Getting future-ready in the ‘new normal’ – Dave Ulrich [Interview]
About Dave Ulrich
Dave Ulrich is the co-founder and principal of the RBL group. Dave has written over 30 books and over 200 articles. He has shaped the HR profession and been called the “father of modern HR” and “HR thought leader of the decade” by focusing on HR outcomes, governance, competencies, and practices. He is ranked as the #1 management guru by Business Week, profiled often by Fast Company as one of the world’s top 10 creative people in business, a top 5 coach in Forbes, and recognized on Thinkers50 as one of the world’s leading business thinkers. We are extremely happy to have Dave on our series here today.
Hello everyone and welcome to another series of leadersHum. I am Nayan Jadeja from the peopleHum team. Just a quick introduction of peopleHum. It is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM, that is specifically built and crafted for employee experiences and the future of work with AI and automation technologies. We run the peopleHum blog and the video channel, specifically targeting leaders and young leaders through our leadersHum series, and today it is an extreme honor for me to welcome Dave Ulrich, our guest today.
And I’m extremely privileged to be talking to Dave. So Dave, welcome.
Nayan, Thank you. I am so delighted to have a conversation with you.
So Dave, since you kind of talked about it, the 20 20 20 across all five functions, do you think that it needs to be the same while we’re going through the pandemic? Or do you think organizations need to adjust the way they operate their functions?
Great question. The answer is yes and no. Well, the real answer is I don’t know for sure. I get really worried when I get on LinkedIn and somebody says, ‘Here’s a new normal. This is gonna be our future.’ I don’t think I know the new normal. In fact, I’ve posted, I think the new normal is gonna be a process where we have some principles, but we don’t have dedicated actions. I think there are three things HR will continue to deliver in any crisis that hits.
“I think new normal is gonna be a process where we have some principles, but we don’t have dedicated actions.”
One, we will deliver great talent. We will deliver people, they’re the right ingredients who have competence, commitment, contribution, they’re doing their best.
Two, we will deliver a great organization. I think we find people as so critical. But organizations are even more critical. Can we take our people and form an organization? And third, we deliver leadership that connects the two. So in my simple world, those three continue in any crisis. In a pandemic, are people motivated to work from home, working wherever they work? Are they competent? Are they committed? Do we have the right organizational culture? And do we have leaders who can navigate both of those? So I think those three – Talent, organization, and leadership are consistent and stay together.
“Talent, organization and leadership are consistent and stay together.”
Alright. Got you.
Just shifting gears a bit, I mean, since I come from the tech world, there’s always been talk of artificial intelligence and machine learning and is that gonna take away jobs? And then you have the pandemic that’s hit us, right?
Obviously resulting in a lot of layoffs across the globe. What would your advice be to A, the individuals in terms of trying to figure out how do I tackle this? Like re-skilling. And to HR, in terms of trying to move the organization to help the employees get re-skilled for other opportunities for the future?
What do you see in technology? I mean, obviously, machine learning, AI, robotics, chatbots, they are replacing the administrative jobs. Any job that is a standard, routine transaction that a robot can do, they’ll do it. What do you see in that space? You’re the technology expert.
Yeah, well, obviously, I do feel that there’s obviously a lot of hype, right? In terms of AI and machine learning almost replacing everything. Based on personal experience, I would say AI and machine learning can definitely make software intelligent. It can help automate certain redundant, continuous, same jobs, but I don’t feel it is still so advanced that it’s gonna take away the whole, everything that’s out over there, right?
So in my opinion, I think the first wave of technology was more around kind of digitizing, bringing the data, collecting the data, making it available. And now it’s more about making the software a little bit more smarter. However, I do think we are far away from where technology is just gonna replace everything that we do. So to me, technology and AI is gonna be an enabler helping us do certain things and giving us the data so that we can use that to kind of move forward.
I am exactly where you are. Yes.
“Technology will replace jobs, but it will also create opportunities.”
One of the things I love to see is the evolution of ideas. We did a piece in the HR space about what does technology look like in the HR space? And I said, There’s four waves. I like waves.
One is, it drives efficiency. So you go to the large technology firms Oracle, SAP or Workday, and soon to be peopleHum. But you get incredible efficiency through technology. Replaces it, administrates it.
The second is you get incredible innovation with new apps. Josh Bersin, who’s the expert in this space said we’ve had in the last couple of years 2700 new apps. We just had so many applications that are flowing. I love to look at those and say, ‘Are they really the right apps?’
For example, I got one about a year ago. It said, would you endorse our app? And I said, what is it? It said, it takes a picture of your face and it describes you as a leader. And I said, do you want me to be the before? I mean, look at my face. Yeah, that’s kind of a silly app.
But then the third stage that you alluded to is it provides us information to guide decision making. I think technology has done a lot with efficiency, phase one. Innovation, phase two. I think we’re moving to information to guide decision making and an example of that is, for example, if a firm gets 1000 resumes for a job, the smart technology can winnow that down to 10. Then we got to go to the fourth stage, which is connection or experience.
