About Dave Ulrich
Dave Ulrich is the co-founder and principal of the RBL group. Dave has written 30 books and over 200 articles. He has shaped the HR profession and is known as the father of modern HR and HR thought Leader of the Decade. He focuses on HR outcomes, governance, competencies, and practices. He is ranked as the number one management guru by Business Week, profiled by Fast Company as one of the world's top 10 creative people in business, a top-5 coach in Forbes, and recognized on Thinkers-50 as one of the world's leading business thinkers.
Sekhar is the EDP of engineering. His prior stints include various product engineering goals at Success factors SAP, Yahoo and Informatica with 30 years of experience in both, enterprise and consumer internet products.
We have the pleasure of welcoming Dave Ulrich today to our interview series. I am Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team. Also, just a quick introduction of peopleHum. peopleHum 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 for crafted employee experiences and the future of work. We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.
We are extremely happy to have someone of this stature on our interview series. Welcome Dave.
Thank you Sekhar. I am so honored to be there. Welcome to my home office. I think one of the things this new Coronavirus does is it allows us to peek into people's personal lives. I get to sneak peek into your home office and you into mine and it allows us to recognize that we don't have to have our haircut as often as we should.
I've been at home and sheltering as many others have throughout the world. And so I realized I need a great haircut, but welcome to my home office.
So the first question I had for you Dave was, you have an amazing range of experience in HR, and can you tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming one of the most influential HR thought leaders?
And again, you start with a very good question. We all like to talk about ourselves. I'll try to do it very briefly. I have a passion. Not for HR as much as for learning. And I have a passion to learn. And the tagline we did a book on learning a number of years ago was called ‘Ideas with Impact’. And so I love to have ideas and learning and fresh ideas, but I love to have impact. What's the outcome of the idea? An idea without impact is not very helpful. Impact with bad ideas is even less helpful.
So I was in school, I was gonna be an attorney. That's only a step lower than an HR Tech person perhaps, but, and I took a course in or what was called at the time, Organizational Behaviour. It was a new course. It was obviously decades ago.
The professor just captivated my attention. He said, "There's nothing assigned, but go look at the organizations where you live, where you work, where you play, where you worship and figure out how they shape your life. And then write what you learned." That semester, I ended up writing, I think, 12-15 page papers.
Every week, I'd write a paper and he called me in and he said, "Dave, what are you going to do? I said, "I'm gonna go to law school." He said, "Don't waste your time. Come study organizational behavior."
Long story short, in fact, a funny story a little bit. I called my mother and my father, and I said, "I'm going to shift from being an attorney to studying OB." And they said, "OB is obstetrics. You're going to be a doctor." And I said, "No, I'm not going to be a doctor. I'm going to study Organizational Behavior." And they said, "What's that?" I said, "I don't know, but it's a marvelous way to think about it." And over the last 30 years since then, my wife has claimed, she is a very good psychologist.
OCD, Organizational Compulsive, I love to study organizations. How do they work? How do they operate? How do they affect people? How do they deliver outcomes? So over my lifetime, that’s what I've tried to study is organizational problems that don't have simple solutions and to try to figure out the ideas that will have impact.
Wow, very interesting. OCD, we learn a new abbreviation today.
I hope you never get it. I hope you never get it because sometimes I'll be in a restaurant when we're out of sheltering and I'll call over the restaurant manager and I'll say, "I can change five things about this restaurant to increase your productivity by 10%."
And my wife who’s with me says, "Dave, don't do that. It doesn't make the restaurant experience any better." But that's my passion. My children have said people don't want to come to dinner with us if we're dating them because Dad's going to talk about the organizations he wants to change. So, anyway that's where I live.
Interesting. So in your study of all different organizations, I'm sure you have come across different types of managers.
So what, in your opinion, when you look at all the different organizations that you have interacted with, constitutes becoming a successful manager? What types of practices do they follow? What behaviors?
One of the things in my graduate training, I never asked Sekhar, do you have graduate training as well?
Yes, I did. In Iowa. I went to high school in Iowa.
I don't know. In Iowa? I went to high school in Kansas City, so I know flat land. I had to do a PhD and write a dissertation as part of the ritual. My dissertation was in what's called Numerical taxonomy. Numerical taxonomy is the science of simplicity.
