Note: Kerry was recently a guest on HR Works 5-Minute Friday. You can listen to that here.
In my latest “Faces of HR” interview, I discussed how HR professionals can improve their influence within their organizations and within their career with Kerry Unflat, Chief People Officer at Zipari. In this interview, I was also joined by my colleague Bianca Herron, Social Media Community Manager here at BLR® Media. She will one day soon be taking over this column, so let’s all give her a welcome.
Jim Davis: How did you find yourself in HR?
Kerry: I wasn’t supposed to be here. I had started out trying to be in finance and business operations, and every mentor I had in my early years told me not to go into HR. Yet, there was always some sort of HR component to my job. For my finance roles and responsibilities, I was able to communicate to people who didn’t understand or appreciate numbers or finance. HR kept pulling me back because of the communication piece and because of my superpower: the ability to see strengths in every single person and understand how to leverage them.
After ignoring all of my mentors for many years, I kept having both finance and HR responsibilities in my roles, along with business operations. Finally, I jumped ship 100%, stopped fighting it, and said, “No, this is a calling.” This is very important to businesses because if your people don’t work, your teams don’t work and your business doesn’t work. I threw myself into it full tilt. I am an absolute nerd when it comes to my profession, I adore what I do, and I love it every single day, even the tough ones.
Bianca Herron: I’ve got a question. You mentioned your superpower and your ability to see people’s strengths and leverage them. It’s one thing to actually realize you have this superpower, but then it’s also another to tap into it and leverage it. Like you said, you developed it, and you obviously used it for good; you didn’t use people’s strengths for evil. I would love to know: What was that game-changing moment for you?
Kerry: The game-changing moment was when I received an assignment. It was bizarre because I had strong leadership skills. Somebody put me in charge of a very high-visibility, high-profile project having to do with security. I am an English major. I had zero experience in security at the time, and people were curious as to why you would put an HR and finance person over something like this. I went to the first meeting with a riot helmet on as a joke to break the ice because everyone was really nervous about what was about to happen. I inherited this new team, and I knew absolutely nothing about what they did. What I did was approach it like a lifelong learner, and I asked them, and I learned, I studied, and I got to know them as individuals. Then, I put them in the right roles through which their strengths could shine and leveraged feedback.
I helped them know when they were meeting objectives and then when they were missing the mark. But I did it in a way that always helped them feel that they were still being their best selves in a supportive and protective way. The project was wildly successful, and that was a watershed moment when I thought, “You know what? I could probably handle anything if I just continue to use these skills.” I don’t have to do it all. I don’t have to be a subject matter expert in this, but I have to approach it as a learner. I have to understand what talents people are bringing to the table and how we could leverage them for the better good. Once that happened, I leaned into it, and I said, “I’m going to really understand how to do this at an expert level,” and that has really been my life’s work.
Bianca Herron: That’s amazing. It sounds like a book to me. I feel like that mentality, that mantra, that mindset, and those skills can just be translated across the board, even into someone’s home for parents, just to help people be better.
Kerry: I do it at home, much to the chagrin of my family. They’ll ask if I’m pulling an HR move again, which is also, by the way, how my daughter is this talented at 13—but we’ll stick a pin in that one.
Jim Davis: I think it’s very interesting how HR has changed over the last 20 years and how quickly it is changing right now. Back when it was called personnel, it was filing paperwork and I-9s and issuing termination letters. Yet, it always had that potential to be what it is for so many HR professionals: a true business partner who guides organizations along a very basic understanding. That is, sure, you could stuff a bunch of people into the rigid confines of your business, or you could build your business around the people. And that second way seems to have been proven, time and time again, to be the better way.
Kerry: Yeah. What I find really interesting is when I go into a new organization, I sometimes spend the better part of the beginning of my career there focused on how you influence the people around you and how you help them understand why people are important and why they have meaningful impacts on the business in terms of organizational development. I’ve noticed that over the span of my career, I used to spend a great deal of time convincing people. I have to do that less now, but I also know that I actively search for opportunities in which people espouse the same people values that I do.
