let’s talk through what will happen if you go choice A versus C.? What are the impacts on your team? What do you know about them to help drive those decisions?”
As simplistic as it sounds, I do think there’s some similarity there. It’s an insulating side of HR to say, “I could give you the answer, but neither one of us will be better off if that’s the case because, by the way, it’s just my answer.”
When you are absolute, you give people something to rail against instead of something to build with.
I had this interesting reflection when I started with Siemens last January. I hit the road. I went out. I was among leaders, managers, and my own team. I kept hearing this phrase over and over again: “What HR told me.” Who’s this amorphous HR? Because I’m right here. HR told you what? That you couldn’t go above the salary band to hire a high-demand skill? I don’t believe that is true. That you can’t negotiate exits in a more graceful way? I don’t think that’s true, either. You’re not breaking the law or doing anything against compliance in those cases. It just struck me that there was this feeling in some parts of the organization, though not holistically.
I said, “If there’s one thing I want to walk away from this session with is, when I see you again at some point, I don’t want you to say, ‘HR told me.'” When that day comes, I will know we’ve made progress. Because I don’t want to be telling anyone anything, unless, of course, someone is breaking the law. Then we can get the lawyers to do that.