Faces of HR, Learning & Development

How HR Leaders are Collaborating to Shape the Future of the Industry

Would you share information with your competitors? Would you discuss strategies with them? The concept can be so alien that a great source of mutual enrichment is often lost. I am not, of course, talking about corporate espionage. I am talking about HR professionals getting together with their peers within their industry to solve problems and even shape that industry. Today’s guest believes in the power of this kind of cooperation, and he’s happy to share. Meet Erik Sossa, President at E.A. Sossa Consulting and strategic advisor to Castlight Health.

hr leadership eric sossa

How did you find yourself in an HR role?

Great question. I think, like most other HR folks I know, it was really a series of serendipitous twists and turns. I don’t know anyone who grows up saying, “I want to be an HR professional.”

But after a short stint as a high school math teacher, I ended up in consulting. I ended up working in consulting for about 10 years doing benefit strategy, benefits design, and actuarial consulting. It was great, honest, technical work.

But as I got more exposure to clients, I felt like the work I did, while it was important, was really narrow. It had meaning but not as much meaning to the clients I worked with. They didn’t provide benefits and pensions as their business. They sold products or services. I always felt some disconnect.

Candidly, as I was going through that epiphany of myself, I got recruited by one of my clients that I had been doing work for 5 years – PepsiCo. A lot of people transition from consulting to the corporate side.

The part about that opportunity that really drew me is that the company was very successful but also had a reputation of knowing how to develop leaders and professionals. Even to this day, their employees tend to be wanted by other companies. The model there, which was really tricky for me, was one that really looked at very planful experiences in your development and growth. You didn’t go there to be a finance person. You didn’t go there to be an accountant. If you wanted to be a leader, you went there, and you had a loose plan; you need a corporate role, you need a field role, you need a strategy role, you need an operations role, you need a U.S. role, or you need an international role. I really grew to love that. I did all sorts of things. I did exec comp, global mobility, operations, and talent management in all the areas.

The piece I didn’t really appreciate until I went like halfway through that is that richness of context. It was exciting to understand how a company can use HR, not just as “OK, these are people who put products on trucks and bring them to stores” but also as how your HR can really be a competitive advantage. That was a wonderful experience and a wonderful opportunity.

After 24 years in various corporate roles, I really gravitated back down to benefits. Specifically, health care became my area and my personal mission. As I got more exposed outside and became part of the Business Group on  Health board and the chair of the ERISA Industry Committee, I really developed my mission. There are issues here. American healthcare is wonderfully advanced. My son had complex brain surgery and it was very, very successful, thank God. Yet, we’re still struggling to get e-prescribing. There’s such a paradox in the healthcare system. So that became my mission.

I got to the point where, after a long career, I felt it was time to move on and rebalance my work life and do mission-related work. I became an advisor and stayed connected to D.C., and I still do some work in D.C. on policy and regulatory components. Then there were a handful of companies that I really chose to want to work as an advisor for—companies that I believe have the vision, the capability, and the desire to work on that mission.

I think every company has really, really good benefits offerings, but the gap is the connections; it’s the engagement. How do you connect the right people with the right programs at the right time? Working with Castlight from its days of a transparency vendor to where it is today as a healthcare navigator and an advocate, it fits in those crosshairs. The leadership team—I have a ton of respect for their vision. That’s kind of how I ended up particularly working with Castlight.

It’s an interesting journey to have started in the world with benefits and to have seen it as this narrow thing and then to have explored so much else about HR and then come back to it. It doesn’t sound like a coincidence to me. It must have been very different when you came back to it to realize sort of the scope and the impact it can really have when done correctly.

I agree. It was very much part of my DNA.

It was interesting to hear you talk about how some companies have such an advanced understanding of how to advance careers, especially to have been doing it 25 years ago. There are still Fortune 500 companies out there and endless smaller organizations that just don’t understand how critical successful employee development is to the success of an organization.

