Faces of HR

Faces of HR: The Pilot Leading HR to New Horizons—Cliff Jurkiewicz

Cliff Jurkiewicz is a self-described “technologist, musician, and pilot,” and his diverse experiences have blended to create a unique perspective in the world of Human Resources (HR). While his 30-year journey began in design and technology, culminating in leadership roles at a digital advertising agency and a successful software firm, Jurkiewicz’s true passion lies in the intersection of people and technology.

Cliff Jurkiewicz

This passion led him to Phenom, where he serves as VP, Global Strategy & GM, Customer Advisory Board. There, he has played a pivotal role in transforming the company from a startup into a global talent intelligence powerhouse. His strength lies in his ability to bridge the gap between complex technological concepts and relatable business narratives. Jurkiewicz translates the language of AI and Experience Design into actionable strategies, fostering trust and confidence among diverse audiences.

But his commitment to human connection extends beyond the boardroom. Fueled by a personal tragedy, Jurkiewicz co-founded Kyle’s Wish Foundation, which honors his late son by supporting mental health and addiction recovery through aviation experiences. Whether navigating the intricate world of talent acquisition or soaring through the skies, Cliff’s dedication to human potential remains his guiding light.

In our latest Faces, meet Cliff Jurkiewicz.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?

I can say unequivocally my largest influence are the two brothers who founded Phenom, Mahe and Hari Bayireddi. I had never really worked for a company that believed so deeply in advancing the human condition from the lens of the work that we do.

There are plenty of companies out there with impressive mission statements that don’t really live it, don’t build a culture around it. Meeting Mahe and Hari helped me to believe in something as profound and admirable as helping a billion people find the right work and seeing that come to fruition.

Beyond Phenom’s purpose, we are accountable to those around us. Being held to a high standard of accountability was not something I had experienced before. Working here is a combination of responsibility, ownership, curiosity and intensity.

The Bayireddi brothers helped change the perception of HR. The stereotype of a quiet back-office function that handled payroll and benefits gave way to today’s reputation of HR as a strategically vital business partner.

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

I love this question because you didn’t ask what my biggest mistake was. You asked what the best mistake was. I appreciate the nuance and I’ll tell you, when I joined Phenom some eight years ago, I thought I was hired to bring my outside experiences into the company.  In other words, I had expertise in a couple of areas, and I was under the impression I was going to apply that knowledge inside the company. Boy was I wrong.

I was hired because of my ability to learn, adapt and change – leading teams to do the same. My resume isn’t a straight line, it’s more like climbing a rock wall. I take very unusual paths.

And one of the lessons I quickly learned was ownership. It means something different at Phenom. Ownership means participating and bringing a point of view, but mostly it’s about listening and learning. Then, as a team, we apply what we believe is going to be the best path forward. My ownership is the responsibility I have to my team. I own that.

To be honest, I faltered in the beginning. I struggled because I don’t have a ton of direct reports. I don’t “own” my team in the traditional sense. So, I had to learn how to influence people who don’t report to me. Today, I’m proud to say I have 1,500 colleagues with whom I’m fortunate enough to have built relationships with. I am influencing them to help me get my work done correctly. I rely on them, which is an entirely different concept from having direct reports.

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

In a previous question I touched on why I love this industry so much —- it’s to connect people with work that energizes them and gives their life meaning.

As for my least favorite part, well, I’d have to say it’s the legacy thinking in HR that bothers me the most. The attitude is “This is how we’ve always done it, and this is how we will continue to do it.”

Change carries some risk, I get it. But to discount using technology to improve recruiting and retention is beyond the pale. Our competitors hear the same thing from companies.

We’re all bringing great solutions to the market, but we all share one thing in common — we need to do a better job with our messaging. Some organizations don’t value human resources, talent, or their own employees. So, we have our work cut out for us to convince these organizations that they should place a premium on HR.

One comment I hear often is “We’re a sales-driven organization, we’re going to invest in sales not HR.” They don’t see the connection. That’s the problem. What’s the first function to trim headcount when business is going south? HR. Really, companies should be doubling down on HR in tough economic times and quadrupling down in good times.