Jim Davis: Organizations that get that get better HR people by having those goals, and then better HR people develop the organization better. We were talking about this in the other segment; you see it as sort of a division when serious situations arise, like the pandemic, when those organizations that are just better at people did better. It doesn’t really matter what you’re selling; what matters is that, if your people are excited to be there and are engaged and feeling heard, then they’re innovating and they’re going to make it work.
Kerry: They do. And they work harder for you. There are all sorts of studies and metrics you can take off the shelf to convince somebody why it’s important for those people who need to see and touch data in order to believe that something’s real. But you’re absolutely right. The people who have really solid cultures and healthy places inspire innovation; they inspire growth and productivity. You get the best out of people. You’re getting more than you would if you didn’t have that infrastructure set in place.
Jim Davis: Absolutely. I was a little excited to talk to you because you had worked in a field that I haven’t interviewed anyone from. You worked 9 years for a police department. I’m always curious to talk to HR people who work in challenging environments. Are you comfortable talking about that a little bit?
Kerry: I am. My time with the Harvard University Police Department was a fantastic time. When people ask me about the experience, I tell them it was very different in that I worked for the police department and also the general counsel’s office. It was like Kerry’s version of Law and Order. When I talk to them about the difference in those two groups I supported, I would say that shift change was at 7:00 a.m. I would be late coming in for a meeting because I would be hugging people before they went into the squad room for roll call. It really was a family-like community where everyone was kind and effusive and sometimes irreverent but in the best ways. Then, I would go into a law office where everyone wore suits, nodded to each other in the hallways, and was very professional and focused and purposeful in his or her language. It was an amazing experience with an amazing group, and I still miss them very much to this day.
Jim Davis: What do you think were your takeaways from that role?
Kerry: One of the things I never thought I’d be able to do is understand the difference between real felonies and misdemeanors because when we would do exams or interviews for promotions, we would test people on those things. I mean, I learned a lot. I think above everything, my big takeaway from working at the police department is that when you’re in a new role, you really do have to understand the community you’re going into, who the players are, and what their unique needs and challenges are from a people perspective. I had never been in a situation with chain of command before. I learned all about training imperatives and why they’re so important and personality types. I think my takeaway is that humble inquiry will always be important no matter where you go.
If you are in a police department, in an attorney’s office, or in this major software company, going in, asking the right questions and making sure you collect data from all levels will be super important to your success.
Jim Davis: What’d you call it? Humble inquiry?
Kerry: Yes. That’s where my organizational development nerd shines. Edgar Schein is the father of humble inquiry. It is the fine art of asking questions with an air of curiosity to draw out data from somebody else in mutual learning. Basically, humble inquiry is what you’re doing right now because you’re asking me these wonderful, open-ended questions, and you’re seeking to learn. And I’m seeking to learn from you in a way that just helps us be better people at the end of the day.
Jim Davis: It did sound a little familiar as you were describing it. You don’t want to pigeonhole people. I think when I first started doing interviews, there were specific answers I wanted, which was stupid. When you try and get the answer you want, it tends to blows up in your face one way or another.
Kerry: Yeah. One of the more impactful books I’ve ever read, which was introduced to me at Harvard, is Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, by Marilee Adams. She talks about humble inquiry in a practical and tactical way and about how asking really quality, open-ended questions can transform you not only as a professional but also personally because you ask questions of other people, but there’s also this internal monologue wherein you’re constantly asking questions of yourself. It’s definitely a book I highly recommend for anybody who wants to look into that further.
Jim Davis: I’ll look into that myself. One of the things that makes it so difficult to interview people is that there are 1,000 different directions you can take it, and it’s very easy to run down the wrong avenue—maybe not wrong, but by the end of the interview, you don’t want to be sitting there thinking “Did I leave some really quality stuff untapped” because ultimately, you have very limited time. And so, that’s why I’m going to ask you this question: What’s some untapped quality stuff you want to talk about?