Absolutely. That was a very conscious realization. There were a handful of companies back then that really thought of leadership development and that sort of customized process. Some did it a little bit more prescriptively — “You will do this for 6 months, and you’ll do this….” My experience was that the company would help you identify the various experiences needed to develop —  “OK, you need a corporate experience. Is that what you want to do?” It was a little bit more self-directed, but support and guidance was definitely provided.  It is absolutely one of the reasons I went to that company. To this day, when you look at a lot of other companies around and some of their leaders, the folks from that organization are everywhere.

Let’s talk about leadership development. There’s an infinite number of books written on leadership development. We get pitches for it all the time. It’s almost like part of the life cycle of professionals that at some point, they have to write a leadership book and then do a tour. But one thing I find to be lacking is specifically HR leadership development. HR’s relationship with being leaders has always been challenging. While many have finally earned a seat at the table, many have not. What are your thoughts on the development of HR into leadership and where we need to go?

I completely agree. I even think within companies, it’s still rare. HR in the vast majority of companies is still looked at as having the primary responsibility of managing people costs—your people costs or your cost of goods or your cost of X.  So all it’s about is how you get the most out of it and go through it. It’s hard to look ahead without mentioning COVID. The narrative around COVID changed everything. That’s absolutely true. But my observation is that within HR and benefits, COVID really brought to light and highlighted things that some of the HR leaders had already been trying to address – ­ but they couldn’t get the seat at the table, the audience, and the time.

We were talking about behavioral health before this became an issue with burnout. We were talking about wellness. We’ve been talking about workplace flexibility. We’ve been talking about employees as caregivers and all of these aspects. I think, for the most part, when you’re sitting in front of CEOs, most of them would nod and say, “Yeah, yeah, I get it. But what’s my medical trend next year? What direction are premiums going in? What changes are you going to make that are going to disrupt my employees?” That was the focus of most of those discussions. I think COVID sort of suddenly changed it to, “For us to be surviving through this, I need my employees healthy. I need them safe. I need them protected and all that.”

One thing I counsel the employers that I speak with on is: “Don’t take your foot off the pedal, and don’t lose that because it’ll become very easy to revert back to medical trends and those types of things.” You’ve got your seat, the audience, and some metrics you may have developed, but you need to keep them going. You need to keep reminding them that your human capital management strategy isn’t about managing people costs. It’s about making your people have that competitive advantage. Every tragedy usually has something you can carry forward as a learning. It’s one that I hope we continue, that endures. I hope we don’t lose and revert back to old ways.

A lot of quality research had been showing that things like behavioral health and caring about your employees are critical toward the success of organizations and really toward their bottom line. It was ignored for so long, and it took the pandemic for it to happen. One of the things that’s upsetting about that for me is that the cost on the people, the toll that was taken on the employees, would have been heavily mitigated if they had listened before. It’s so human to wait for the train to explode before you realize, oh, maybe we should look at how the tracks are made.

I did in my work both in benefits and in compensation, and people have asked me what the difference between the two are. A benefits person and that part of HR require a lot more self-discipline in developing a strategy. To your point, by the time you realize you have a problem, it’s almost impossible to fix. You’ve got to always be looking out. The compensation side of the house—”All right, my merit budget’s down”—is much more reactionary.

I think the challenge is that we’re driven by that fiscal, quarter-to-quarter calendar. It’s much easier. “I’ve got to make two points EPS this quarter. Yeah, the return on investment (ROI) on wellness is like 5 years from now.” Candidly, I’m going to be in another role by then.

I think that’s the challenge. You need senior leadership to really impose some of that longer-term accountability in some decision-making. If you’re measured on quarter by quarter, that’s where you’re going to make your decisions.

I personally believe the single most damaging thing to organizations has been quarterly earnings reports. It’s just not enough time to even begin to see trends. If they were annual, you’d maybe get there because at least when you’re looking at the data, there’ll be sort of a nod toward where it’s going.

I remember reading an article about a privately owned company. I think it was a software company; the CEO was talking about that. He had almost the exact same quote. He goes, and I’m paraphrasing, “I don’t know how you manage quarter to quarter. Those can’t be real because there’s a lot of accounting you can do to make your quarter to quarter look good and not really recognize the underlying trend that’s really important to go through.” You’re seeing that with companies now.

