Faces of HR

Good Things Happen When HR Becomes Involved with Customers

Many HR departments function solely to support their leaders and employees. What happens when HR becomes involved with customers? According to today’s interviewee, such tactics help drive business in unique and powerful ways.

Meet Lisa Dodman, Chief People Officer at Unit4, an enterprise software business.

Did you always want to be in HR?

Funny enough, no. When I started thinking about the start of my career, I had it fixed in my head that I wanted to be in insurance. I wanted to work for an insurance company. I wanted to be engaging with the customer all the time. I didn’t think of a career in HR at all.

Then I worked for a manufacturing organization. I spent some time in the HR department, or personnel as it was called in those days. All of a sudden, I thought, “Actually, I quite like this.” I didn’t like the use of the word “personnel,” but I liked the concept of things to do with people. And 25 years later, I’m still in HR.

Did you work in any other manufacturing organizations?

The very early part of my career was at Marconi Instruments, which was a General Electric company. Then I went into a start-up, an IT services start-up. From there, my journey with software started. So, the large part of my career has been with software.

I imagine in a job called “personnel,” it wasn’t exactly the broad HR role that you’ve perhaps become used to since then.

No, it was very operational. Some of the reasons I love software so much is the speed, the pace of change, and the connection with customers. I spend more time now talking to customers than I ever did before, and I like that connection.

In the software environment, you’re much more focused on transformation and organizational design, which means you enable change in a very different way. My team is focusing on different ways to function in a classic HR role.

Obviously, I have regular contact points with my team individually and then as a team, but on a quarterly basis, we do a business review. They’re presenting on the region they support, but they also have to talk about the pipeline for that region, the top deals, and the deals lost because they need to understand how we make an impact. That’s the stuff I like and enjoy.

Can you tell me a little bit more? You mentioned you work with customers a lot. In what capacity are you working with customers? How does HR fit into that for you?

We are an enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendor, and our ERP solutions touch every aspect of the HR world. For example, I spoke to the chief people officer of our recent clients, a US-based international non-profit orgnaization, before that deal closed because often, HR professionals are looking for the holy grail. They’re looking for what they can give to their businesses.

So, that kind of networking opportunity whereby we can share with them “Well, this is what we’ve done with the software, this is what I do, and this is what my team does,” and the use of that technology today, helps our customers on that journey so they can see the art of the possible. So it’s kind of the engagement as part of the sales process.

Recently, I also  did a session with existing customers in the United Kingdom, looking at “This is what we do with our technology, and how it can benefit you, the customer”

That’s sometimes quite helpful because every HR person loves to network. It’s a thing we enjoy. But to be able to network and share stories on what you can deliver with the solutions you sell is a great situation to be in.

In my understanding, it’s not unheard of, but it’s not very common for HR people to be directly involved with customers. How did that come about? Is that what you guys have always done? Did you take that from a former role into this role?

It’s more common I think in technology companies that sell HCM solutions. In my previous companies, one of which was Infor —the R&D functions were looking at developing next generations of the software.

Then it was a case of “Well, look. I can help in the sales cycle.” When you’re selling to an HCM customer, salespeople often sell to HR professionals as if they’re selling to a finance person.

I’ve been sold to many times over the years. You kind of glaze over because you think, “You don’t understand the experience we’re going through at all.” But you can help that customer by sharing some of your own experiences, like how you use the latest technology in-house. So, it’s a great way of doing that kind of connection in a much more holistic way for the customer. That’s why we’re doing it more and more with many different regions within our organization.

Do other members of your team feel comfortable positioning themselves in sort of a sales role when they’re supposed to be doing HR?

Not all of them. I have different types of people who work for me in terms of the roles they do. I have operational HR people in the regions—the HR managers and HR business partner model we operate.

They are the go-to point for employees. They are dealing with the day-to-day; works councils; and issues that might arise, coaching, and supporting managers.

Then I have transformational members of my team who are doing the kind of organizing and design, helping the business evolve and helping us grow as an organization. Those individuals would feel absolutely comfortable dealing with the customer.

I like to play to the strengths in my team but also push the boundaries a little bit and get them to realize their own potential by taking them on a journey.

It’s difficult to ask this question because the coronavirus is probably the most obvious answer, but has there been something in the last few years, either an HR trend or a concept that you yourself were working on, that you realize you just got dead wrong?

Well, obviously, the coronavirus is the obvious one everyone’s going to say. I think one of the things that is a common thing, and I wouldn’t say it’s HR-specific, but as a business, I would say pre-Mike Ettling, CEO of Unit4, joining, we bandied around this concept of empowerment a lot.

We just assumed the employees knew what that meant and that they knew they could freely interpret that. But often what happens is that you say you’re empowered, and then the employee does something, and the manager says, “No, I didn’t mean that. When I said empowerment, that’s not what I meant.”

When Mike joined, this concept of empowerment just spoke about how you break down those barriers. In 2019, we started rolling out our work/life balance approach. We effectively removed the cap on vacation globally. We were trying to drive this concept of freedom of choice and trust.

When I look back, I think we assumed too much previously. We assumed people knew what empowerment meant, and it ended up with conflicts and unhappiness.

Then we started our journey of change with the work/life balance activities; COVID actually has helped in that respect because it put the line in the sand and reset the clock because everyone was then in the same boat.

While it’s brought lots of challenging things, it’s also brought opportunity for our people to take a little bit more control themselves and push those boundaries in ways they didn’t before.