It sounds like through your experience you really care about people, and you want to help them feel safe and comfortable, which is important in the industry. Please elaborate here.

With all due respect, I actually disagree with the question. My goal is not to help someone feel safe and comfortable (outside of the obvious safety of physical and mental well-being, of course).  My goal is to help people find work that can leverage their skills because that brings meaning to their life. If I can accomplish that, they’re able to use their skills to execute on their passions, then that’s affecting change.

So no, I don’t want people to feel safe and comfortable. I want them to understand where to take calculated risks and find the discomfort and attack it, because that’s where growth happens.

How can HR most effectively demonstrate its value to the leadership team?

This is such a great question because it gets to the root of the problem. Most HR organizations don’t have a sense of purpose. So how can HR create value, have a sense of purpose and direction, and then live it?

Let’s talk about one area of HR — recruiting. Candidate experience is essentially being able to tell your company’s story in ways that are meaningful. Job seekers see the value in an organization and connect with the work. They can see where they might fit in and help evolve the culture.

All these things are important. HR can drive that by declaring that their purpose is to deliver the very best candidate experience that tells the story and connects value and culture to the people who are looking for work there. When organizations have that sense of purpose, they start to throw out all the mundane noise and focus on what is most important.

Hire people into HR who understand why purpose matters. Build a purpose around that and then demonstrate to the organization that there’s value in defining and committing to a purpose. But HR doesn’t do that, and that’s the problem. Too many HR organizations are transactional.

Another way HR can demonstrate value is by continuing to drive the success of the business. Come prepared to the executive conference room with data that draws a clear link between talent and hitting the organizational goals.

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

A transformation is taking place in recruiting and retention. The recruiter role will no longer exist as we know it in the next couple of years because of the advancement of technology, automation and personalization. Instead, the role is going to transform to be more of a talent strategy advisor or talent marketing advisor.

The change means moving away from common, everyday transactions — think “go fill an open role” — to more of a valued strategic business partner. I see a day coming soon when a business leader comes to a talent advisor in HR and says “I want to grow my business. Help me find talent who aligns with our product or service and can help me grow my business.” That’s a very different conversation than “I have an open role. Go fill it.”

So, HR is going to become the most important strategic business growth advisor we have ever seen in the next few years. The transformation is being driven because technology is removing redundant and mundane tasks and adding higher value tasks.

What are you most proud of?

My openness to change. I embrace every opportunity to learn something new about myself and to demonstrate my ability to be a dynamic human being who is constantly curious about the world around me.

To affect that level of change, a person has to express vulnerability to others. Take a risk and run with it. Status quo has never been my thing, because that means I’m not learning something new. It ties back to the earlier question about feeling safe and comfortable. I don’t want to feel relaxed because I’m not changing and growing.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Be tech forward and fluid to change, because HR is transforming at breakneck speed. It’s an exciting time to be in the industry. If you’re an external recruiter, you’re going to work with technologies that free you of low-value tasks so you can focus on the high-value stuff. Internal recruiters will have quick access at the click of a mouse to employees who are ready to move on to their next role. Their skills and experiences will be in full view so that you and the hiring manager don’t have to look outside the organization; the talent you want is already there.

Anything else you’d like to add? We can talk about anything you’d like to discuss here.

There’s something that has been on my mind lately about the concept of leadership — what it is, what it isn’t. And I had an epiphany the other day about what being a good leader is all about. True leaders understand how to work a problem, not the people. By that I mean managers exist to provide feedback and recommendations based on their own experience or what they believe is right. It is their responsibility to help others contribute in meaningful ways because they have the knowledge.

Well intentioned bosses aren’t authority figures. They are here to lead a team to a solution and build positive working relationships. But in the landscape that we’re in right now with the focus on Generative AI and the efficiencies it brings, nobody is talking about shifting the value of human work.

Leaders must understand the anxiety their employees are going through because what they’re hearing right now is ‘I’m replaceable by a robot.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. So, my advice to managers is work the problem, not the people. Get the team to work with you, and you can exponentially increase trust and confidence by leading others through these challenges.

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