How do you use statistics to create taxes, to create simplicity? So one of the things I've done throughout my career is taking a complex subject and tried to find a simple solution to make sense of it.
Having said that, there have been literally millions and billions, it would be fun to Google leader and you probably have a 1,000,000,000 hits on leader. So what are the key messages in a simple way? About 10 years ago, my colleagues and I tried to do a taxonomy, what are some key skill sets of leaders or managers who tend to be more effective? We discovered five, and they're really simple.
- Strategist- You've got a set of directions. Leaders know where they're going.
- Executors- You got to get things done.
- Talent managers- You got to care for and nurture your people.
- Human capital developers- You've got to build systems that sustain your future people. And in the middle of those four, strategy, execution, talent, human capital, in the middle is
- Personal proficiency. You have to demonstrate character.
I still find those five dimensions, strategy, execution, talent, human capital organization and personal, kind of the foundational pieces of what effective leaders need to do Now they've evolved over 10 years, the specifics. But those fundamental things seem to be the same.
So out of these five dimensions that you just said, do you see that as a manager progresses along an org, the weightage of some of these dimensions change and how do managers cope up with that process?
Sure. There are often in any organization career stages. So you start as a novice, an apprentice. In stage two, you become a learner or individual contributor, at stage three, a manager, and at stage four, more of a strategist.
Those five dimensions-
- Talent Manager
- Human Capital
It can be looked at at each of those four stages. As you enter an organization, you're the learner, you're the novice, you're the apprentice. And you’re probably managing strategies to make it happen. As an individual contributor, your job in strategy is to understand it, to offer contribution as a manager. At stage three, your job is to help manage the systems. And then at the fourth stage, the director strategy says, your job is to establish the strategy, so absolutely you can match those kinds of grids.
Okay. A little bit of a topic shift to some of the current contemporary topics and times that we are going through right now. I'm sure employee retention and talent acquisition will continue to remain a challenge through these times and after when we get to a new normal too.
What do you think are strategies for organizations to address these challenges? Particularly in the context of retention and talent acquisition? And when hopefully we get to a new normal state? Is that going to change or what do you, what are your thoughts on it?
Talent is the raw ingredients of any organization. The professor who I’ve referred to decades ago, who's still a mentor. The line he taught in my head is, organizations don't think. People do. And by the way, I've come back at him and I've said Bonner Ritchie, there's a corollary. Organizations don't think, people do. But organizations will shape how people think, behave and feel, and so you've got to manage both of those.
But I think in the talent space, which is obviously critical, they’re the raw ingredients. If you don't have good talent, it's gonna be very difficult to build a great organization. In bringing people in, the process doesn't change. We've got to set standards.
What kind of skills do we need now and in the future? Both technical and cultural. We have to source people. Where do we find people who might have that set of skills? Are we gonna find those part-time, full time, on contract? Where do we find him? How do we screen them? How do we make sure that we filter those against those set of standards?
And let me go back to standards real quick. I think what we're learning out of this Corona pandemic and I call it a global timeout is the standard is not just technical. Do I have the technical training from an Iowa University? Standard is also cultural and social. Do I have the capacity to learn, to adapt, to grow? So set standards, source people, screen people, secure the right people, and then orient the right people.
Most steps of talent, bringing people in, standards, sourcing, screening, securing, and orienting, they're going to be the same. I mean, the basic principles don't change. But what goes into those 4-5 steps will probably change.
What about performance management? How do you think the future of performance management is evolving regardless of the crisis, that's one. And then, in view of the crisis, do you think that we know how it's going to change or what are your thoughts on that?
There are two questions there. In view of the crisis, will things change? And maybe we hold that off. Let me go into performance management. And by the way, what I love about this interview is we float here. And then we can dive deep into a topic so we’ll dive deep.
A few years ago, people were saying, get rid of performance management, performance management is negative. It's biased, It's not helpful. And to be honest, that was too silly right there. The fact is, people need to feel an accountability. And if there's no accountability, change is not likely to happen.
A silly example, I'll give two bad examples. If I rent a car, how likely am I to fill it up with gasoline? I'm not. Unless there's an accountability that I have to pay four times for the price of petrol. Well, without accountability, I will fill it up.
