Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Don Robertson on Building an Ecosystem of Connectivity, Culture & Talent

Before Don Robertson segued into HR, he launched and spent half his career in accounting, finance, and sales. If you ask him, he’s just a “businessperson that happens to be in HR.” Nearly 38 years later, Robertson’s “strong fundamental business and finance background” laid the foundation for his impressive career as an HR executive.

Don Robertson

Robertson spent 14 years with Hewlett-Packard Corporation where he led a team of more than 300 HR professionals responsible for all HR-related matters. He has also held senior leadership positions with start-ups and Fortune 50 companies, including Apttus and TrueCar, where he not only transformed the employee experience, but also built teams, expanded growth and diversity, and expanded the lens in which companies viewed talent.

Today, Robertson serves as EVP and Chief Human Resources Officer at Northwestern Mutual – a Fortune 100 financial services company and the largest U.S. provider of life insurance. In his role, Robertson oversees the company’s employee experience and Human Resources, as well as teams that manage Northwestern’s employee digital experience, events, and campuses.

In our latest Faces of HR, meet Don Robertson.

Who is/ was your biggest influence in the industry?

There are a few people. Again, Marcela Perez de Alonso is one of them. She’s an icon in the HR function and somebody that I looked upon. She sent me to Asia as head of HR operations for Hewlett Packard for Asia. So, she was somebody that really molded me. I had a strong business, financial, and general management background, but I wouldn’t say that I had a strong HR background. I had a lot of raw ingredients to be strong in HR, but Marcela taught me the importance of talent, talent management, and how you think about talent strategies, and creating an ecosystem where talent really is the driver. She was one of the big influences for me on thinking about different kinds of talent, and looking at skills and capabilities, rather than just looking at roles.

I also worked with Dave Ulrich who was a mentor. Bina Chaurasia, who was one of the senior people at HP that went on to Ericsson – and now she’s at Tanium – was also a huge influence for me because she is the one that gave me confidence that I could do this. And that really stuck with me as I was growing.

Of course, from there, it’s just been a just lot of opportunity to continue to expand and grow. But it all still stems back to the fact that our function is still all about making sure the company has the talent that it needs, with the right attitude, at the right cost, and in the right location. They’re the ones that really taught me that.

What’s your best mistake, and what did you learn from it?

Well, I’ve made many mistakes. I’ve been doing this for almost 38 years, and you don’t do something for that long, and not make a lot of mistakes. One mistake that I would draw upon is when I left HP after being there for almost 15 years. I held very senior positions. I was head of HR for all of HR operations in Asia, where I had responsibility from all the way from India down to the South Pacific, 700 HR people, and $30 billion in business. There was lots of responsibility there, so I thought I knew how to do HR well, and I was pretty good at what I did.

So, when I left HP I figured, hey, I know how to do this. I’m going to just take what I’ve learned and apply it. One of the very first places I went to, it became very clear to me that you can’t just take what you’ve done in an environment and think it’s going to work the same way in a new environment. A lot of the things you’re trying to do, fundamentally, are still the same, but obviously, this is where I really learned the criticality of contextual intelligence where you take the experiences, and the capabilities of what you have, but you’re really going to understand the nuances, and the subtleties of different companies.

I think it’s where most executives, frankly, that move from companies fail. They don’t take into consideration that while many of the things you’re going to try to do are the same outcomes you’re trying to get. However, the way you go about it because of cultural differences, protocols, and historical traditions, you must really be thoughtful about how you consider and think through those things. I learned a very valuable lesson from that. Even if what you’re doing is the right thing to do, the way you do it, and the subtleties of how you do it, makes a big, big difference.

What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part? And how would you change it?

Well, my favorite part is getting a chance to work with smart people, but most importantly, my favorite part right now, is working with people that are mission driven. So, at this stage of my career, it’s about what I can do to create better opportunities for other people. One of the things I get most excited about is what we’re doing in our diversity area. We’ve started a few programs, particularly one that I’m most proud of is called Project Uplift. It’s a program where we, the top people in this company, are spending regular one-on-one time with some of our diverse groups in very small and intimate ways.