I don’t think technology replaces the relationship. It can enable it. I’ve had in the last three weeks a chance to do emails with a wonderful colleague. So, but by the way, that’s connecting. But that’s not yet a relationship. The technology enables me to have a bit of a relationship with you, but the next time you come visit, you will be sitting right here in my office. And then we have the experience together that builds a relationship. Technology goes through those four stages – efficiency, innovation, information and experience. It doesn’t replace experience. It helps it, but it doesn’t replace it.
“Technology goes through those four stages – efficiency, innovation, information and experience. It doesn’t replace experience. It helps it, but it doesn’t replace it.”
Alright. Got you.
I have another, in terms of all the research that you do and the data analysis and kind of painting a picture or a vision in terms of where HR needs to go, do you think there is a difference between larger organizations kind of adopting and accepting those verses does it apply evenly across the organizational size?
Great question. Here’s kind of what we find when we collect data and I’ll use leadership as an example. We’ve done work on what makes an effective leader. What we find is that 60 to 70% is a book we wrote called ‘The Code’. There are some basic things leaders have to do. You got to set a strategy. You’ve got to execute a strategy.
You got to take care of your people. You’ve got to build future people and you’ve got to be personally proficient. It’s basic. That applies anywhere- big companies, small companies, public sector, private sector, geographically, India, Singapore, Brazil, United States. 30 to 40% are differentiators.
If you don’t do the basics well, you don’t get to play. I think the same is true in HR. There are, and our research just showed that by the way. It’s really interesting again, this is research we saw with a small data set. We’re going to try to get a big data set. But we found that 60 to 70% of HR success is the basics. You got to do the basics. But you’ve also got to do the differentiators, the outside-in stuff.
Now, the second thing we found, again a small sample. So I’m really hesitant to go beyond this and I won’t share the data because it’s so small. HR people rated that differently than non-HR people. HR people saw their primary role as the administrative work, non-HR people wanted HR people to do outside-in work. I thought about that last night and this morning.
What it hits me is, I think non-HR people are business leaders. You talked about this a minute ago, and again, it’s fun to tell the story to you for the first time. I think they assume that you can do the basics. I’m a business leader struggling to do business in China, in India to get net promoter score up. I look at my HR people and say, ‘I’m going to assume you can do that basic stuff well through technology, non technology. What I really need help with is the differentiators.’ So that’s kind of what we’re finding.
So, oh, final comment. In our research, we found that small, medium enterprises, once you get maybe from 200 to 1000, when you start to hire an HR person, they have more impact on the business than often larger firms because in HR, a smaller firm, if you’ve got 500 people and you’re hiring 50 people this year, that’s 10% of the ingredients of your organization. You’ve got to get it right. And so, in small or medium enterprises, HR folks are actually more strategic than in large enterprises, where there’s a lot of HR specialists.
Yeah, that’s very, very interesting. Yeah, absolutely. I can see that actually, personally as well where I do feel, since we are smaller, the impact that an HR can have is much more than some of the larger organizations.
Yeah, I’d assume in your organization, you don’t just want a talent specialist. You want a talented person who can make sure that as I work with you, the founder of the firm and the President and the CEO, let me get people who will take us to the next step in our evolution and that person really needs to help you go forward. And if you hire a bad person, remember, the other company sent their bad people to you. That’s going to get you in trouble. And so the small companies, if anything, the HR issues are even more demanding. And then our research showed some of that.
Yeah, fascinating. Okay, so, I think I’m gonna move to kind of my last question and away from the corporate world and away from HR so to say. And go back to where we started, which is everything that’s top of mind.
Assume that you are addressing a convocation address for the 2020 graduates. What would you tell them? What would you say to them?
Boy, thank you for that opportunity. A few years ago, I was invited at the University of Michigan, the business school where I’m a professor, to give the graduation address. And it’s unusual, you don’t really have a professor do the graduation address. I was scared because most great graduation addresses are Steve Jobs- I created this or Oprah Winfrey- from rags to riches.
I don’t have a great story. I had a wonderful father and mother. Oh, just to show, that’s my wonderful mother. And my sister and my younger brother. No, that’s me when I was younger.
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Oh, and I have to show also my father. That’s a book my children made that I could read to my grandchildren. This is great grandpa and that’s my family at a reunion for my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary. That’s my father. So I don’t have a failure story that I overcame.
And I thought, what can I say? And then it hit me. I coach. Once in a while I have the privilege of coaching business or HR leaders and I discovered four questions. And this is what I gave the graduates. And it’s the same questions I would give those almost at any career stage- Senior executive, middle or entering. Question one. What do you want? Simple question. What do you want? What are your strengths? What are your passions? What are your skills? And the argument is, and I don’t want to give the whole graduation address. If you don’t know what you want, somebody will define it for you. And it probably won’t be in your interest.
“If you don’t know what you want, somebody will define it for you. And it probably won’t be in your interest.”
Know what you want. Build on that.