Almost nobody washes the rented car before they return it. I can just imagine if I'm in Bangalore. I rent a car and I go wash it cause I say, "Oh, it got dirty today, I'm gonna wash it." No, I'm not. There's no accountability, but I will fill it up with petrol because there is accountability.
What we know is that Performance appraisal has to be shifted from the focus on appraisal to positive performance accountability.
And how does a leader have an interaction with an employee so that there is an accountability? There's a colleague I know who has two daughters. They're 15 and they're 13 and they're very talented, young women and his goal as a father and his wife’s goal as a mother is to help them fill some accountability for their studies.
But if they say to their daughters, wake up in this pandemic and do whatever you want. There is no accountability today. Those daughters are going to do video games or they're going to call their friends. But those thoughtful parents say, there is some accountability for your education.
So from the time you get up until about one or two o'clock, this is hypothetical, you're going to be accountable to do your studies. We need accountability. So how does that happen In performance management?
The steps of performance management are the same. What's the strategy? What are we trying to accomplish? What are the metrics? What are the behaviors and outcomes we track? And how do we have consequences if we need or miss those metrics?
Again, in my spirit of simplicity, what you’re trying to do? How do you know if you've done it? What happens when you do it? But here's the insight. Those are not the key steps in positive performance accountability.
The key step is, Can I as a leader, have a conversation with my employees about what are you trying to do? How do we know if you've done it? What happens when you do it well or poorly? And now the key is that Accountability is the conversation, and making that conversation work for me is one of the key essences of great leadership.
I'll give an example. In this current environment, we're in, tragically, some employees have to be let go to manage costs. It's tragic. It's very tragic. It may have to happen.
I was coaching a business leader recently, and I won't do anything else to name this because it's a fairly private story, who ended up being in a position to have to let a very talented employee go. The business leader said, "what’s your hint?" My hint was the following. "Can that employee who you have to let go, leave the interaction with you feeling better about him or herself?" By the way, that is a tough task.
When I interact as a leader with an employee, do they leave the interaction with feeling better about themselves? In this case, it was so incredible. I know the leader. I know the employee. I knew the meeting was happening, and the employee who was let go called me as a friend. And said, "Dave, I'm changing companies and I've decided with my partner that we're going to move on and do something else and I feel okay about it."
Wow, I sent a note to the leader, and again, the criteria, can an employee leave an interaction with you as a leader feeling better about themselves? And I said to the leader, "Congratulations. You've pulled off nearly the impossible. You've helped this employee feel better about themselves, even in a tough discussion."
By the way, it's the same thing with children. Let's assume my friend with a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old daughter, once in a rare moment has to discipline them.
To show those daughters how much you care so that your guidance to them will make them feel better about themselves. That was a long answer and I apologize for being so verbose.
No and absolutely, it does resonate really well particularly in the context of having conversations where you have to give some constructive feedback. And at the same time the employee needs to walk out with the feeling that it has said with the intent of them becoming better. It's not an easy conversation at all.
So let me ask a question with my hypothetical example with the father of these 15, how does the father of these 15 and 13-year-old girls do it with their daughters? We know the father loves them. And again, this is clearly hypothetical. How does the father of those sweet girls communicate both discipline and affection? How would the father do that?
I think it is primarily on the fact that showing what is working well for them and second, that particularly when you need to nudge them towards a change in behavior. For example, typical fathers of teenage kids may have their rooms not being cleaned as expected on a regular. How do you actually give them that constructive feedback? Just make it a habit. It's a tough thing to do.
Oh, by the way, for those who are watching, I think I've just discovered the father.
But let me tell you what I love about what you just said. One. Focus on what's right. Not what's wrong. Two. Focus on the relationship. And I'm going to use a word in a family that may not translate to business. You love your daughters. You have deep affection. As a leader, I care for my employees.
My interest is not to punish, my interest is to help, to help them reach their goals. If you have a goal of being independent as an employee, I want to give you the pathway to reach your goal and when we help leaders do that, we win. I should also add that there's a technology component here, and you should use peopleHum to make that happen. I have to say that three times. So anyway, that was my that was my plug for you.