For example, I recently met with about a dozen African American women who want to grow in this company. They’re first year people all the way up to senior people and I spend an hour with them talking about their employee experience, what they need, what’s working, and what isn’t. We created this program to really break down those barriers of not knowing our diverse groups and making them feel like they do have an opportunity. As a result, we’ve increased our diverse hiring in the last five years, from 9% of the company to almost 30%. So, triple-digit growth in a short time and our attrition in those areas is low. These groups have the highest eNPS scores in the company. What I feel excited about that is we’ve demonstrated to these people that they have opportunities that they never thought they could. So that’s what I love the most about this field, getting a chance to really help people succeed and grow in their career. For me, what I can do at this stage in my career, is really give back and give people opportunities so that everyone has an opportunity.

Probably, the least thing I like is just spending time trying to work through the politics and bureaucracies that we all have to work through. Like a lot of companies, we’ve had a lot of success in the last three to four years in some of our key areas, particularly, our diverse areas, including growing our women talent.

And like a lot of companies, it gets to a place where it probably believes that they could invest a little bit less because we’ve had success in these areas. The biggest challenge that I still have is to help people understand we’re not there yet. We’re not where we need to be yet. One of the biggest challenges is to help people realize that we just have so much more to go, and so much to do before, I believe, it is native to everything we do. So, the biggest challenge is always the challenge of fighting for resources, fighting for dollars. One of the advantages I have as being the finance and business guy is I can explain things in the language of the business. So, everything I try to do, from a leadership standpoint, is to put it in business language. And really, the best way to do that is to focus on the outcomes.

Where do you see the industry heading in five or 10 years, or are you seeing any current trends?

The trends that are going right now is all around where people work, how they work, and where they work. There’s no question that the pandemic created the largest simulation opportunity for everybody to understand what it’s like to work from home. As a result, I think one of the biggest trends is people now have a lot more opportunity than they had before to work from anywhere. For example, if you were a company in a certain location, yesterday you thought your talent was down the street, but now your talent could be anywhere if your company is willing to let people work from wherever they want.

Most people like this flexibility. So, I think it is a trend that’ll probably be with us. Having said that, there’s a lot of challenges with building a culture and having brand new employees in certain industries like tech. But a large majority of the rest of the kind of roles rely on relationships, connectivity, mentorship, growth, and development. I’m not saying that you’re going to see a situation where everybody’s going to stay remote, because I do think some people will come back to the office at least on a part-time basis. However, what’s going to be necessary, I think, from a trend standpoint, is leaders are going to have to learn how to connect with people in a different way. You can’t just rely on connecting with people in person. You must be much more intentional; you must connect with those people that are remote. You must have better digital tools, better connected ways to connect with them, and more one-on-ones. Ultimately, you must make an effort.

So, that’s probably the biggest trend, that we’re moving away from having everybody in the office all the time to some version of hybrid and flexible work. With that comes the responsibility to really connect with people very differently. To me, proximity is not connectivity. Connectivity is connectivity.

What are you most proud of?

Well, I’m proud of several things. The thing that I’m most proud of is that about half a dozen people in my leadership team have worked for me at three or four different companies. So, the fact that people trust and believe in me enough as a leader that they have followed me to other companies makes me proud.

The thing I’m most proud of is the ecosystem that we’ve built that allows, I believe, our employees to have a better experience. One of the most powerful things that I think companies can do today, if they want to be a talent magnet, is build an environment and an ecosystem where the employee matters as much as the shareholder, customer, and in our case, the policy owner. I think that we are building an ecosystem that allows our employees to achieve their career aspirations, their career goals, as well as delivering for our policy owners, and customers.

So, building that entire ecosystem around how we do talent, how we reward, how we recognize, how we develop, how we interact with those people, our tools, and how we lead them, I think I’m most proud of that. It’s led to almost 90% employee engagement, which is almost unheard of, less than 5% attrition, and very high Employer Net Promoter Score (eNPS) scores. We’ve built a culture here, and we didn’t do it alone. We did it with the leadership team, and with the rest of the company.

Do you have any advice for professionals entering HR?

The number one thing they really need to lean in on is to be businesspeople, not just HR people. Yes, you need to have domain expertise, you need to know how the different domains of HR work, and you need to know what talent strategy is. Having a strong financial background is helpful because of compensation, workforce planning, labor strategies, and budgets. Having some business experience is also really helpful because the more that you can understand the perspective of a business leader, the more that you’ll talk like one.

I tell my team all the time, “Don’t talk like an HR person.” I don’t want to hear things like human capital, and all these terms that are beautiful and we all know what they mean. However, the average businessperson doesn’t know what you’re talking about. So, talk like a businessperson. Be a businessperson that understands the domains of HR and really focus on the business outcomes you’re trying to drive. That, to me, is the most powerful thing you can do.

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