Kerry: Oh, gosh. My passion areas are coaching and feedback mechanisms. When you’re going in as an HR leader in any organization, regardless of what your function is, I really do think that feedback skills bidirectional are foundational for success in any organization and the ability to coach. Like I was just geeking out with you a little about there, I think the cornerstone to coaching is really how you ask questions and how you pull or draw out information from somebody else to help formulate your plans.
I spend a lot of focus with other HR practitioners on how to build their influence skills. I think a lot of HR practitioners get bad reps for not being strategic or not being influential. I think there are real practical things we can do to expand our influence and start to be a little more confident in that respect. I enjoy doing a lot of work in that community with other HR folks to help them see the value in building and expanding upon that influence and thinking of different strategies they can use to create change or implement change across their organizations.
Jim Davis: I’d love to hear more about those influence strategies.
Kerry: I’ll try not to get too academic here. The cornerstone is that we need to build time in our busy schedules to understand what our influence plan is. We always evangelize to the people we’re responsible for to build smart goals, but sometimes, we don’t do that for ourselves. As you start to achieve as an HR leader, one of the things you have to pay attention to is your influence skills. The first thing I ask people to do is audit where they are, and begin with the end in mind.
Number one—I call them awesome audits—write down what your strengths are. We began this conversation with you asking me: What are my superpowers? What are my strengths? A lot of people don’t know how to answer that. When you’re building and expanding your influence, you need to understand where your strengths are so you can help others and influence them and understand the laws of reciprocity and in that respect. So do an awesome audit; understand how you are uniquely awesome and what skills and abilities you have that maybe your other colleagues do not.
Then find out what’s important to you. What are your main goals, your initiatives, your strategies? What are you looking to accomplish in the next year? You take both of those things, and then you start to build a cohesive plan for how you can begin to influence. You want to look at your stakeholders. Who are the people you’ll need to influence? You audit your existing network. Do you have only friends at the C-suite level or the individual contributor level?
Do you have a diverse network? Are you only friends with HR people, or do you have technologists and strategists and marketing folks? Are there any gaps? Where should you be focusing? You take all of that information, and then you build your smart plan, you define what your objective is, and then you define activities in support of that.
For example, one of the things that might be critical to my ongoing success is my thought leadership in HR. I commit to myself that I will spend, let’s say, 20 minutes a week on social media posting things, commenting on things, or amplifying other people’s content. That’s a smart goal. I know what I’m doing, where I’m doing it, and how I’m doing it. Another thing could be, I’m going to tend to my network, and I’m going to set up three coffee dates a month to reach out and ask people how they’re doing. What you do is boil it down to that granular of a detail, and then you execute on it and make time for yourself.
Jim Davis: Very succinct and well said. Have you given talks on that?
Kerry: Yeah. At my last company, HealthcareSource, our products were all talent management products for HR professionals, which was a unique and wonderful role to be in. I would talk to a lot of our client base in the HR world about how to do that. So, I do have a talk on that.
Jim Davis: HR development’s always one of those things that’s just so interesting to me. I’ve interviewed hundreds of HR people. They’re all so different, and the role changes so drastically from organization to organization. It’s so easy to forget, especially because, with our organization, these people also have careers. They’re not just servicing the employees, and they’re not just servicing their employers; they’re also professionals who are trying to move up and move on and advance and develop. There’s very little out there that focuses on that. That’s part of the reason I do this column—to focus on HR professionals themselves.
Kerry: Well, the old saying “The cobbler’s children have no shoes” happens a lot in HR. We are the caretakers. We are the people who are organizing and planning other people’s professional development. Sometimes, we give and we give and we give, but we don’t pause to think about how we are growing professionally. As leaders—for your VPs and your chiefs out there, too—oftentimes, we’re working under constrained resources, and we’re always doing more with less, so a lot of times, we forget that starts at home. If we’re not developing and taking care of our teams, we can’t really evangelize how other leaders can do it, as well. It’s an important thing to remember.