But I really love that discussion about Organizations should be places where we navigate this inherent paradox between caring for the individual and attending to the organization's competitiveness.
With our daughter, with my children. Oh, I gotta show. I can do this (shows family picture). This is our children and grandchildren. A couple of years ago, that's in the middle, that's a very beautiful woman. That's my wife. That's a very ugly father husband. That's me.
But, I think navigating this inherent paradox is a part of parenting, love and you correct, tough love was the word. It's the same in organizations today. We're coming out of an environmental virus. When people watch this, that will be in the rearview mirror. We have to treat individuals with great affection.
We care for them, we nurture them and we've got to get our organization to be very competitive. If we're competitive, if we treat people well, the people and we don't compete, there is no organization. If we compete, but we don't treat people well, there is no energy in the organization and we have to be able to manage those paradoxes.
Thank you. That’s very insightful. Shifting gears a little bit...
What's your interpretation of the term future of Work mean? And specifically, how do you think it relates to leadership codes and so on? Would be very interested to hear your perspective on that.
I think, one of my perspectives is a bit tongue in cheek. Everybody wants to write a column or an essay on Future of work 1.O, 2,O, 3.O, 4.O. I'm tempted to write what future of work 99.O because we always want to see the future. I think a lot of great stuff has been done about future of work. Here's for me the fundamental premise. The future of work starts not with work, but with the context. Content is king. But context is the kingdom.
No, and I'm not being sexist here but what we do is critical to our success. Context, not content. And so the context shapes the future of work.
What's changing in our external context? We've identified six domains, social trends, and those happen in religious trends, urban trends. The big one is technological trends. Digital, technology, major changes, economic trends, cycles of industry, political trends. I think in India, in the United States and Brazil, in Europe, there are political issues we have to attend to.
- Demographic trends
Those trends set the context for the future of work. In that context, leaders need to develop a new set of skills in the five areas we talked about.
We have to be able to respond quicker, actually learn.
We've got to be able to take simple successes and move quickly.
- Talent management-
We have to shape what's called today an employee experience. We've got to create that employee experience in a more powerful way.
- Human capital development-
We have to build sustainable organizations. The personal character in the middle doesn't change quite as much. I hope we judge ourselves by the content of our character more than by the actions we take. But I think that the future of work is about the context in which we operate.
And so if I'm an HR and I'm in a meeting and we talk about the future of work, I want to begin to say, what's changing in the context of the world in which we operate, for example, Digital is changing everything, the technology revolution. We don't have stores as much as we have online.
Well, given that we're shifting from retail physical spaces to online distribution, we've got to change how we do our work.
I'm going to do a part B and I'll do it quickly. I'm talking way too much. There are three things that I think HR focuses on in the future of work.
Talent- Given that we're moving in retail from a physical space to an online distribution, do we have the right people with the right skills at the right time? Do we bring them in the thing we talked about?
Do we move them through? Do we occasionally move them out and retain them? Are they committed? Are they having the right experience? Are they fully engaged? Talent matters, but so does organization.
In fact, in our research, we found that the organizational culture has four times the impact on business results than talent. If you're an HR professional I have my five fingers. That's the people. I have my fist. That's the organization. One of the things we have to do is turn individual skills into teams and organizations and the intersection of talent and organization is leadership.
So an HR professional looks at that context- social, technical, economic, political, environmental, demographic changes and says, what are the implications on talent, leadership, and organization that we have to create within the organism, that we have to create in order to be successful?
Okay. I want to tone down a little bit on one of the dimensions of the context, specifically on the technological dimensions.
How important or critical are technological tools today within organizations, in the context of employee experience? Do you think organizations are using them effectively? And what do you think are some of the best practices they need to do in order to improve the employee experience and take it to the next level?
I really love that question. And again, I'm gonna probably respond too long. Number one, I think I get overwhelmed with technology sometimes. There's a lingo out there. Big data, biotech, blockchain, cloud computing, digitization, drones, gamification, internet of things, machine learning.
I just sometimes get overwhelmed with all of the terms. And I know you're an engineer and a scientist and you probably understand all of those. I get lost. In fact, I'm sometimes seen as out of date.