I feel like I’ve had that discussion with my 3 ½-year-old daughter a few times. You give them the tools to be freer. And then you realize you have maybe given them a little too much access, and they start destroying things. There are parallels to employees. I think that happens a lot with managers and leaders. They maybe underestimate what their workforce is capable of, in some cases, and hold themselves back as they hold back their workforce.

I think actually COVID has brought along this kind of Groundhog Day and repeat for so many different people. You could see there has obviously been lots of unhappy things and sad things around all of that, but you can also see opportunity in crisis.

That whole point about giving people that sense of freedom to make their decisions and self-drive their careers is another area where, when you look back on things, I think we’ve needed to change; one of those areas has been around giving people choices around their career because the natural default position that people assume is that the company controls your career.

The company will do this if it needs to. But imagine a world where you take control of your own career and the business is a cog in the wheel, helping you to progress.

It works in the same way with leaving the business, we introduced last year Alumni tooling for our leaver community. The philosophy of the past was that leaving was a bad thing if the company lets someone go.

Now, we’ve got this culture in which we have tried to break down the barriers of fear. We’re creating an opportunity for individuals to move onto the next adventure. We’re creating an opportunity for all individuals to grow.

Leavers are staying within our community in our alumni. It’s great to see people progress in their career rather than drive this fear of change.

Creating an alumni program is, I think perhaps, counterintuitive for some people, especially because there might be some bad blood. That kind of thinking ignores the fact that the talent pool is of like-minded people. People who work for you are part of a group of connections and professionals who all have similar kinds of jobs. Maybe they’ll be your future employees. Maybe your ex-employees will be your employees again. So, alienating them at that last moment, after however many years of work they’ve put in for you, is extremely short-sighted.

Yeah. I think that is an area where, if you look at it, obviously Unit4 has a strong heritage. We’ve been around 40 years.

I think in the past, this fear of change has driven an approach to leavers, which is crazy in this kind of new world we’ve got where it’s fully virtual.

Certainly, when you think about graduate programs, you think about the next generation coming through. It’s not normal for them now to stay in a business for 20, 30, or 40 years anymore.

Yeah, absolutely. Since the virus hit, what’s something you’ve found encouraging?

Since the virus hit, you suddenly see how the human race can show numerous acts of kindness and empathy and also an audience that has true resilience. We’ve seen that in all of our employees.

I think I’ve learned that suddenly, HR professionals became center stage because people expected that you had experience in how to deal with a pandemic and that you suddenly had become a medical expert overnight. You were the answer to everything. That was quite scary, I think, for lots of HR professionals.

We introduced a thing called Fit4U, which was a series of different campaigns and activities and initiatives we rolled out for our employees to focus on health, body, mind, and well-being. We’ve continued to focus on that.

We focused on children, as well. Very early on in the lockdowns, employees were trying to be employee, parent, and teacher. That was hard. People struggled.

What I really liked the most, when the lockdowns first started hitting, is actually that sense of humanity because suddenly, you saw people in their usual environment. Children would be on the screen, or they’d be cooking while they’re trying to do a call. Actually, sometimes we need a sense of reality, so it’s OK not to be perfect for the screen.

I think as the lockdowns have continued, now our focus is on mental health and well-being. It’s OK not to be OK, and that doesn’t matter who you are or where you are.

There have been so many challenges this year. It hasn’t been just about COVID; there have been so many political challenges and so many social challenges in so many different countries. It’s been a year like no other, and you can’t help but kind of be humbled by some of that stuff and accept that you can’t be perfect at everything.

Yeah. I think one of the things that has been really encouraging for me is that it’s put a mirror up to all the leaders. Work doesn’t have to be the way it’s been for so many years. So much of what we do, at least here in the States, is based on the industrial era, from our hours to what days we work. And then what days we have off is based on our religious founding. You add all those things together, and it created a very long-lasting system.

When unions were first arising and there was a real battle, sometimes literal, physical, battles between employers and employees, it was all about “We don’t trust you to do the things that you need to do. We’re in charge. We have the money. We have the facilities.” In many cases back then, it was also “We own your house. We own your community. You will do as we say.”

So much of that was still in place when COVID hit. Suddenly, the complaints you’ve been dismissing about your employees, about their childcare issues, or about their health issues you’re now at home facing yourself as a leader. You’re forced to see them.

There are many leaders out there who have this very classic business mind-set. It isn’t people-centric. It isn’t forward-facing people who have had to sit in a meeting with their kids screaming in the other room or whose family member got really sick from COVID or die even in a way they were maybe insulated from before.

They had to see it from the viewpoint of “I don’t have as much time to work. Maybe my employees don’t have as much time to work.” In a way, it’s really been encouraging to see, despite the unpleasant origins, that there really is a sea change happening out there.

Yeah. I mean, I love the fact that it’s challenged those managers who always said, “We can’t.” Why does physically seeing people in an office determine how much value they bring? Because you see them and they’re sitting at their desk and they’re working 9 to 5? How is that adding any more value, its just making their life difficult when they’ve already got additional pressures you may not know about?

They may be a caregiver. They may have children. They may have other challenges. They may live on their own. There are so many different things that make up the person. I think it was a needed pause to get people to face reality.

It certainly makes you think about all the hours you might work or the traveling you might’ve done. Sometimes there are more important things, and giving our employees that sense of what’s important and people first is one of our values in our business. We’ve stayed true to that value.