Number two – who do you serve? What I want is about my interest. But who do I serve? because if I’m not giving back to someone else, my personal wants become silly. Leadership is not about authenticity, because being authentic alone is not a good leader. There’s a hypothetical leader who’s a billionaire. I’m a great leader because I’m worth $1,000,000,000. And my comment to that leader is how many millionaires did you create? What do you want, who do you serve.
And number three – how do you build? Are you creating the culture and the institution that will outlive you?
And number four – where are you in your journey? I love the fourth question. I didn’t actually use it in my address to the graduates and I’ve done two or three commencement talks. But that 4th one, quick, quick story and it’s based in religion, but it’s a story that we all appreciate I hope regardless.
There’s a story in the Quran or in the Bible about Adam and Eve. They’re in the Garden of Eden, they make a mistake, and God comes to visit them. And when God comes, he says, ‘Adam, Eve, where are you? Where are thou?’ Now, for decades, I happen to be pretty active in my faith. I thought, ‘Oh, they were hiding behind a bush.
Where are you? You’re behind a bush.’ And then it hit me. God knows where they are. I think God can see it behind the bush or behind a rock. Where are you? is a more metaphysical question. Where are you relative to your journey? You made a mistake. It was a big mistake. Where are you? Are you going to recover and move forward? Or are you gonna let the mistake define you negatively?
“Where are you? is a more metaphysical question. Where are you relative to your journey? You made a mistake. It was a big mistake. Where are you? Are you going to recover and move forward? Or are you gonna let the mistake define you negatively?”
I find that last question so powerful and that Adam and Eve story has been a foundational story for so many religions. What do you want? Who do you serve? How do you build? Where are you in your journey? And I love the Adam and Eve story because it says I can fail. I made a mistake. I violated what I thought was right. But look at the beauty of that story. You can recover. We call it resilience.
So that’s what I would tell graduates. You know what you want? Who are you going to serve? How are you gonna build something? And by the way, it’s so fun. And I have not worked with you. Look at your life story. What do you want? You start in technology. You moved to Dallas, to Philadelphia. You’re serving a larger society, not just yourself and your family. You’re building an enterprise with a set of softwares and disciplines that goes beyond you, that hopefully someday you’ll be, This is one of my goals.
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Someday I’m on an airplane and somebody’s reading one of my books. And they don’t know who I am because I try not to put my face on the book. That wouldn’t help. And I go, how’s the book? I hope that book is helping them or this discussion. And then where am I on my journey? Am I facing up to my strengths, my weaknesses, my mistakes and my opportunities and being able to go forward? I think those four questions are helpful.
Yeah, fascinating. Wow. Well, thank you. I am sure all the graduates and everybody, as you said, I think it’s very, very relevant to anybody in any kind of a situation, be it the CEO or a fresh graduate, I’m sure is going to learn a lot. So thank you.
I’m gonna ask you, no, I’m not gonna let this go. I’ve got to learn from you. What is your aspiration? You are now at a life stage, you’re not as old as I am, but someday you may be. But I’m assuming you’re at the life stage that work is not just about economics. It’s not just about status. You’ve got that. What is your aspiration? And I think you’ve let me share some of mine. What is yours that you hope people get from the things you do?
So I think I would say two mainly from a professional side. Obviously, there’s the personal side as well. But from a professional side, I would say two things. One is, what we’re trying to do is develop global SaaS software products from India, right? So India is kind of known for its software, but it’s more of the back end, where all the back end work gets done. However, there hasn’t been a global SaaS product that are used across the globe. So one of them is that we create something which anybody, anywhere in the world would use because they find value from that software, right?
And number two is, as we journey towards that, hopefully it will bring success to the team and some of the leaders who are working on these products so that they go ahead and achieve huge success in their career.
I love what you just did. Let me pull out two words that I hope those listening get. “So that”. Because look at what you just described. I want to create a global product that focuses on the future, not the past, that’s great. Out of India, that’s great. So that those users achieve their results. That “so that” gives me a sense that you’re not just about my personal wealth, my personal well being, that my two children will have opportunity.
That’s all true, but so that those who use my service will succeed. That’s what leadership is. We’ve used that “so that” word that you used so brilliantly to say what do you want to do as a leader? I want to set a vision. I want to get results. So that, what? And the “so that” leads me to an outcome that I hope is consistent with my personal values.
“The ‘so that’ leads me to an outcome that I hope is consistent with my personal values.”
I want to create learning. I want to create new ideas. I want to create ideas so that people can achieve their potential, so that organizations succeed in the marketplace, so that leaders, people, organizations so that leaders inspire others to become their better selves. And I think you just described your agenda so beautifully. Thank you.
Thank you. No, absolutely. It’s indeed an honor and a privilege to talk to you Dave. I think this was absolutely fascinating. I learnt a lot and I’m sure our listeners and the audience is also going to learn a lot from this session. So, thank you immensely for spending so much time with us and for all your learnings and teachings, really for us.
Thank you. My final comment, when I leave with HR business leaders, five words. The best is yet ahead.
I hope we have that. The best is always yet ahead. Even in this pandemic, may we not look backward with distress, may we look forward. The best is yet ahead. Thank you. What a privilege. Thank you.
Mention not Dave, thank you.
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