I was with a group of college students recently doing some coaching and mentoring and I said to them, "email me if you have a question." "Oh, e-mail! How old are you?" Now, we use all of these newer apps that I don't even understand. Well, let's Instamessage, Twitter anyway. I get overwhelmed. So my first point, I think we have to turn technology into a simple message.
And here it is for me. What technology does is provide us access to digital information. An analog watch tells time by two hands, a digital watch tells time more precisely. All of those new terms in technology have one agenda. To create digital information. That's it.
Digital information changes the way we do our work. Now point two, in the HR space that digital information dramatically changes how we think about HR. For example, I think sometimes in the HR field, we've gone through four phases of digital HR. And what I like about your work and others is you're moving to the fourth phase.
One - efficiency. Use technology platforms and digital to more efficiently do HR work. Put HR practices online. Oracle, SAP, the work they do. Innovation and Apps. There is so much innovation. Josh Bersin, who's the thought leader in this space, said once there are 2700 new apps in the HR digital space. I think that's where the HR digital is playing, it’s the efficiency and innovation.
I get asked a lot. Would you endorse this app? And you probably get asked that as well. Well, I got asked recently the app was, we could take a visual of your face and tell you what leadership style you have. And I sent a note back and I said, have you seen my face? You don't want me as your promoter cause I don't have the right face. I have two or three chins.
But I think in this space we’re in, we've tried to become more efficient. We've tried to be innovative. I think we're now moving to stage three, which is information. How do we use an app to provide better information? Information is the goldmine.
Wayne Brockbank, my colleague says, we live in the information age. I think we're moving now to stage four, which is connection and experience. So to your comment, I think that we need to use digital applications to build connections and to find ways to connect with each other and to have a positive experience. It's not about can we put our performance appraisal system online?
Can we do it more innovatively? Will it give us information about doing our job better? What can the experience be through a digitally enabled technology? And my sense is that what you're trying to do in some with peopleHum. The experience is the key. And when we look at that experience, that begins to be for me the next step for digital technology, for digital HR, building experiences through that effort.
Yeah. Thank you. Yeah, peopleHum, the main philosophy is to enrich the employee experience by the tools that we're building.
What makes a good employee experience? I affirm that The best employee experiences come when the employee experience connects with the customer experience.
Because when what we do is an employee creates value for a customer, we create a virtuous cycle. And here's an example again, people may be watching this after their coronavirus is over. We're in the middle of it. Almost everybody is sheltered around the world, we’re working from home. Welcome again to my office and the focus in HR was on those early phases.
Can you find a computer? Can you find a quiet space? Can you dress for work? That's not the issue of working at home. The issue from working at home, when you get to the experience stage is, 'how does my work from home create value for the customers my company is serving?'
And if I can begin to think as an HR person or business person, it's not about the technology. It's about how the technology enables an experience that gives the employee a better experience. If at the end of the day I say, my work today at home, on an airplane, in a hotel, wherever work is done, has helped a customer be more successful, then I can have that is the experience that is meaningful to me.
Okay, great. Thank you Dave.
Lastly, any other important soundbites that you would like to leave our audience with?
I know you do a lot of work on talent and people and what's next in that space. Well, I'm gonna ask you before I give my sum of mine. You've been in this business for a long time.
You've done great work with people having HR technology. Where do you see that space going in the future? I've laid out, from efficiency to innovation, information to connection and experience. Where do you see that space going?
Interesting, actually. It very much resonates with the main thing that you were saying earlier, which is what we see in peopleHum, which is how do you marry the employee experience to the customer experience.
And that's exactly what we have been trying to achieve with peopleHum. It's not just about retention and engagement anymore. It's about the fact that the employees are having a phenomenal experience that translates to good customer experience, which obviously translates to a successful business.
And that's the key trend that we are seeing and that’s what our customers have been asking very simple things, right? It's about how do you actually marry OKRs to an employee engagement, those types of things.
These are the types of things that we are hearing from our customers throughout the world and that is really what is resonating for us and as we build our product out, we're really not just looking at it as just automating another HR business process. It's more about how does the experience translates to better customer experience and for the good growth of the business.