Very true. Let’s root it back into what HR can do to maintain this refreshing outlook that leaders have about looking after our employees: truly understanding the costs, in every sense of the word, that are associated with not doing things well. How does HR keep them focused on this?

I would push back on one of the terms you used right now. You mentioned “the cost.” The other thing I counsel on is to really look and develop some broader sets of metrics that are beyond cost. And yes, cost is absolutely important; everyone cares about cost. But metrics that really point more to where the value add is—it’s reducing a turnover or trying to measure productivity against, “Well, this sounds intuitively logical. It sounds like it should be easy to do. It’s really hard to do!” But you can sort of continue to develop those metrics. I love work that is starting to happen. There are a lot of folks on NPS scores and recruitment.

I know a lot of companies have issues with female representation at senior levels. They’re all proactively hiring and trying to develop, but they’re not understanding where people dropped out. I know a company that did a study on this topic. A lot of women are dropping out of the workforce, which is no surprise, right after maternity leave. It didn’t have the right programs to support the return to work. That was an area where we pointed to as a benefits solution to a business problem. I think you’ve got to have that mindset. That could lead to adding an on-site day care. On-site day care is a hard one to do an ROI on if you just look at it.

But if you put it in that broader context of what you’re trying to do as the business or what your mission is, that’s where I advise companies to get out of that “I need to manage my cost control. I need to manage the trend.” That’s important, but that’s table stakes. How do you start to develop metrics that start to add value and really point to those components? That’s what we need to continue to do. I’ve done ROI studies, and we talked a lot about ROI studies, that turn out brand reputation and in recruitment. I think those are important metrics to try to keep top of mind.

This is maybe a little bit of a tangent, but in my heart of hearts, I thought a lot of CEOs in the pandemic sincerely tried and really did the right thing. I saw a lot of folks add premium pay. They spent money on broad testing capabilities in-house. They invested on emotional well-being series and communications and all of those things that I feel like we’ve been talking about for 20 years.

How do you think HR professionals can support one another? And I don’t mean just within an organization.

In my experience, there are a lot of HR folks who are too inside-out-focused, either because of the nature of their business or because businesses are getting pushed on constraints, saying, “Well, conferences in communities are just boondoggles.” I learned the most from my colleagues at other companies, whether they’re formal organizations like the Business Group on Health or the ERISA Industry Committee or The Conference Board. There were a number of organizations that were completely put together by employers, like The Global Benefits Forum; there’s no real organization, but the 30 largest multinationals would get together twice a year, and we’d talk through issues, though not to collude. We wouldn’t be colluding.

Of course.

Our goal was to understand issues. I think you’ve got to really have that outside-in and inside-out focus. I don’t mean to be disparaging of the consulting community. I was a consultant. But by the time the consultant’s giving you advice, it’s typically very polished and established. Therefore, it’s not leading edge. Or, the consultants today are being consultants and also have partnerships and are selling products. I think you may be getting advice that may not be as pure.

But my number one, most trusted source of information and innovation was my colleagues at other employers. You don’t have to travel; even locally, we would sit with the three large companies headquartered within a couple of miles away. Let’s take 3 hours and just benchmark. I think that’s critical. It’s a small community. We do tend to move around from company to company. I’m not an example of that, but there are lots of our folks who move through. I think those organizations more than anything afford you the community you need, and I think you’ve got to get involved. That’s where you’re going to get your best intelligence and the naked truth—folks who will understand your frustrations within your organization.

I agree. There’s someone out there who solved your problem, and that person has given it all the thought. You can’t go to your competitors to talk about product assistance, but you can go to your competitors to talk about HR.

Absolutely. We’re always very, very careful about how we approach the discussions. I had some really good friends at competitor companies. We always were very careful. We’re like, “We’re not going to share this record or that information, but we can push the industry in this way. What we want from our healthcare providers is not just good for our company. It’s typically going to be good for all of us.” I think that’s really critical in this space because I don’t think any one company, has real sway to move this industry. Even if you have 150,000 employees, you’re not going to have enough voice to sway the industry. You need people in your boat with you. I think that’s critical. So it’s learning, but if you truly want to effect change, you need to have people on your side.

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