We should high five. If you look at that employee-customer experience. The original work that was done in a doctoral dissertation by a colleague named David Bowen worked with Ben Schneider, and they showed in banks, when you have more engaged employees, however, you measure engagement, you will get more engaged customers, and it's almost obvious. I was lucky enough to be around some of that research a number of years ago. I think we're seeing that follow, through that...
I work at a company called the RBL Group. I'm a professor at Michigan, but we do consulting. We've called that taking an outside-in point of view. For example, I love to ask people the question, what's the best thing HR can give an employee? It's a great question, and often the answers are around a sense of belief.
And this is kind of the trends in talent, meaning, purpose. Why am I here? A sense of become? Am I learning? Am I growing? Am I getting better through appraisal, through training? And a sense of belonging, Believe, become and belong.
Do I have a community? Do I have a team?
I did a webinar yesterday, I did a polling test a couple of days ago. What's the best thing HR can give an employee? a. believe b. become c. belong d. all of the above. 79% checked all of the above. e. None of the above. We had over 1000 people on the webinar. 2% checked e. None of the above.
My answer is, it’s e. What's the best thing HR can give an employee? And my answer is an organization that wins in the marketplace. Let me say that again. The best thing we can give an employee is an organization that wins in the marketplace.
If we don't win in the marketplace, there is no workplace. There's no belief. Become or belong. You gotta win. That applies to talent. It applies to culture.
In RBL, we had a lot of companies come and say, help us with our culture. Where's your culture? Here's our value statements and their behaviors that flow. No. Culture is the identity of the firm in the mind of the marketplace.
You start a culture from the outside in. Will those values create value for your customer? Leadership. What makes an effective leader? Here's the competencies. Those five things we talked about. Not enough.
Are you connecting leadership to your external brand outside-in? And so all of the work we've started to do is to filter through that criterion of winning in the marketplace. Having said all that, I hope OKRs start with the first letter, which is C - the customer. Customer OKRs. If the OKRs we have aren’t creating value for our customers, then why are we doing them?
That's like working at home. I frankly don't care where you work. You can work at home. You can work on an airplane. You can work in an office. You could work in a bus on the way to work.
Where is not critical. What you do at work to create value for your customer is critical, I believe. And you said any headlines? One of the takeaways for me of this pandemic period is that we're going to redefine the boundaries of a company. For generations we've had in our head, I go to work, I'm at work and I return home from work.
And work is a place. I think the boundaries of work will increasingly be values. I'm at work when I am doing something that creates value for my customer. Where I do that can be in a lot of different places. It may be at a gym when I'm exercising. It may be in my office where I'm pondering. It may be online when I'm writing. I think that...
And I hope, as HR people, we can begin to make that set of values a fundamental principle.
The other thing I see, and then I'll shut up. In this new world, we don't have children at home, as I said, here's the, I'll show another picture (shows picture). These are our children who have children. I don't always do this. This is my mother. My sister and I. So you've now met with my family. We’re all being affected differently by this pandemic. Our children who have children at home who are young, having to do homeschooling, having to do discipline. They don't have a 13 and 15 year old daughter with great discipline.
They're having to train their children, our grandchildren. They're struggling. Dad, this is hard. My wife and I, we’re in a different age group where we live in a nice house. We have resources, it's not wonderful, but it's different. My mother, who's now 92 is scared. She does. She's worried because the age has more fear for her.
The takeaway I think out of this pandemic for me is We as business leaders and HR leaders need to customize and personalize.
Work is going to be a very different thing for every person. Can we build a tailored experience? Go back to your experience that you do for that employee and I think that's going to be a fascinating challenge as we go forward.
I have one last comment and I'll make it and then I'll turn it back to you. Thank you. It's six words and it’s my fundamental optimism and belief. The best is yet ahead.
I believe that that's my commitment to learning. That's my organizational compulsive disorder. I'm not compulsive to punish people. I'm compulsive to learn and to teach and to grow. The best is yet ahead and I strongly believe that in the HR field.
Wonderful Dave. It's really nice to hear such optimistic words during such trying times. I'm sure the best is yet to come. It was a pleasure talking to you, Dave.
I really appreciate your time and sharing your views with us. It's been an enriching learning experience for me personally and will surely be for all viewers too. Let's keep in touch and have a safe and healthy time ahead of you. Thank you.